Editor’s note: Driving around to get a better picture of Washington business

December 15, 2013

I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust to this migration back to the urban center, where life is lived on mass transit, a bike or one’s two feet.

I like driving too much.

One of my hobbies is just to motor around a place, and figure out who lives and works there. I like to have a mental picture of the people, companies and places we write about each week, and, to my mind, location matters.

You can size up the state of a company’s business by just looking at its physical location. Is the parking lot full? Are the lights on at night? Does there seem to be a bustle?

These are things you don’t find in a press release, where every company is a “leader” in its industry.

I’m hardly alone in this. Lots of investment pros do this all the time. There’s a famous story about Warren Buffett stopping by Geico on a Saturday to see if the insurer might be worth investing in. He eventually bought the company.

I always find myself taking a lot more drives this time of year, when we are compiling the Post 200, to physically set eyes on these big companies. I like to think I can predict who is getting bigger — and who might not.

I once saw Arbitron, in Columbia, where I live, as one of those rising stars. At a certain time in the morning, cars seemed to swarm into its distinctive blue-glass office building, and the place practically buzzed with activity.

I wasn’t surprised to hear the audience measurement firm had been snapped up by Nielsen, another ratings firm.

Now the place is much sleepier as workers there have been let go or shifted around following the acquisition. There no longer is even a name on the building.

That’s a reminder to me. The Post 200 is a compilation of the biggest of the bigs, but it is only a snapshot in time. In business, the world is always changing, and it doesn’t hurt to get out every now and then and kick the tires.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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