Canadian Business’s annual ranking of the country’s top companies has evolved considerably since its debut in 1964. Our longest-running regular feature, the ranking was published separately from the magazine for its first nine years. Each edition consisted of a handful of pages, apparently prepared on a typewriter. Again, much has changed.
Conceived at a time when company financials weren’t easy for the average person to find, early lists ranked Canadian companies in three different ways: by assets, sales and net income. (Some early editions also listed how many Canadian Business subscriptions were delivered to a given company) By the time the ranking was first printed in the actual magazine in 1973, companies were ranked by their annual sales. We strived to include as many private companies as possible, aided, in part by a 1972 government decree that all federally chartered private companies were required to submit their basic financials to Ottawa. Former editor Robin Schiele, in several humorous editor’s notes, detailed the trouble Canadian Business faced trying convincing private companies that wouldn’t comply with Ottawa’s request to release their numbers to the magazine. One unnamed business even refused to tell him its address. As time went on, more metrics were added to the list, including liabilities over equity and return on investment. But the ranking’s biggest change occurred in 2000, when the ranking—which had been known over the years as the Canadian Business 500, Canada’s Top 500 Companies and the Performance 500—was rebranded the Investor 500. In 2004 we refined the list one more time by breaking the 500 into small-, medium- and large-cap categories.
The number of companies we’ve ranked in a given year over the past half-century has been a roller-coaster ride of addition and subtraction. Early lists danced around the 200 mark, officially becoming known as The Top 200 when the ranking moved into the magazine. Three years later, we added “The Second 200,” rounding the list out to an even 500 by the end of the decade. By the mid-’80s, the itch to increase the list was felt again, creeping to the 1,000 mark by 1993, and jumping to a possibly overzealous 2,000 in 1998. Much to the relief of our research team, that experiment lasted only two years before we decided in 2000 to resettle on a more manageable (and arguable more interesting) 500, where it has stayed ever since.
Compiling the numbers for the list wasn’t an easy task for most of its existence, as Schiele’s battle with private bean-counters of the 1970s shows. Though McGill University’s Faculty of Management and Micromedia Ltd. (at one time the official record keeper for the Ontario Securities Commission) have both been enlisted at various point over the years to gather our data, most years our ranking has been an in-house undertaking. Even into the early years of this century, that involved locking a handful of researchers into a room for up to five months, armed with phones, a computer, and a wall of empty filing cabinets that would eventually be filled with printed annual reports.
Today, the same result is achieved by a single person in about a day, thanks to electronic filing and our handy Bloomberg terminal. (As for those pesky private companies that so irked Schiele, by the late-’90s, editor Arthur Johnson was happy to report that those approached for information usually were “happy to oblige.” In any case, since switching to an investor focus, our list ranks only publicly traded businesses.) Usually our bestselling issue of the year, our annual ranking has also produced the thickest single issues in Canadian Business history. The 1985 and 1988 editions jointly hold the title, each weighing in at 292 pages apiece. Because of its popularity, our list has been offered supplementally to readers in a variety of formats. In 1976, readers could contact the publisher to request a photocopy of the previous year’s list. In the 1980s, a sortable version was offered in plain text, database management software dBase and spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3 on 5¼-inch floppy disks for the bargain price of $99.95. Given our one-time tech columnist Peter MacDonald’s view that CD-ROMs were “evolutionary dead ends,” it seems we may have skipped that particular blip in history. But since last decade, the Investor 500 has been available on the web, and today is also available on the iPad—a technology that surely will still be cutting edge by the time of our 100th ranking in 2063.