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 at inc.com/private-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.