Say No to an IPO

In this in­au­gu­ral list, Inc. and Grant Thorn­ton have teamed up to cre­ate an ex­clu­sive ros­ter of the 100 largest, most vi­tal pri­vate com­pa­nies in Amer­ica. These com­pa­nies main­tain growth and rel­e­vance as they con­tinue to thrive.


Tak­ing a com­pany pub­lic is no longer the great­est mea­sure of suc­cess. Inc.’ s 100 Pri­vate Ti­tans have cho­sen the free­dom and un­fet­tered growth that come with hav­ing more con­trol.

Be­ing pub­lic once was the ul­ti­mate af­fir­ma­tion of cor­po­rate suc­cess. If Wall Street blessed your com­pany by sell­ing your stock—and tak­ing a cut, of course— you joined the pan­theon of Amer­i­can busi­nesses. But not ev­ery com­pany wants a seat in the stock mar­ket tem­ples. The iras­ci­ble, nearly in­vis­i­ble For­rest Mars Sr. let a candy, M&M’s, do the talk­ing for him. Amar Bose, an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer and revered MIT fac­ulty mem­ber, cre­ated a break­through loud­speaker that let his name­sake com­pany com­pete with con­sumer elec­tron­ics gi­ants. But Bose was de­scribed as some­one “ad­dicted to in­no­va­tion,” a pur­suit he knew was bet­ter suited to a pri­vate com­pany, which his re­mains.

The Inc. Pri­vate Ti­tans list of­fers a win­dow into both this his­tory and an emerg­ing trend in Amer­i­can busi­ness: Pri­vate com­pa­nies are be­com­ing the pre­ferred ve­hi­cle for un­fet­tered growth. Freed from the bur­den of quar­terly earn­ings re­ports and Wall Street’s what-have-you- done-for-me-lately at­ti­tude, the Pri­vate Ti­tans are able to steer a stead­ier course. This free­dom to in­no­vate drives newer com­pa­nies such as Slack or Warby Parker as much as it does the 165-yearold Levi Strauss & Co.

Inc.’ s list of Pri­vate Ti­tans in­cludes those that have reached the thresh­old of $250 mil­lion in an­nual sales but con­tinue to evolve. Large com­pa­nies, both pub­lic and pri­vate, of­ten stum­ble over their own bulk. Economies of scale be­gin to fail them. They get too big to ma­neu­ver in a fast-chang­ing mar­ket. Oth­ers sim­ply ride the mo­men­tum of a brand un­til it fades. Our Pri­vate Ti­tans list, de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with au­dit, tax, and advisory firm Grant Thorn­ton and the re­search plat­form PitchBook (which has the same owner as Inc.), is based on a mea­sure­ment of each com­pany’s sales growth and em­ployee growth, as well as its power of so­cial me­dia, the tell­tale sign of how ef­fec­tive any com­pany is in reach­ing its cus­tomers or tar­get au­di­ence. You can find the ex­panded Pri­vate Ti­tans 1000 list at­vate-ti­tans.

These are some of the truly iconic Amer­i­can com­pa­nies. They include Levi Strauss, maker of the defini­tive Amer­ica gar­ment, and In-N-Out Burger, the

“There will prob­a­bly be a mas­sive econ­omy of ex­pe­ri­ences and we’ll just be one player in that econ­omy, but I think it will be re­ally, re­ally big.”

Cal­i­for­nia-based cult quick-serve restau­rant that pi­o­neered the gourmet burger five decades be­fore any­one at Shake Shack picked up a spat­ula. Lynsi Sny­der, 35, the grand­daugh­ter of In-N-Out founders Harry and Es­ther Sny­der, has no plans to change the com­pany’s sta­tus or sell fran­chises.

Stay­ing pri­vate isn’t just about keep­ing your mouth shut and your books closed. It’s also about be­ing able to pur­sue a mis­sion. New Age com­pa­nies such as Spe­cial­ized Bi­cy­cle Com­po­nents, Yeti, and Clif Bar are as much ded­i­cated to a life­style, both cor­po­rate and con­sumer, as they are to sell­ing prod­ucts. Not that they don’t want to in­crease sales and prof­its. But re­main­ing pri­vate ac­cords them the priv­i­lege of putting other con­stituen­cies—com­mu­nity, en­vi­ron­ment, em­ploy­ees—ahead of Wall Street in the peck­ing or­der if they so choose. Pub­licly owned com­pa­nies don’t have that op­tion.

Stay­ing pri­vate also means hav­ing the stay­ing power to get you through wars, fi­nan­cial pan­ics, re­ces­sions and de­pres­sions, and what­ever else his­tory can throw at you. The old­est com­pa­nies on this list— Levi Strauss (1853), Cargill (1865), S.C. John­son (1886), Hearst (1887), Carhartt (1889), Sunkist (1893), and Cox En­ter­prises (1898)—have gen­er­a­tions of experience to ap­ply to any sce­nario.

Pri­vate has come into vogue. The num­ber of pub­licly traded com­pa­nies in the U.S. is at a mod­ern low. The trend is be­ing un­der­writ­ten by the bil­lions of dol­lars in fund­ing now avail­able to star­tups, which are now un­der less pres­sure to feed their growth by us­ing pub­lic money. What an as­ton­ish­ing turn­about in the same decade in which tech uni­corns have vaulted into the pub­lic mar­kets with multi­bil­lion-dol­lar val­u­a­tions that far ex­ceed their sales—and prof­its, if they even have any. Case in point: au­tomaker Tesla. It’s a pub­lic com­pany with a $50 bil­lion-plus stock mar­ket val­u­a­tion—more than Ford’s. But ge­nius en­tre­pre­neur Elon Musk, Tesla’s co-founder and CEO, cre­ated a furor in tweet­ing that he wanted to make the com­pany pri­vate, like SpaceX, his com­mer­cial space op­er­a­tion, which is soar­ing to new heights any way you look at it. Musk even­tu­ally backed down—but not be­cause he couldn’t raise the money.

En­trepreneurs like Mark Cuban lament that com­pa­nies like Squares­pace have shied away from the

pub­lic mar­kets. For em­ploy­ees of these firms, go­ing pub­lic is the chance to mon­e­tize and max­i­mize their equity hold­ings. For the pub­lic, it’s a chance to in­vest in a growth com­pany. Cuban got ex­traor­di­nar­ily rich that way. The ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing is hardly dead. In­vestors still ea­gerly await the IPOs of com­pa­nies such as Stripe, Lyft, and Uber. But for many of the com­pa­nies on this list, keep­ing heads down and a fo­cus on the long term will be al­ways take prece­dence over the glam­our of the stock ex­changes. That’s what has made them ti­tans.

BRIAN CHESKY, CEO, AIRBNB The com­pany that started by rent­ing out air mat­tresses in spare rooms now has nearly five mil­lion list­ings.

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