Monday, May 12, 2008; 12:00 PM
Washington Post Local Business Editor Dan Beyers and Staff Writer Neil Irwin were online Monday, May 12 at noon ET to discuss this year's Post 200 report, the annual guide to the top companies in the Washington area.
Check out this year's
A transcript follows.
Dan Beyers: Welcome to the chat everyone. Neil and I are eager for your questions. The Post 200 is our annual guide to Washington's largest companies, banks, nonprofits, employers and law and lobby firms.
We've shaken up the publication this year and made several changes to the way we compile the list. Gone are the big Maryland and Virginia enterprises that were not headquartered in our region. In their place, we've included law and lobby firms and added more private companies and nonprofits.
Firms earn their place on the list principally by being big. We judge most companies and nonprofits by the revenues they generate and throw in a sample of big out-of-state employers. Law and advocacy firms make the list by the number of lawyers they employ locally, or the lobby dollars they rake in. Banks earn their place by the size of their assets.
There's lots of other ways to count. Our aim is to be as objective as possible but we know any list is subjective. No doubt we've missed someone. We'd love to hear how you would build your roster of all stars.
What criteria would you use, and why?
Oakton, Va.: Is asking local business leaders their thoughts on the outlook of the economy kind of like asking realtors or mortgage brokers their outlook on housing prices? I'm sure each would have a lot to say, maybe enough to build a newspaper story around, but is it anything worth listening to?
Dan Beyers: That's a good question Oakton. Business people by their nature are usually upbeat about the future --- that's understandable, no one opens a shop intending to lose money. What struck me about the multitude of comments coming out of earnings season this year was how many corporate executives mentioned bumps in the road. Are they presenting the whole picture? Perhaps not, but their comments do offer one window into what the business environment is like these days. In the days and weeks to come, I have no doubt we'll peer through many other windows.
Baltimore, Md.: How much of the economic slowdown would you say is due to media overhyping? I think the media is exaggerating the slowdown, causing consumers to tighten spending and, in turn, causing businesses to cut back on hiring. After all, why would the problems with the real estate market effect the overall U.S. economy. Sure, those whose homes have been foreclosed and investors who hold interests in the forfeited loans have been hit, but why does it impact the entire U.S. economy?
Historically, a new president has reinvigorated the overall economy and with the upcoming presidential election isn't this a bright spot that is being overlooked? Also, as we enter the summer months, typically a slow news cycle, do you think the media is overemphasizing the economic woes for lack of other news?
Neil Irwin: I suspect there are some people in the Bush administration who would agree with your thesis. And I think there is some merit to the idea that the extent of our economic woes have been overstated in some media coverage. Comparing this episode to the Great Depression is wildly, wildly overblown.
But . . . (and you knew there was a but, didn't you?). It is the case that the housing downturn is eliminating trillions of dollars worth of paper wealth, making Americans less confident. And that is happening because housing prices in many parts of the country rose far beyond the levels supported by economic fundamentals in the 2000-2006 period, not because of anything the media did.
Simultaneously, the financial markets, especially those for debt, are experiencing their most profound crisis in modern times. That threatens to cut off the availability of lending to ordinary consumers and businesses, the lifeblood of an economy. The credit crisis has its roots in complacency and improper risk-taking by a wide variety of investors and others over many years, excesses that are being worked out now. It has nothing to do with the media.
Is the U.S. economy experiencing a diastrous recession with hordes of unemployed people and a great loss to American prosperity? Not now, based on the economic data we have so far. Is there reason to worry that such a thing could happen? There certainly is.
As for the media's role, some media outlets have indeed overstated the depth of the economic challenges the nation is facing. But I and my colleagues in the economics group at the Post try hard to write with clarity and nuance to explain what we know about how the economy is doing and not go beyond the facts.
Washington, D.C.: I enjoyed all the reporting that went into the Post 200 -- very comprehensive and informative -- but would have appreciated more photos. Who, in your opinion, is the hottest CEO in the Post 200? What about COOs or CFOs?
Dan Beyers: We love photos, too. There's only so much space in the tab. But online we are working to include photos for every company. We've been at this since the start of the year -- in between our regular day job, putting out the daily paper! -- and have been contacting companies for pictures and sending out photographers when requested. It's my goal to continue to build up the company profile pages that live on the Web with entire photo galleries of pictures, and try to figure out a way to get people to send us their own favorites from the cubicle.
As for the second part of your question, I confess I haven't made a study of every CEO, CFO, COO to produce a who's hottest list.
Waldorf, Md.: I think I speak for many Washington area business owners when I say that I'm really disappointed that Jenna Bush did not have her wedding here at the White House. Can you discuss the impact on the local economy that this would have had?
Neil Irwin: Such a shame, really. Think of all event spaces and caterers that would have been enlisted for a presidential wedding. And the dollars spent by all the media that would have come to town to cover the event (despite not being allowed anywhere near it)!
If it's any solace, the Bush administration has been very very good for the Washington regional economy. Its emphasis on outsourcing government functions to the private sector, and the war on terrorism, have been very very lucrative for the government contractors that are based here, especially those focused on information technology. And that has led to the creation of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of local jobs in the last seven years.
Neil Irwin: So, Dan, this is your second year spearheading the Post 200. What most surprised you about the results? Any big shockers in which companies rose and which fell?
Dan Beyers: No big shockers, after all covering the Post 200 is the bread and butter of the local business staff. But it was interesting to see AOL and Sprint fall out -- both moved headquarters out of town, and the size of their workforce couldn't crack our list of major employers. I also thought it was interesting that Fanne Mae and Freddie Mac top the list of public companies, given all the tumult in the mortgage market.
Richmond, Va.: How are the big companies changing? IE: adding more flexible benefits, child care, telecommuting, etc?
Dan Beyers: We asked each company about their benefits and perks and are running their answers online on our Jobs page. Not every firm submitted responses so we will keep after them to provide as rich a repository of information on a company as we can.
Really, the publication of the Post 200 in the newspaper this year is only the start of our plans. We are busy building a much more robust database online and in the days and weeks to come we plan on adding live news feeds and links to SEC filings on every company profile page. We also are practicing our video skills and planning chats with CEOs and such. So keep checking back on your favorite companies, we will be updating and expanding all year long.
Re: What criteria would you use, and why?: How about a category showing which large employers don't pay local taxes, and how much they'd owe if they weren't exempt? I'm thinking of those many thousands of World Bank employees. Or large embassies like the Brits and Russians.
Neil Irwin: It is true that the Washington area experiences both benefits and curses from its government ties. The federal government, embassies, and nonprofits are generally exempt from local taxes. The list of the largest 10 private employers in the District of Columbia looks like this:
George Washington University
Washington Hospital Center
Children's National Medical Center
Georgetown University Hospital
Howard University Hospital
On this list, Fannie Mae is the only conventional corporation, and because if its federal charter it doesn't have to pay the District's corporate income taxes.
While there are disadvantages to DC's federal status, though, the government and nonprofits all employ a lot of people, who still must pay personal income taxes. So on balance, this keeps our economy more stable than most.
Dan Beyers: By the way, this Friday, May 16 we are hosting a forum at the JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue to talk about the economy and workplace issues. Treasury Sec. Henry Paulson Jr. is giving the keynote. Tickets are still available. Andrea can we give people the link to the online box office?
washingtonpost.com: Post 200 Business Forum
Largest employers: So how many people does GWU employ? What's the difference between the top and tenth employer, in employee numbers? Also, does the calculation include part-time and contract workers, or only full-time staff with benefits? And, any idea what salary spreads are like at these places (ie: 12 percent earn $30,000 or less, 26 percent earn $30-60,000, etc) and how many employees are unionized?
Dan Beyers: George Washington employs 9,939. The area's largest private employer, McDonald's, employs 33,993. GWU would have made our list of big employers, too, but we only give companies one entry so that the Post 200 is really 200. Our smallest, big employer, is United Parcel Service, with 5,338. As for salary speads, great question. Maybe we'll tackle that in the future.
D.C.: What's the cut-off point, geographically, for inclusion as a local business? I think it's long-since moved beyond the Beltway, or am I wrong? And when did that happen?
Dan Beyers: We go well beyond the Beltway. Here's how we describe Post 200 country in the paper:
The lists of public and private companies, banks and nonprofit groups were restricted to those that have headquarters in the District; in Prince George's, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Howard, Charles, Calvert, Frederick and St. Mary's counties in Maryland; or in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier, Frederick, Culpeper, and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax in Virginia. The remaining lists were made up of law and lobby firms and employers that maintain large operations within that geographic area.
In past years we have included major companies statewide in Maryland and Virginia, which meant our Post 200 reports included names like Under Armour and Circuit City. But this year we changed the definition some to get a list that better reflects the metropolitan area.
Dan Beyers: Thanks for the chat. Sorry we didn't get to every question. Check out the Post 200 online and let us know what you like and don't like.
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