Bill Gates, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett

Bill Gates, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett; Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.

BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY

Fortune rank: No. 4 with revenue of $211 billion; unchanged since last year. First cracked Fortune list in 1989 at 205th.

History: The holding company of large and medium-sized firms and investments has grown largely from the singular wisdom of founder and chairman Warren Buffett: Started as an investment pool of family and friends in Omaha in the mid-1950's. In 1965, Buffett bought the textile company that gave Berkshire its name. (Ironically, he later called it his worst investment.) His philosophy of buying successful companies with firm niches and keeping leadership in place has achieved returns well in excess of the stock market. The move into insurance was key, as Buffett uses premium reserves available for investment to fund additional purchases. Forbes notes that Berkshire now generates nearly three-quarters of its revenue from its non-financial operating businesses. At 85, Buffett is the oldest CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The company has kept its offices at Omaha’s Kiewit Plaza since 1962.

UNION PACIFIC

Fortune rank: No. 129 on revenue of $22 billion; down from No. 123 last year. Listed each year since non-manufacturing companies were added to the list in 1995.

History: The company was created by the 1862 Pacific Railway Act, an act of Congress that called for construction of a transcontinental rail line from the Missouri River to the West Coast. The first track was laid out of Omaha in 1865, and U.P. grew into a national icon. Multiple mergers over 150 years helped U.P. amass the nation’s largest rail network, with operations in 23 Western states and prime rail connections into Mexico. In 2004, the railroad opened a new 19-story headquarters downtown that serves about 4,000 of the company’s 47,200 employees.

PETER KIEWIT SONS’ INC.

Fortune rank: No. 314 on revenue of $9 billion; down from No. 286 last year. Made its Fortune debut in 1991 and since 1998 has been listed every year but one. Is privately held but qualifies for the Fortune list because it publicly reports revenue.

History: Three sons of Peter Kiewit took over their father’s Omaha construction company, with the youngest, also named Peter, credited with turning it into one of the nation’s largest. The company took off while building military installations during World War II and the Cold War. It also built more miles of Interstate system than any other contractor, causing Fortune to dub Peter Kiewit “the Colossus of Roads.” Today, it is one of the largest employee-owned firms in the world and one of only a handful of construction companies big enough to take on billion-dollar projects.

MUTUAL OF OMAHA

Fortune rank: No. 367 on revenue of $6.9 billion; up from No. 391 last year. Made its debut in 1995, dropped off in 2006 and 2007, but solidly on the list since.

History: Got off to a humble start in 1909 as the Mutual Benefit Health and Accident Association, initially struggling to attract policyholders. Under the leadership of Creighton medical student C.C. Criss and later V.J. Skutt, it grew and by the 1950's had emerged as a leading health and accident insurer. The name was changed to Mutual of Omaha in 1962, and a year later it became a household name with sponsorship of the popular “Wild Kingdom” TV show. The company re-branded its familiar Native American head logo in 2001, expanded into banking in 2007 and renewed its commitment to its midtown Omaha headquarters by developing the mixed-use Midtown Crossing.

TD AMERITRADE

Fortune rank: No. 680 on revenue of $3.3 billion; up from No. 727 last year.

History: Founder Joe Ricketts saw an opportunity in 1975 when the Securities and Exchange Commission eliminated the practice of fixed brokerage commissions. Ricketts’ firm, First Omaha Securities Inc., began offering discounted commissions and helped usher in a new era of investing. Forty years later, TD Ameritrade has nearly 6 million client accounts with more than $600 billion in assets and custodial services for more than 4,000 independent registered investment advisers. Clients place, on average, about 400,000 trades each day.

GREEN PLAINS INC.

Fortune rank: No. 742 on revenue of $3 billion; down from No. 712 last year.

History: Since its founding in 2004, Green Plains Inc. has grown to be North America’s fourth-largest producer of ethanol. The Omaha-based firm grew rapidly through a series of acquisitions that gives it control over various segments of the industry, from grain handling to production to marketing and distribution. Green Plains makes about 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol each year.

VALMONT

Fortune rank: No. 813 on revenue of $2.6 billion; down from No. 729 last year.

History: In 1946, Robert B. Daugherty spent nearly his life’s savings — $5,000 — to buy a small manufacturing company on a farm near Valley, Nebraska, to build farm elevators. Years later, with the invention of center-pivot irrigation, Valmont found its niche. It then expanded into steel pipe and tubing manufacturing for irrigation systems and other industries. Through acquisitions and new construction, the company grew to be a global player in certain segments of the agriculture, communications and utilities markets. Today, Valmont’s worldwide operations are constantly looking for opportunities to expand in its existing five business sectors: engineered support structures (steel and aluminum poles for traffic lights, street lighting, etc.); utility support structures (poles for electrical transmission lines, etc.); coatings (galvanization); energy and mining (heavy complex steel structures); and irrigation.

WEST

Fortune rank: No. 869 on revenue of $2.4 billion; down from No. 794 last year.

History: West Corp. began in 1986 as West Telemarketing, an inbound call center that took phone orders for products advertised on television. It added outbound calls and long-distance processing to its services, growing into a $1.4 billion business by the time it went public in 1996. West developed a number of new services that used the Internet and changed its name to West Corp. to reflect the new direction. Since 2002, the company has been making acquisitions to diversify its lines of business and revenue and to strengthen its position as a provider of high-tech channels of communication.

WERNER

Fortune rank: No. 945 on revenue of $2.1 billion; up from No. 971 last year.

History: Werner Enterprises Inc. was founded in 1956, growing to become a premier transportation and logistics company with operations throughout North America, Asia, Europe, South America, Africa and Australia. The Omaha-based company is among the five largest truckload carriers in the United States, offering diverse services that include dedicated; medium-to-long-haul, regional and local van; expedited; temperature-controlled; and flatbed. Werner also provides freight management, truck brokerage, inter-modal and international services. International services are provided through subsidiary companies and include ocean, air and ground transportation; freight forwarding; and customs brokerage.

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