The top 441 privately held companies employed 6.2 million people and accounted for $1.8 trillion in revenues in 2008, according to a November 2008 article in Forbes magazine (see References below). And while none of corporate America was entirely shielded from the economic recession of 2008, private companies were not subject to the same stock depreciation.
Privately held companies typically have a handful of shareholders or owners. These shares are not traded on public exchanges and are therefore considered to be closely held. Because shares are not traded on an exchange, the company's accountants typically apply a numeric value to the privately held shares (see Resources below).
Agricultural company Cargill is one of the oldest private companies, formed after the American Civil War in 1865 as a grain storage facility. Descendants of the company's founding partners have held shares in Cargill for the past 140 years, according to Forbes. Cargill topped a recent list compiled by Forbes as the largest private U.S. company.
Some of the largest names in business belong to privately held companies. Mars--behind such brands as M&Ms, Uncle Ben’s and pet food company Pedigree--generated $27 billion in revenues in 2007 and employs 64,000. Mars’ heritage is as a family-owned, private company founded in 1911. In 2008, it acquired rival Wrigley, which was publicly traded at the time. Wrigley now operates as a Mars subsidiary.
Private companies enjoy certain freedoms that publicly traded entities do not. They are not required to file financial information with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), with a few exceptions, and are not judged on whether or not they meet Wall Street expectations for quarterly earnings. They are spared the expense of remaining in compliance with SEC guidelines under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Private companies may eventually become public entities by filing an initial public offering (IPO). Companies that go public can raise capital for expansion or other growth initiatives.
However, fewer companies pursued IPOs in 2008 due to the recession. Renaissance Capital says that for the 12 months through November 2008, the number of private companies that had IPOs was down 15 percent vs. the year-ago period, according to Forbes.
Automaker Chrysler is also privately held. It was ranked the third-largest private company in 2008 by Forbes. However, the company was forced into bankruptcy protection in April 2009 by the U.S. government. Chrysler is a former public company that previously traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It was acquired by private equity firm Cerberus in 2007. Cerberus attempted to turn Chrysler's financial problems around, but failed.
Under the terms of a bankruptcy plan, Chrysler is now controlled by the United Auto Workers union, Italian automaker Fiat and the U.S. government. Cerberus’ stake is valued at 19 cents on the dollar (see References below).
Geri Terzo is a business writer with more than 15 years of experience on Wall Street. Throughout her career, she has contributed to the two major cable business networks in segment production and chief-booking capacities and has reported for several major trade publications including "IDD Magazine," "Infrastructure Investor" and MandateWire of the "Financial Times." She works as a journalist who has contributed to The Motley Fool and InvestorPlace. Terzo is a graduate of Campbell University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in mass communication.