The fastest-growing companies list has always offered a revealing mix of past (which industries have been hot) and future (which seedling might become the next Apple or Genentech, both of which appeared on the list for years). So this year we’ve added a bonus: a look at how the burgeoning enterprises on the list have fluctuated over the past 15 years. Siebel Systems was No. 1 back in 1999, but today there are few software outfits — and a lot of companies selling tangible products. The media may be obsessed with the latest app maker, but as these pages show, there’s a less glitzy but still vibrant portion of the economy ascending to new heights.
THE RETURNS: THE YOUNG AND THE PROFITABLE
For this group, it was a very good year.
The median total return for the most recent 12 months, 33%, may not approach the gaudy heights of the first tech bubble. But considering the world’s economic torpor, the collective numbers for the fastest-growing companies of 2013 were impressive.
Revenues for the group totaled over $627 billion, up from $390 billion just a year ago. Admittedly, one company — Apple (AAPL) — shouldered a big part of the load, with $169 billion in revenues and $39.7 billion in profits. But many others on the list delivered record earnings too.
Like most of corporate America, these companies have benefited from Fed policy and the resulting bull market. Undoubtedly, their stocks will feel the effects of the next bear market. Still, it’s best to have strong profits behind you if storm clouds are looming.
THE SECTORS: THE RISE AND FALL (AND RISE AND FALL) OF INDUSTRIES
Extended-stay hotels. Tennis-shoe makers. Silver miners. Even beauty salons and outfits that turn animal waste into biofuels. An endless array of companies have turned in the sort of stellar performance that lands them on our Fastest-Growing lists over the past 15 years.
That said, a few industries stand out. In any given period, legions of technology, health care, energy, or industrial companies — or some combination thereof — have dominated the list.
Considering our current oil-heavy collection, it may be hard to imagine that in 1999 the lone industry representative was El Paso Energy, and it barely made its way to the bottom. Famously volatile, oil and gas companies have roared up the list each time prices spiked, then plunged off when they collapsed. Today, despite soft prices, the fracking boom has made shale a leitmotif.
In 1999 the hot sector was, of course, technology. There were almost 300 Internet-related IPOs that year, and stock prices were soaring. Thirty-two tech companies made the list in 1999, followed by 37 in 2000, and 35 a year later. This year’s assemblage, which numbers 21, boasts semiconductor makers, Internet companies, and cloud-computing providers, but only two true software companies.
Among the steadiest performers, particularly when the economy has been at its weakest, have been health care companies. Hospitals and drug companies have typically gained favor with investors in tough times. (After all, you’ll defer buying a car, but it’s presumably harder to put off, say, open-heart surgery.)
Perhaps the most reassuring sign is the resurgence of the industrial sector. (To be sure, this is a bit of a catchall category, including obvious candidates like giant-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar (CAT) — and less obvious ones, such as apparel maker Under Armour (UA).) Perhaps the presence of so many manufacturing, transportation, and equipment companies suggests that our economy is slowly heading in a good direction.
THE STREAKS: FINDING THE CAL RIPKIN OF GROWTH
Which companies appear on the list again and again?
It’s impressive to have a scintillating year. But topping yourself time after time? Few can manage that. The latest iron man has been Apple, which made the list for a seventh straight year, the longest current streak and particularly impressive given that it’s a whale compared with the minnows that mostly fill this list.
Apple isn’t the only company extending its streak. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) made its fifth straight showing. Priceline.com (PCLN) and Catamaran (CTRX), a pharmacy benefits manager, turned up for the fourth year in a row. Some past stalwarts include Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) (2007 to 2012), Steel Dynamics (STLD) (2004 to 2008), and Penn National Gaming (PENN) (2001 to 2005, and 2007).
There can be only one champ, however, and no company has shown more staying power than Cognizant Technology (CTSH). The IT-services provider fell off this year’s list after 10 consecutive appearances. Hey, even Cal Ripken’s streak had to come to an end.
THE NON-U.S. PLAYERS: EXPANDING THE GLOBE
The list itself has matured, reflecting the rise of new markets.
Until 2009 the Fastest-Growing list excluded entities incorporated outside the U.S. Since our decision to consider foreign companies, as long as they trade on a U.S. exchange, an average of 20 non-American companies have made the list. In fact, a nondomestic enterprise has held the No. 1 spot each year since 2009. This year it’s Dublin-based Jazz Pharmaceuticals (JAZZ).
As you might expect, the foreign companies that made the cut in recent years have predominantly come from the (till recently) scalding-hot emerging markets, such as China. Also, with energy and mining companies leading the way, Canadian companies have made strong showings; this year that country took the crown for most non-U.S. companies on the list.
This story is from the September 16, 2013 issue of Fortune.