4 city firms make top 100

Thriving: In a national ranking of fast-growing private companies in urban areas Baltimore businesses claim four places.

April 22, 2005|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Baltimore can't claim to be New York's equal very often, but one of those moments has come.

The Inner City 100, an annual ranking of fast-growing private companies compiled by the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Inc. magazine, includes four burgeoning businesses from Baltimore. That ties the city with New York. Only three cities - Denver, Chicago and Detroit - have more, at five businesses each.

All of the businesses operate predominantly in urban areas that are economically distressed compared with the rest of the region. The list is composed of small and medium-sized businesses that are selected and ranked by revenue growth from 1999 to 2003.

Such companies are thriving in Baltimore partly because of the city's decline as large corporations have left, leaving lower-priced real estate in their wake. The newcomers are helping push the city back into vitality, said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research for the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute.

"Baltimore City has been in pretty much a 30-year economic decline until the last couple of years," he said. "Just five years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was calling Baltimore a dead city. ... It's starting to show signs that it's come back from the grave."

A list such as the Inner City 100 isn't a perfect measure because it relies on nominations, Clinch said, but it does create buzz that makes it easier for cities to keep momentum going.

Brian M. McComas, president and chief executive officer of getintegrated, a seven-year-old human resources management service that is one of Baltimore's four on the list, sees it as a hopeful sign for a city that has been defined by disappearing employers. Baltimore has never had more than two businesses at a time appear on the annual list, which began in 1999.

"I think it's very important for every city to have success stories," said McComas, 34, whose company tripled its revenue from 1999 to 2003. "I'd like to be part of a success story and something that can help Baltimore on its road back to greater and better things."

Ranked fourth nationally is 180s, an Inner Harbor-based performance-wear company known for its ear warmers that wrap around the back of the head. This is the company's second year in a row among the Inner City 100. Last time, it was No. 1. Its revenue increased 3,643 percent over the five years to $44.7 million.

No. 11 is Barcoding Inc., a company in Canton that uses bar coding and radio frequency identification to track everything from parking tickets to donated organs. Its revenue grew 1,840 percent to $15.2 million.

Phyllis Wheatley Education Centers, a business in the city and Baltimore County that splits its efforts between child-care facilities and job-placement help for adults, ranked 58th. Its revenue increased 392 percent to $1.3 million.

Downtown-based getintegrated, which offers services that include centralizing the data that companies get from disparate human-resources vendors, came in at No. 87 for increasing revenue 207 percent to $20.9 million.

The three fastest-growing companies are in New York, New Orleans and Albany, N.Y. New York-based Mosaica Education Inc., which operates charter schools, tops the group. Fifty-eight cities have a business on the list.

"These 100 companies have created close to 10,000 jobs in the past five years," said Deirdre M. Coyle, director of the inner-city list. "That makes them collectively one of the most successful job creation programs in the country."

The four Baltimore businesses together have 250 employees. The men who head them are in their 30s, and to get to this point they overcame problems that could have killed their companies.

Thomas Hardnett, president and CEO of Phyllis Wheatley Education Centers, worked two jobs for two years to pay the bills while his company took root - executive by day, computer-applications instructor by night. Later, in 2003, he had to close two facilities after child-care subsidies for welfare-to-work participants were reduced.

Now, seven years after he purchased his first child-care center, he owns four - two in the city and two just outside in Woodlawn - and has added a division to train and place adults in jobs.

"Welfare-to-work is my passion," said Hardnett, 39, who worked on similar initiatives in the 1990s as human resources director of Stop Shop & Save Food Markets. "I can see us making a big, big difference."

Jay Steinmetz, CEO and founder of Barcoding, said he feels vindicated that his 6 1/2 -year-old company is thriving despite a disastrous partnership early on that ended up in court. Called Barcoding.com for most of its existence, the company thrived after the dot-com bubble burst, buying up assets from failed businesses such as Pets.com as it focused on streamlining information gathering. It also got into wireless networks before the idea was cool.

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