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Conventional wisdom says companies avoid the expense of a Big Five accounting firm unless they intend to go public, and 1998's Inc. 500 companies provide some proof of that. Of the 122 who say they plan IPOs by the year 2000, 72 used Big Five firms last year. If your company has yet to switch to a Big Five accounting firm, you're far from alone. Approximately 72% of the Inc. 500 companies relied either on small firms or on individual accountants in 1997.

But which accounting firm gets to claim the honor of representing more 1998 Inc. 500 companies than any other? It was close. KPMG Peat Marwick, representing 30 companies on the list, edged out Deloitte & Touche and Ernst & Young, who had 29 and 28, respectively. Arthur Andersen followed with 25. And if a successful merger means equal contributions from both parties, then the numbers bode well for PricewaterhouseCoopers, created on July 1, when Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand joined forces. Price Waterhouse worked for 15 Inc. 500 companies, as did Coopers & Lybrand.

Among the smaller national players of note: Grant Thornton, the country's sixth-largest accounting firm, represented 7 companies on the list. McGladrey & Pullen, with 75 offices in 16 states, went to work for 4. West Coast giant Moss Adams, one of the nation's 15 largest firms, had 3 companies.

A few one-office firms in the Washington, D.C., area also did particularly well. Argy, Wiltse & Robinson, of McLean, Va., represented 4 companies, as did Lanigan, Ryan, Malcolm & Doyle, of Gaithersburg, Md. Not far behind with 3 was Offutt, Childers & Putman, of Tysons Corner, Va. Not surprisingly, those firms specialize both in high-tech clients and in businesses with government contracts.

Three Inc. 500 companies used no outside accounting at all, banking instead on the expertise of in-house CPAs. One of those companies, the Ecology Group (#87), in Columbus, Ohio, made $40 million last year, providing expense-reduction and management services for the waste and recycling industries. Bank letters of credit and customer lists are usually enough to win the trust of customers who initially express concerns about doing business with an unaudited company, claims chief financial officer Henry Szabo. "We're an S corporation, and having zero debt, the only people we have to worry about are the partners," says Szabo. "There's no sense in going through all that expense."