The 100 most profitable public companies in Los Angeles are every bit as diverse as the region itself.
From high-tech firms in the West San Fernando Valley to Century City financiers, from Burbank entertainment conglomerates to South Bay defense contractors, and a scattering of manufacturers, restaurant chains, energy companies and real estate developers in between, the firms reflect the ways in which the L.A. economy has restructured itself since the beginning of the decade.
The top 10 represent that phenomenon. In terms of revenues, the companies range in size from $36.3 million (L.A.-based newspaper publisher Daily Journal Corp.) to $2.4 billion (Thousand Oaks pharmaceuticals manufacturer Amgen Inc.)
Different as they are, the companies share at least one quality: all the firms in the top 10 posted a five-year average return on equity of more than 24 percent, making them the county’s most profitable when it comes to delivering shareholders bang for the buck.
Most analysts agree that a return of 20 percent to 35 percent generally indicates a strong company.
Beyond the bottom line, the list provides a look at the trends driving L.A.’s economy. Certain industries emerge as regional leaders, while others maintain a lower profile.
For example, L.A. technology companies make a relatively tepid showing, contributing just nine firms conspicuously low considering the amount of publicity the sector has received of late.
That could reflect the nature of the list more than the strength (or weakness) of the region’s tech sector, said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Economic Development Corp. of L.A. County.
High-tech is a relatively new addition to the local economy, Kyser said. Many of the sector’s leading firms are in their fast-growing adolescence and have not yet produced significant returns for investors.
What’s more, few of these young companies are publicly held, and those that are have been public for fewer than five years making them ineligible for the list, which seeks to measure financial performance over the long haul.
“These are very young companies. They are at a delicate stage in their life cycles,” said Kyser. A decade or so down the line, on the other hand, such firms likely would make a stronger impact.
“The winners will be stepping forward,” he said.
Indeed, if the list is relatively light on the firms expected to define the region’s future, it is heavy on those that have characterized its past specifically manufacturing and financial services.
Nineteen manufacturing companies appear on the list the largest collection of any single industry. These firms make everything from aircraft components to plastic containers to aluminum products to office supplies. Scattered throughout the region, they also tend to be sizable concerns, many of them with thousands of employees.
The ongoing strength of manufacturing reflects the region’s growing international trade sector, which thrived even as the remainder of the economy was in the doldrums, said Bruce DeVine, chief economist of the Southern California Association of Governments.
“Manufacturing has very close ties to exporting,” said DeVine. “We have seen a recovery of manufacturing in the county that probably has surprised a lot of people.”
Also strong is the region’s banking and financial services industry, which even in these merger-happy times contributed 16 companies to the list of the 100 most profitable. The firms range from financial-services behemoth SunAmerica Inc. and investment banker and online brokerage JB Oxford Holdings Inc. to smaller regional banks such as City National Corp.
The relatively strong performance of the financial services sector did not come as a surprise to Esmael Adibi, director of the Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University in Orange.
“With all of the mergers and acquisitions, the cost structure for these institutions has declined significantly at least at those that are remaining,” Adibi said. “Banking stocks for the past four or five years have outperformed almost everyone else.”
Other sectors showing up in significant numbers include media and entertainment, with nine companies; HMOs and insurance, also with nine firms; and energy and public utilities and retail, with seven firms each.
The diversity of the firms in the top 100 reflects the massive scale of the L.A. economy, which employs more than 4 million people. It also bodes well for the future, said Adibi.
“I think diversity is a plus,” he said. “If you have a significant downturn in the economy, the area could really be hammered. We saw it here with defense and real estate. A diverse economy buffers itself against any potential downturn.”
Diversity also involves location. The companies in the top 100 are based throughout Los Angeles.
Thirty-one of the top 100 make their home in the San Fernando Valley, more than twice the number located in the downtown/Wilshire Corridor area, for years the region’s traditional business center.
The Valley’s transformation from sleepy suburb to business powerhouse has been driven by the rise of the West Valley and Conejo Valley as a preferred location for HMOs, high-tech, biotech and pharmaceutical firms. The East Valley, meanwhile, is home to a number of entertainment companies.
L.A. County’s other suburban valley, the San Gabriel Valley, also is emerging as a strong regional player, with 20 of the 100 most profitable public companies making their homes there most of them high-tech and manufacturing concerns with a scattering of real estate and finance firms.
The Westside and the South Bay each contributed 14 companies to the list; and South Central and Mid-Cities each had three.
The preponderance of profitable businesses in suburban areas reflects a growing business savvy on the part of city and regional planners, said DeVine.
“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have seen that,” he said. “The cities have become much more aggressive in economic development. They have gotten smart and adopted some strategies to help business.”
Adibi said it also reflects the fact that younger firms, with faster rates of growth and higher returns on equity, tend to be located in newer parts of town.
But the move of high-performing companies to the periphery might raise questions about the long-term viability of downtown L.A. despite development of the new Staples Center sports arena, Disney Concert Hall and other projects.
Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Association, insists that there is a future for downtown.
“There has been an interesting influx of businesses,” she said, mostly of smaller health care, financial services, public affairs and distribution firms. “We’re beginning to see people looking at this area in a way that they haven’t looked at it in a long time. And I think that will escalate smaller businesses to larger ones.”
Kyser added that the kinds of businesses that thrive in downtown L.A. are not likely to show up on a list of profitable public companies.
The area, he pointed out, is home to small, extremely entrepreneurial businesses such as apparel, toy manufacturing and seafood distribution.
“People don’t really understand what happens downtown,” he said. “It’s really small business central.”