Private Firms See Revenue Plunge During Tough '09

If there's one point to take away from Arkansas Business' list of the state's largest private companies, ranked by total revenue last year, it is this: 2009 was a lousy year.

(To see the list of the state's 75 largest private companies, click here. For a spreadsheet version, click here.)

The cutoff for the top 75 plummeted from $86.7 million on last year's list to $65 million this year. And even that is based on more estimated revenue than we've had to rely on in recent years: Of the 75 companies on our list, revenue data were supplied by 59, while estimates from various sources were used for the other 16 companies.

With notable exceptions, including hospitals and food wholesalers, revenue was down in 2009 from the previous year. And sometimes the plunge was breathtaking, especially for companies in the energy sector.

Stephens Inc. of Little Rock returned to the top spot on the strength of a two-year-old revenue estimate of $1.835 billion by Thomson Gale Competitive Intelligence, the accuracy of which we can't vouch for. Last year's largest private company, petroleum wholesaler and aviation fuel retailer Truman Arnold Cos. of Texarkana, Texas, dropped to No. 3 by reporting revenue that dropped by half, from $2.5 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2008 - just as fuel prices were dropping from record highs - to $1.27 billion for the year that ended Sept. 30, 2009.

Coulson Oil of North Little Rock reported a year-over-year revenue decline of 35 percent, while convenience store chain E-Z Mart Inc., the other Texarkana, Texas, company on our list, was off by more than 20 percent. Bucking the trend was Flash Market Inc. of West Memphis, which reported a 9.2 percent increase in revenue in 2009.

"Was sure it would raise a question or two," CEO Larry Hellums said in an e-mail concerning Mississippi County Electric Cooperative's 41 percent revenue decline last year. Then he proceeded to explain:

"We provide electric to the two Nucor steel mills. They both had a slow year thanks to the financial conditions we have all been experiencing. In addition we serve several satellite companies that use the steel from the mills and they were down also.

"On top of that, if I can outrage a little about global warming, we had a very mild summer. AC use was down a bunch and with all the rain irrigation wells on the farms did not run except for a small amount in June."

And those issues were compounded, Hellums said, by the ice storm early in 2009 that did $8 million worth of damage and interrupted sales of residential electricity for almost three weeks.

"So we, like everyone else, just tightened the shoestrings and held on," he wrote.

"Everyone else" includes Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. of Little Rock, where sales were down by 27 percent; First Electric Cooperative of Jacksonville and Carroll Electric Cooperative of Berryville, both down more than 9 percent; Ozarks Electric Cooperative of Fayetteville, off 7 percent; and Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative of Ozark, down 15 percent.

The List
Two companies make their debuts on the list this year: Tankersley Food Service LLC of Van Buren at No. 65 (see related story) and North Metro Medical Center, the Jacksonville hospital formerly known as Rebsamen Medical Center, at No. 71. They replace May Construction Co. and Continental Express Inc., both of Little Rock. May Construction, which had well-documented financial problems in 2009, did not respond to Arkansas Business' survey. The assets of Continental Express were sold to the Celadon Group of Indianapolis in December 2008.

E.C. Barton & Co. of Jonesboro, No. 29 on this year's list with $334 million in sales, will likely slide down next year. The wholesaler of building materials recently sold seven stores in southwest Missouri to Meek's Lumber Co. of Springfield, Mo.

Three companies are making their final appearance on this year's list: Affiliated Foods Southwest of Little Rock, National Home Centers Inc. of Springdale and Sparks Health System of Fort Smith.

Affiliated Foods, which was No. 13 with $730 million in revenue on last year's list, went bankrupt and shut down a year ago, just before the end of its 2009 fiscal year in June. It ranks at No. 16 on this year's list with estimated revenue of $650 million in its last fiscal year, a stark reminder that revenue and profit are not synonymous. Affiliated's former CEO, John Mills, pleaded guilty to bank fraud for a check-kiting scheme that he claimed kept the company from collapsing months earlier. Former CFO Lex Martinez faces related federal criminal charges.

National Home Centers completed 2009 as an Arkansas-owned private company, but it was sold out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month to Stock Building Supply of Raleigh, N.C. (See related story.)

Sparks Health System, now officially renamed Fort Smith HMA LLC, was acquired in December by Health Management Associates Inc. of Naples, Fla. It ranks at No. 34 on the strength of its $260 million in revenue during the fiscal year that ended May 31, 2009, when it was still an Arkansas-owned private company.

Bright Spots
Despite a 25 percent reduction in the number of vehicles registered in Arkansas last year, some of the state's largest automotive dealers recorded solid sales figures in 2009. Frank Fletcher Cos. of Little Rock, a conglomerate that includes home furnishings manufacturing, restaurants and 12 auto dealerships, reported revenue of $740 million, up 2.1 percent from 2008. Sales were down at Superior Automotive Group of Fayetteville, but by less than 1 percent, according to co-owner Avis Bailey.

"We had a more profitable year in '09 than we [had] in '08," Bailey said, "but we had our expenses in line."

Hickingbotham Investments Inc. of Little Rock, owned by the Frank Hickingbotham family, recorded a $50 million drop in revenue, from $370 million in 2008 to $320 million in 2009. That was primarily because of the sale of three locations of Jones Harley-Davidson to RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Partnership in September 2008, according to Hickingbotham's executive vice president, Gene H. Whisenhunt.