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Last year was a particularly profitable one for the vast majority of L.A.’s 100 largest public companies.

Seventy percent of the names on this year’s list saw their earnings increase in 1997, compared with 1996. And the 100 companies as a group enjoyed an average jump of 51 percent.

“It’s certainly an improving economy,” said Howard Roth, an economist at BankAmerica Corp. in Los Angeles. “L.A. came back from the recession much later than everybody else, so we are now at the strongest point of the profit cycle.”

Size apparently did matter when it came to making a profit in 1997. Eight of the top 10 companies on the list saw their earnings increase last year.

The biggest gainer in terms of net income was No. 8-ranked oil giant Unocal Corp. based in El Segundo.

Its $581 million in net income last year represented a 1,513 percent increase from $36 million the year before. Much of that gain, however, came from the sale of “downstream” assets, such as its chain of Union 76 gas stations and a number of refineries.

Among the healthiest companies on the list is 54th-ranked Univision Communications Inc., which enjoyed more than an eight-fold increase in net income from $10 million in 1996 to $83 million last year. Its revenues also surged from $245 million to $460 million.

Univision, a leading Spanish-language broadcaster, is riding high on a wave of increased corporate advertising aimed at the Latino community. Its stock has been equally bullish, surging from the $16 level a year ago to about $33 as of last week.

The resurgent economy has been particularly beneficial for financial institutions that remain headquartered in Los Angeles County. Five out of the top 12 most profitable public companies are either banks or thrifts.

PFF Bancorp Inc., parent of Pomona First Federal Bank, saw its net income rise 433 percent to $16 million in 1997. Profits at Bank Plus Corp., parent of Fidelity Federal Bank, surged 220 percent in 1997, while earnings at FirstFed Financial Corp. and H.F. Ahmanson & Co., which owns Home Savings of America, were each up more than 180 percent.

Not all of L.A.’s large public companies enjoyed profits last year. A number of high-profile ones including Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Foundation Health Systems suffered major losses.

In many cases, however, the numbers were distorted by non-recurring losses brought on by mergers, acquisitions or other forms of restructuring.

Petersen Cos. Inc., the magazine publisher, posted a net loss of $15 million in 1997, compared with a profit of $7 million the year before.

But Peter Appert, an analyst at BT Alex Brown, said the figures mask what was, in fact, a very strong year. He pointed out that the loss was due to a one-time charge of $36 million associated with the company being bought last year. Petersen also purchased a number of rival publications in fiscal 1997, with those costs being charged against earnings.

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