Private Companies Drive Growth (Jeff Hankins Publishers Note)

Publicly traded companies tend to receive far more attention in the business press because they have to report everything from quarterly earnings to major transactions and compensation. Privately held firms deserve more attention, but often it's difficult to obtain information and encourage owners to talk openly about their businesses.

Arkansas Business has published a list of the state's largest private companies, which appears in this week's edition beginning on Page 13, since 1988. It's one of the best barometers for determining how various business sectors and the state's economy are performing.

Our list shows a one-year comparison for revenues, but I looked at 10-year comps for several firms and the growth is staggering.

Mountaire Corp. of Little Rock ranks No. 3 with $1.3 billion in revenue last year and has 5,600 employees across the U.S. The poultry producer has quietly grown from an estimated $443 million and 3,100 workers in 2000.

Forrest City Grocery Co. is 15th on this year's list with $725 million in revenue. It ranked 16th 10 years earlier with $315 million. The bulk of that company, the wholesale grocery business, recently sold for $66 million, but even the subsidiaries that the Cohn family is retaining may be big enough for next year's list.

Bruce Oakley Inc. of North Little Rock wasn't on the list in 2000, and today ranks No. 22 with $509 million in revenue. E.C. Barton & Co. of Jonesboro, though enduring the housing recession, has tripled its revenues during the past decade. (For more on Barton, see Page 25.)

Perhaps the two most diversified companies on the list are Frank Fletcher Cos. of Little Rock ($770 million in revenue) and Hickingbotham Investments Inc. of Little Rock ($310 million in revenue). Fletcher's holdings include auto dealerships, manufacturing entities, a hotel, restaurants and a fur retailer. Frank Hickingbotham and family have a portfolio ranging from luxury auto dealerships to restaurant equipment manufacturing.

Entities like Stephens Inc., Stephen LaFrance Pharmacy Inc., Stephens Group and O.K. Industries Inc. are the most private of private companies. We rank them by estimated revenue, but I'd wager that we underestimate their performances and financial impact on the state's economy. Auto dealership owners like the McLarty, Landers and Crain families have assembled major enterprises through consolidation in the industry.

We know that big revenue and a top 10 ranking doesn't not always indicate a healthy company. Affiliated Foods Southwest Inc. was a perennial top 10 private company with revenues of more than $700 million in 2000. Today, the company doesn't exist and its officers are the subject of criminal and civil complaints.

A sure-fire addition to the list next year will be Arkansas Heart Hospital, which Dr. Bruce Murphy has led back into private, local ownership following a purchase from MedCath Corp.

Privately held banks aren't included on the list because their extensive financial reporting doesn't include revenue that is readily comparable with other types of businesses. But Arvest Bank, First Security Bancorp and many others have to be counted among Arkansas' major private companies.

It's worth noting that there are a number of companies that would rank in the largest 75 list that we don't know about because they decline to share revenue numbers. You know who you are, and we applaud you and your contributions to the state's business success nonetheless.

(Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at, followed on Twitter @JeffHankins and connected with at and