The 100 at 30

 In 2014-10

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In the 30 years that Business North Carolina has published a list of the state’s 100 largest private companies, coffee has gone from mundane morning brew to, arguably, America’s most beloved beverage. Its rising popularity helped Concord-based S&D Coffee Inc. percolate from 62nd in 1984, when it did business in 13 states, to No. 15 this year. It’s now the nation’s largest custom coffee roaster, supplying McDonald’s Corp. and other major chains across the country. Focusing on restaurants and offices proved shrewd in the age of Starbucks. The family-owned business’ annual sales are 10 times what they were three decades ago, while its workforce has more than tripled. “I don’t believe anyone believed that you would see a McCafé at McDonald’s,” says Ron Hinson, who joined the company in 1979 as a route sales manager and became CEO in 2000.

Growing from a regional to national company while remaining locally owned and operated, S&D is the type of success story envisioned by the Arthur Andersen accountants who started what’s now the Grant Thornton North Carolina 100 back when Ronald Reagan and Lionel Richie were all the rage. Participation on the list, which is based on revenue, is voluntary, so some major companies are missing. But those on it have a huge footprint — their combined revenue topped $32 billion this year, compared with $6.3 billion in 1984. Charlotte-based Belk Inc., the nation’s largest privately held department-store chain, ranked first for the fifth-straight year, trailed by Cary-based SAS Institute Inc., the world’s largest privately held software developer, and Madison-based Remington Outdoor Co., one of the biggest domestic makers of sporting rifles and shotguns. Remington, owned by New York-based private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, moved to North Carolina in 1996 but didn’t participate in the ranking until this year. It and S&D are among 15 companies reporting annual sales of more than $500 million on the list; only five exceeded $200 million in 1984.

Compiling that first ranking involved 800 hours of work, including time spent encouraging businesspeople unaccustomed to the limelight to participate. “We converted a ton of business because of the list,” says T. Michael Henderson, a former Andersen partner who oversaw the project for most of the 1990s. “The vast majority of companies enjoyed the publicity. It was the first thing you’d see when you walked into their lobbies.” The types of companies eligible have changed over the years to include retailers and those owned by private-equity firms. Chicago-based Grant Thornton LLP, the fifth-largest U.S. accounting firm, picked up the program after Houston-based Enron Inc.’s bankruptcy in 2001 led to the failure of Andersen, its auditing firm. A year later, Grant Thornton added about 500 Andersen employees nationally, including those in the Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh offices. “It’s remarkable that 30 years later, the list still has staying power and still is something we’re very interested in,” says Mike McGuire, the Charlotte CPA who worked on the project in 1984 and is slated to become Grant Thornton’s CEO in January.

One of the original missions, former Andersen partner Paul Garrett explained in a story that accompanied the inaugural list, was to “ensure that the private businessman receives his fair share of recognition for his contributions to the economic growth and vitality of North Carolina. In the past, the recognition given to private business has not equaled their contributions.” It still doesn’t, because many cherish their privacy and the press and public are more enamored with widely traded public companies and the few private technology upstarts that get billion-dollar bids. “Private companies aren’t celebrated enough,” says Bob Luddy, owner of Captive-Aire Systems Inc., No. 32 on the list and the world’s largest manufacturer of restaurant-ventilation systems. “We need to encourage entrepreneurs to run their businesses for a very long time, because that’s how they can make the biggest contribution to society and themselves,” he says. “It’s the opposite side of venture capital, doing an IPO and then going golfing. The idea that you are going to be amazing in five years — it just doesn’t work that way.”

The list mirrors North Carolina’s shift from a manufacturing-based economy, with plants and businesses spread throughout the state, to a more diversified one that’s concentrated in major metros, especially Charlotte and the Triangle. Star, a Montgomery County town of fewer than 1,000 residents, was home to two hosiery-makers on the initial ranking. Back then, about half of the top private companies were based outside the state’s three biggest metros, compared with 25% in 2014. Only five companies in the textile, hosiery and furniture industries remain among the 100, down from 30 in 1984. The state’s two biggest metros are home to 60% of its largest private companies — the Triangle has 26, compared with 11 three decades ago. That tracks the state’s employment growth, with 70% of new hiring over the past five years coming in Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, up from about half during the 1990s, according to a Wells Fargo Securities LLC report. “The sheer amount of metropolitization that has occurred is surprising, and it has really changed the culture and politics of our state,” says John Quinterno, owner of South by North Strategies Ltd., a Durham consultancy. The number of Triad-based companies on the list has fallen dramatically — nearly 40% — as have the number of mills and factories that once made the region the state’s manufacturing center.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary ranking of North Carolina’s largest private companies, we’ve expanded the list this year to spotlight those that stand out nationally and globally. And we’ve included charts that compare the first list with the latest, which is still the most comprehensive roll of large, closely held companies that call North Carolina home.

Click here to view the list of North Carolina’s Top 100 Private Companies.
Compiled by Grant Thornton LLP

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