BY JOHN ECKBERG
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Their business operations are varied -- from hotel builders to animal food makers, soft drink sales to casket builders -- but 24 firms on the Arthur Andersen & Co. Greater Cincinnati 100 list have one thing in common:
They have made the annual list for 15 consecutive years -- every year it has been compiled.
Some managed to stay on it because their firms grew by acquiring other companies. Others aggressively sought new markets -- even international opportunities -- while some firms grew enough to stay on the list by tending to customer needs and expanding already successful divisions.
Favorable interest rates, a rosy economic climate and a close watch on the competition kept wind in the sails of many of the 24 local companies marking a decade-and-a-half on the list.
"Fifteen years ago, we were doing business in five to six states and had zero export sales," said Dennis B. Griffin, president of Griffin Industries Inc., a Cold Spring company ranked 12th. "Now we do business in 18 states, and 40 percent of our sales are exports. There has been a spread of our geographic area."
Dennis Griffin, president of Griffin Industries
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The company, which produces animal feed ingredients and proteins, also deals in animal hides and skins for consumer products like shoes, clothing and automobile upholstery.
There has been an explosion in revenues in the 15 years the firm has been a member of the Greater Cincinnati 100. Griffin Industries is one of the fast-risers on the list, with revenues growing by 807 percent and moving up on the list from 58th in 1983 to 12th today. Whether that trend will continue depends in large measure on international economic underpinnings, Mr. Griffin said.
"We'll strive hard to maintain market conditions and profitability. But the general economy is not, I think, as strong as we are led to believe.
"Too many countries have been living on borrowed funds and reality is starting to set in. It is putting a bind on the world economy and we are quite concerned about devaluation in Mexico and Venezuela. It could have an additional negative impact on the U.S."
The accounting firm has produced the list since 1983, compiled from basic revenue and payroll information among private companies willing to participate. All 100 companies on the list will be honored at the 15th annual banquet Tuesday at the Omni Netherland Plaza Hall of Mirrors, where sports broadcaster Dick Vitale will give the keynote address.
The Griffin firm was among the fastest-growing on the list. Only the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family, at 1008 percent revenue growth to $288 million in 1997, and the Kenwood Dealer Group Inc., 1997 revenues of $322.2 million for a 973 percent revenue growth over 15 years, surpassed Griffin.
"We grew from two dealerships to 10," said Robert C. Reichert, president of the Kenwood Dealer Group. "Business has been good for a long time."
The Jeff Wyler Automotive Family is not finished and should inch higher next year, Mr. Wyler said. "Our plan is to add one existing dealership per year. We currently have six locations with 23 franchises in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana," he said.
Mr. Wyler said automotive retailers are usually the first to see market downturns, but he expects no slide anytime soon -- despite stock market volatility and overseas worries.
"With 25 years in the business, I've learned that the automobile business leads the way into a decline. It's the first to notice when confidence is eroding, and I see no signs of that," he said.
"The Cincinnati economy is not tied deeply into foreign economies. We are stable. We don't have big spikes up or down. But our success depends on confidence. As long as people are happy and not too much in debt, we should thrive. Our business is consumer confidence, period."
One company on the 15-year list with little obvious link to rising or falling national or international economic indicators is the Aurora Casket Co. of Aurora, Ind., where 750 people are employed making caskets.
The company, with 1997 revenues of $99.6 million, imports few raw materials and relies on manpower and not robotics to produce 160,000 caskets annually.
While some might think that the aging baby boomer generation will drive double digit revenue increases in the years to come, that may not occur, said William E. Barrott III, president of Aurora Casket.
"The death rate has been relatively stagnant in recent years," Mr. Barrott said. "As the baby boomer becomes the older generation, the sheer number of deaths will increase, but there may be increases in cremation, so casket manufacturing may not go up accordingly."
Still, he said, the company has developed plans for growth.
"We want to do the things that will enable us to continue with good, manageable growth. We have no immediate plans to double the size of the company," Mr. Barrott said. "But we would like to sustain 5 percent to 10 percent growth per year."
Standard Textile Co. Inc., developer, manufacturer and distributor of multiple use health care, surgical, patient and incontinence apparel, looked overseas to 31 countries for production and markets.
"The key to our growing is to become the partner or supplier of choice with major health care organizations," said Gary Heiman, president and chief executive officer of Standard Textile Co., which realized 278 percent growth in revenue from 1983, when it was ranked 22nd, to its 16th place ranking this year.
The company also developed an efficient integrated supply network with a team of consultants advising customers on the full medical product range offered by Standard Textile, he said.
The company also consults on engineering, finances, clinical operations, equipment standardization and utilization.
"We basically said we must be the partner of choice," he said. "Not being the partner of choice was simply not an option."
With 11 manufacturing facilities in locales such as Pakistan, Jordan and Israel, the company has been able to be a low-cost provider to international medical groups. Retaining key personnel is no mystery, he said.
"We have an organization that is growing and able to offer people new, exciting and challenging opportunities," he said. "If it isn't challenging, top-notch people won't stay."
Kirk and Blum Manufacturing, an industrial sheet metal contractor and custom metal fabricator, has seen steady growth, making it the largest industrial sheet-metal contractor in the United States. Federal clean air regulations led to increased work for the company in recent years. But this is likely to be the last year on the list for this company, which employs 600 at six operations, including about 220 at its Oakley headquarters, said President Richard J. Blum.
The firm was acquired in August by MYR Group Inc., a publicly held Chicago-area specialty contracting firm. A family-owned firm founded 91 years ago, Kirk and Blum will continue to design, manufacture and install air pollution control and industrial ventilation equipment, but under a different nameplate.
"The future is very bright. We're partnering up with these people and gaining a lot of resources and opportunities," Mr. Blum said.
Ralph J. Olson, president and chairman of the board of R.A. Jones & Co., 1997 revenues of $83.1 million, said his company has seen record new orders. Sales for consumer packaging equipment and systems increased by 38 percent last year, a third year of record order input.
Ralph J. Olson, president of R.A. Jones & Co., in front of a pouch packaging machine that his company built.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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"It is due to our name, reputation, reliability of the product line and exceptional aftermarket service," he said. "Our success has allowed us to gain more business with the top 150 consumer product companies at a time when the packing machinery industry has been flat."
Founded 93 years ago as a company that put promotional labels on small bars of soap for hotels and food stores, the Crescent Springs company today builds packaging equipment for firms that distribute 4,000 consumer products: from juice to cereal, pain-killers to beer.
BWI Plc., based in Great Britain, purchased R.A. Jones & Co. earlier this year for $55 million and because its parent company is not based locally, it will not be eligible for inclusion on the list next year.
Like many Cincinnati firms, this company, which once looked for business at downtown hotels and Cincinnati neighborhood grocery stores, sees the globe as its market. "We are looking at continued compounded growth, and should more than double in size within the next decade," Mr. Olson said.