Wal-Mart Tops FORTUNE 500 Again

    April 4, 2005

For the fourth year in a row, Wal-Mart has topped the FORTUNE 500 list, FORTUNE’s annual ranking of America’s largest companies.

Exxon Mobil (No. 2) and General Motors (No. 3) maintain their positions from the 2004 list. Rounding out the top ten are Ford Motor (No. 4); General Electric (No. 5); ChevronTexaco (No. 6); ConocoPhillips (No. 7); Citigroup (No. 8); American International Group (No. 9); and IBM (No. 10). Wal-Mart, General Motors, and Exxon Mobil are the only three companies to have held the No. 1 spot on the FORTUNE 500 list since its inception in 1954.

“Following on the heels of 2003’s spectacular comeback, America’s largest corporations made it clear in 2004 that the recovery was for real,” says FORTUNE writer Janice Revell. “Of the 42 industry groups tracked by FORTUNE, only electronics and electrical equipment, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, and airlines failed to post profit growth.” In fact, the old economy was as strong as ever. If a company’s business involved natural resources, the odds were good that it made big money, according to Revell. Part of the reason for this was China’s sizzling 9% growth. “The country’s appetite for raw materials–it now consumes about a quarter of the world’s copper, iron, ore, and steel–sent commodity prices sky-high. And those price increases went straight to the bottom line.”

With oil prices on the rise, giants such as Exxon Mobil and ChevronTexaco also gushed profits. For the second straight year, Exxon Mobil powered its way to the top of the FORTUNE 500 profit charts, with a $25.3 billion earnings performance–smashing the record set by Ford in 1998. But as a group, metal producers shone brightest, posting the highest profit growth of all FORTUNE 500 sectors last year–a stunning 801% gain. Aluminum giant Alcoa (No. 79), for example, increased its profits by about 40%, to $1.3 billion. And copper miner Phelps Dodge (No. 299) saw profits jump 11-fold.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, the weakest of the FORTUNE 500 got even weaker. “The airline industry–plagued by the lethal combination of higher fuel costs and cutthroat fare competition–continued to hemorrhage money,” says Revell. “The sector was by far the worst performing of the FORTUNE 500, landing dead last in profits and return on assets and second to last in return on revenues.” The telecom industry, amid fierce price competition and a frenzy of deal making, also faced a year of pain and consolidation.

Still, says Revell, FORTUNE 500 investors had reason to be pleased in 2004. The FORTUNE 500 index, which measures all the publicly traded members of the 500, produced a highly respectable total return to shareholders (as measured by the change in stock price plus dividend) of 10.3% last year. Outside the executive suite, the news was also generally good, with more than half the FORTUNE 500 companies adding employees last year. However, it isn’t clear how many such jobs were added in the United States. FORTUNE analyzed the data from 45 companies on the list that voluntarily provide employment figures, and the results were revealing: Foreign employment among the group increased by 9.6%, while U.S. employment rose by less than 1%. In fact, of the 45 companies, 18–including Coca-Cola (No. 92), Dell (No. 28), General Motors (No. 3), and ChevronTexaco–employ more people outside the U.S. than they do domestically.

But though many FORTUNE 500 companies increasingly focus on opportunities outside the U.S., at least one big company bucked that trend last year. Media conglomerate News Corp. moved its corporate home from Australia to the U.S. and makes its debut (at No. 98) on the FORTUNE 500. “The FORTUNE 500 is going global,” concludes Revell, “but there’s still plenty of opportunity at home.”

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