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So the country needs typical Inc. 500 honorees, companies that are light, nimble, and fleet of foot. But it also needs big companies that can churn through rough waters with power and speed, stirring up the smaller fish in their wake.
Not just gazelles, but also blue whales.
Coyote Logistics (No. 221 on this year's list) is a blue whale. Last year's fastest-growing Logistics & Transportation business is back for 2011, with a three-year growth rate of 1,437 percent and sales of $328 million. The company, which matches customers needing stuff hauled with truckers looking to haul stuff, will top $500 million this year, and CEO and founder Jeff Silver expects to join the billion-dollar club in 2012. "I did specifically come in and want to be the next billion-dollar player in what we do," says Silver, who started Coyote after building a similar company to $300 million and selling it to the industry's lone Goliath.
In June, Silver moved his bursting-at-the-seams enterprise to 65,000 square feet of wide-open space on Chicago's northwest side. "You have to see this place to believe it," says Silver. "Tons of energy, and all these young kids. We see them getting married, buying homes, having children, based on this business." More than 250 new employees have come on board since the beginning of the year, for a total of 710; 45 paid interns return to school this month. Meanwhile, another 100 hires are undergoing four months of rigorous classroom and on-the-floor training. "My wife, Marianne, is our chief HR officer," says Silver. "With all this growth, she's very busy."
Nineteen Inc. 500 companies, including Coyote, exceeded $100 million in revenue in 2010. Last year's No. 1 company, Ambit Energy, clocks in this time at $418 million and No. 390 on the list. The most prolific job generator in this fecund crowd is also the largest company on our list: Mission Essential Personnel (No. 235), a $629 million provider of translation and other services to organizations operating in what the company calls "high-threat and postconflict regions." Mission Essential Personnel added 5,100 jobs in three years.
We were curious how many potential billion-dollar babies lurked in our annual ranking. So we asked respondents to our CEO survey whether they could imagine credible circumstances under which their businesses might reach the 10-digit milestone. More than a quarter—157 companies—answered yes. That's more than twice the number required under Litan's formula to shift the GDP needle. Paul Hurley, co-founder and CEO of this year's No. 1 company, the flash-sale site ideeli, expects to reach $1 billion within five years. "We're going to be a 3 or 4 or 5 or 10 billion-dollar business," proclaims Hurley. "My goal has always been to build something big." (Read a profile of ideeli.)
Naturally, we don't believe most or even many of the Inc. 500 will ever reach a billion dollars. Even some of our yeah-sayers sound unconvinced. "OK, it's a stretch," wrote Glen Blickenstaff, CEO of the $2 million Iron Door Company (No. 157), which makes hand-forged doors and windows. "But if you're a successful entrepreneur, then you live by the mantra 'Anything is possible.' Never discount optimism."
The country needs typical Inc. 500 honorees, companies that are light, nimble, and fleet of foot.But it also needs big companies that can churn through rough waters.
Other respondents worried that getting so big would compromise service, quality, and culture and wanted no part of it. "I would not allow it," wrote Luke Roopra, founder of Web development company Vertiglo (No. 16). "It would just mean that we lost all customization and went with a volume-based model." Litan respects that position—as do we—and emphasizes the considerable contributions of smaller entrepreneurial companies as well. (Hats off to AvePoint, No. 427, a $35 million software company that added 602 jobs in three years, for a grand total of 800.)
And, of course, the more businesses that achieve smaller but still significant scale—$100 million to $500 million, say—the fewer billion-dollar companies that are required to have the same impact. Still, Litan points out that billion-dollar businesses, which he calls home runs, create "more opportunities for those singles, doubles, and triples" as well.
Singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. We've needed them for 30 years. Today, we need them more than ever. The entrepreneurs on the Inc. 500—and beyond them, those on the Inc. 5000, and beyond them, the millions of Americans starting and managing young companies—are providing the jobs, the momentum, and, perhaps most important, the optimism to shoulder our wheel-spinning economy out of the mire. "I'm encouraged by the ambition of these companies," says Litan. "That's what we need to get out of this mess. All I can advise them is, Don't settle for a billion. Stick to your guns and go, go."
Leigh Buchanan is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan
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