I’ll never again work on the annual list of Arkansas’ largest private companies as editor of Arkansas Business. As I trust you know by now, Lance Turner, our online editor for more than 20 years, will succeed me in a few weeks. I am going to continue to help with the weekly business lists for a while, but some of these “last times” are bittersweet. (Others are making me downright giddy.)
Lists are a core part of our product, but this one is special to me. Unlike the list of banks or nursing homes, there is no single governmental source for all the data. Unlike the lists of publicly traded companies or hospitals, there’s no finite roster to work with. Instead, we keep adding to and taking away from our database of companies that we think might have enough annual revenue to be in the top 75, and we try to persuade executives and owners to share their top-line revenue figure and their employee headcount.
The fact that scores of private companies are willing to do that — some eagerly, some with considerable gentle prodding — is a source of satisfaction to me. It is both a compliment to our product and a contribution to its accuracy.
All of the lists we produce have value, of course. And looking back over them, especially the ones that have been produced every year for decades, reveals changes in each industry, not to mention shifting of population in the state. When it comes to the largest private companies, what has stayed the same is as notable as what has changed.
The first list was produced in 1988, and was limited to the top 50 companies. We reprinted the top 25 from that 1988 list in our 25th anniversary issue in 2009 — one of the most fun projects of my tenure here — and eight of them are still on the list this week. Of the 75 that were on the list in 2000, the first one I researched personally after arriving in 1999, 36 are still on the list, although some have transformed pretty dramatically.
The list really is a historical record, and a trip down memory lane for me. Truman Arnold Cos. was No. 1 for a while, even though it was headquartered on the wrong side of Texarkana. So was E-Z Mart Inc. Why were they included on the list of Arkansas’ largest private companies? That was a decision made before I arrived, but I kept it up until TAC moved its executive offices to Dallas almost 10 years ago and E-Z Mart was sold to GPM Investments LLC of Richmond, Virginia, in 2017, curing a little quirk that probably irritated me more than it did anyone else.
Acquisition by out-of-state companies has been, by far, the biggest reason for companies to disappear from the list. Four companies that were on the list last year are missing this year for that very reason. They are Salmon Cos. and CTEH, both of North Little Rock, Denali Water Solutions LLC of Russellville and Bad Boy Inc. of Batesville. (see more at 2020 Brought Feast, Famine to Private Companies.)
There was a time when travel agencies (remember those?) were listed among the largest private companies, but I grew uncomfortable with that. As with other agencies — real estate, advertising, etc. — only a fraction of the revenue truly belonged to the agency.
For a similar reason, I decided this year to drop Slim Chickens of Fayetteville from the list. The $122 million in revenue that we ranked it by last year doesn’t all belong to the corporation; much of it was generated by and belongs to franchisees. But it’s a wildly popular restaurant chain at a time when chicken is more popular than ever, and I won’t be surprised if the day comes when corporate revenue alone makes it one of the state’s largest private companies.
Looking back through long-ago lists also reminds me of some major business news stories that I’ve had the opportunity to work on over the years. Affiliated Foods Southwest Inc. was one of the five biggest private companies in the state … until it collapsed in 2009 and a couple of executives ended up in federal prison. Its bankruptcy case, believe it or not, was finally closed less than two weeks ago, on June 9.
CDI Contractors Inc. was on the list from before my tenure until Dillard’s Inc. acquired the half it didn’t already own in the wake of the tragic disappearance of CDI’s chief financial officer, John Glasgow, in 2008. That story remains the most mysterious I’ve ever written.