The more things change, the more they stay the same. And the ways that they change are often pretty predictable.
The news on Maryland's 50 biggest companies in 1990 is that most of them also were among the top 50 in 1989. But those companies that did drop off the list -- or moved around within it -- reflected the headlines of the day, from takeovers to recessions. Cyclical companies lost ground, non-cyclicals gained some ground, and no one was immune from the trends.
Another lesson of this year's top 50 is that size doesn't guarantee robust health. Three of the top five companies in the survey -- No. 1 Marriott Corp. of Bethesda, No. 3 Black & Decker Corp. and No. 4 USF&G Corp. -- struggled during the year, hampered by overexpansion in real estate development (Marriott), difficulty digesting a big acquisition (Black & Decker) and a cyclical downturn in the property and casualty insurance industry (USF&G).
The fallout of the financial industry's problems took its toll on USF&G, the No. 3 company in last year's survey. The company fell behind Black & Decker to the fourth slot in The Sun's survey (See page 6). But that probably was among the least of 1990's problems for USF&G, which lost $569 million last year and replaced former Chief Executive Jack Moseley with Norman P. Blake Jr. USF&G was the biggest firm to move down in the survey, and Black & Decker was the biggest to move up.
Other cyclical companies lost ground on this year's list, as the recession bit into the rankings of companies such as the Ryland Group Inc. of Columbia, the state's biggest homebuilding company, and BTR Realty Inc., a Linthicum commercial development firm that had to write off losses on some Arizona projects during the year.
One of the biggest cyclical losers was W. Bell & Co. of Rockville, which filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in December.
Ryland moved to 11th place on the list, down from 10th, after accounting for a change in the way the survey was put together this year. A slow housing market held down both sales and
pTC profits at Ryland. BTR Realty fell to 48th place from No. 37 last year.
(Two firms in last year's top 10 -- Potomac Edison Co. and Crown Cork & Seal Co. -- were dropped because of changes in the criteria used for listing. Crown Cork is based in Philadelphia but has a subsidiary based in Maryland, and Potomac Edison is a unit of New York-based Allegheny Power. Such companies weren't considered for listing this year. GEICO Corp. of Bethesda, left out of last year's survey because it has a Washington mailing address, enters the survey at No. 8.)
A big winner among cyclical companies was Merry-Go-Round Enterprises of Joppa, which moved up to No. 16. Analysts have been bullish on the company, saying that its executives' sharp sense of young people's fashions has kept Merry-Go-Round growing.
Many non-cyclical companies did well in 1990, and at least one says the recession has actually been good for its business. Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Co. moved to 10th place, up one notch. The company, which boosted operating profits in 1990, said the recession adds spice to its corporate life because tight money means less eating out, less eating out means more eating in, and that means better sales of the spices McCormick sells.
The state's two biggest non-cyclical consumer-oriented firms, Giant Food Inc. and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., stayed put in the fifth and sixth spots.
Takeover mania wasn't nearly the headline-maker in 1990 that it had been in earlier years, but it still shook up the ratings a bit. Waverly Inc., the Baltimore-based publishing company, moved up to No. 27 from No. 30 after a year in which the company made three acquisitions that should boost annual sales by about 35 percent.
Intersolv Inc. of Rockville landed at No. 35 after merging with a Massachusetts firm that also designs computer-aided software engineering tools. Last year, Intersolv's predecessor was called Sage Software Inc. and was ranked No. 49 after accounting for companies excluded from this year's list and the addition of GEICO.
Another buyout pulled Easco Corp. of Hunt Valley off the list. Easco was purchased by Danaher Corp. of Washington. Webster Clothes of Baltimore, another company in last year's top 50, also was bought by an out-of-state firm and dropped off the list.
An initial public stock offering added Environmental Elements Corp. of Baltimore to the list, where it debuted at No. 33.