Up Front: February 2006

Still hard to figure

As the silver type in the red bar of our logo on the cover indicates, we’ve begun the year that we’ll celebrate the magazine’s 25th anniversary. When we reach that mark this fall, we’ll have published 300 issues, several thousand stories and many millions of words. It’s a big chore putting out Business North Carolina each month, but nothing matches the sweat that goes into producing this Business Handbook issue each year.

Just ask Frank Maley. He’s the senior editor who has ramrodded the project the last three years. Initial planning on next year’s issue begins soon after this year’s goes to the printer, and some of the work gets under way by midsummer. A dozen years now, we’ve gleaned data from scores of sources to paint the most comprehensive picture available of the North Carolina economy. But probably no task is as tedious as compiling our annual listing of the 100 largest employers, which begins on page 16.

The effort normally starts in early September. The Employment Security Commission provides a ranking of companies with more than 1,000 employees, but confidentiality requirements bar it from revealing exact numbers. That’s what we request from companies by fax. Some, but not most, comply right away. So we start working the phones. It can take dozens of calls to find the right person to badger. Often we don’t finish until a few days before deadline.

This time, we thought it would be easier. John Kasarda, director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, figured his staff had the expertise and resources to compile the list in a less labor-intensive way — plus add the sheen of the institute’s prestige to the product.

The job fell to C3E — the institute’s Carolina Center for Competitive Economies. Faculty Director Mike Luger hoped to coordinate the ESC list with employment figures from Dun & Bradstreet and other references, resorting to phone calls only when accurate numbers weren’t available. But when the first draft arrived in early December, C3E had concluded that its data sources weren’t interchangeable: Best use ESC data — essentially the starting point in our process — with the top companies split into nine employment ranges.

That, we felt, was taking a step backward. Providing employment figures, rather than ranges, was the value BNC had added to the ESC ranking. But because we had collected the numbers from a variety of sources over several months, we had been forcing false precision, Luger noted. That’s a valid criticism of our methodology. But we needed numbers, so they started surveying companies. In the end, 73 responded. C3E staff filled in the blanks with head counts from D&B and/or extrapolated from ESC’s reported ranges. Frank spent two days fervently vetting the list, consolidating numbers reported by different companies under one corporate ownership. It’s being sent to the printer as I write this.

We learned a lot in the process, which should make for an even better list next year, and, I suspect, so did the Kenan Institute people who worked on it. Maybe the biggest lesson is one we should have learned from Ringo Starr a long time ago: It don’t come easy.