Largest Private Companies: Arkansas' Unsung Heroes

Jeff Hankins Publisher's Note

Of the dozens of business lists that the Arkansas Business news and research team compiles each year, my favorite is this week's Largest 75 Private Companies.

This is the 25th consecutive year that Arkansas Business has compiled a Largest Private Companies list. Originally it was 50 companies, but it was expanded to 75 in 1996.

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The state's publicly traded companies receive the lion's share of regular news attention because of the volume of reporting required by the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Just once a year, most of the privately held companies on our list share revenue and employment numbers with us, and we highlight their trends.

The largest 75 companies on this year's list generated almost $32 billion in revenue last year, and that's nearly a 4 percent increase over the previous year's list. These companies employ nearly 80,000 people in Arkansas and elsewhere.

Now here are four points about the list that I have noted for 19 years dating to my days are editor:

  • The list is dependent on companies willing to disclose revenue figures, and we have limited ability to verify the numbers. We know there are other firms that qualify, but they choose not to participate and the staff isn't able to develop a reasonable estimate from other sources. We have had a few companies through the years that have given us false information, so the staff is diligent about trying to weed out problems - often with the help of knowledgeable readers.
  • Truman Arnold Cos. is indeed based in Texarkana, Texas. Long before that company was large enough to rank No. 1, I made an agreement with some Texarkana leaders to include Texarkana entities on our lists without regard to the side of the state line because of its unique situation. We would welcome feedback on whether we should rethink this or continue that policy.
  • We've been estimating the Stephens family business entities' revenue for years. It became even more complicated when cousins Warren Stephens and Witt Stephens Jr. went their separate ways with Stephens Inc. and Stephens Group LLC, while continuing to share some investments like Stephens Media and the so-called "golden goose" natural gas holdings.
  • Even with its faults, you won't find another list like this available anywhere. The same can be said about most of the weekly Arkansas Business lists. This content is what sets us apart from any other media entity in the state and why our readership remains strong.

A handful of business categories typically dominate the list: food processing, health care, construction, automotive and trucking. We lose large private companies every year, typically because they are sold. Our biggest loss this past year was O.K. Industries of Fort Smith, a poultry-processing firm that has routinely been in the top 10. It was sold to a Mexican company last year after the death of its owner, Collier Wenderoth Jr.

Steve Landers, the guru of auto sales, has the distinction of having sold one of the largest privately held companies and then becoming part of two companies that later joined the list. His Landers Auto Sales Inc. dealership in Benton was sold to Penske Automotive Group Inc. (now United Auto Group) in 1995, and at the time ranked No. 45 on the list with an estimated $88 million in revenue. This year, he's part of No. 9 RLJ McLarty Landers Automotive Holdings LLC with $1.03 billion in sales and No. 36 Landers Toyota with $242 million in sales.

Looking back at previous lists, two companies associated with low-margin supermarket sales represent perhaps the state's largest private company failures: Affiliated Foods Southwest Inc. and Harvest Foods Inc., both of which were top 10 firms and ultimately went bankrupt.

Arkansas Heart Hospital, led by Dr. Bruce Murphy, has the rare distinction of joining the list as a private company after previously being part of a publicly traded company.

All of these private companies drive the Arkansas economy in many ways. They are more likely to use other Arkansas-based companies and professional firms for services, and their local ownership leads to more investments in the state's communities.

They are the unsung heroes of corporate Arkansas, and I hope you'll take a good look at the list of who they are and learn more about them in our special coverage this week.

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