Photograph by Eric Risberg — AP
By John Kell
June 11, 2015

What does it take to rank among the Fortune 500’s most profitable companies? Tech giants, banks, and oil-and-gas producers all have outsized influence.

Among the top 10 most profitable companies, those three sectors are each represented by two corporations: Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) from tech; Wells Fargo (WFC) and J.P. Morgan (JPM) for the banking sector; and ExxonMobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) representing the energy industry.

In total, those ten firms reported nearly $210 billion in profits for 2014. Eight of the 10 reported annual bottom line increases from 2013’s levels. The laggards were Exxon Mobil and Chevron, both hurt by lower crude oil prices in the second half of last year.

Here are the Fortune 500’s biggest earners.


1. Apple

A selection of Apple Watches is seen in a specially made drawer at an Apple Store on April 10, 2015 in Palo Alto, California.
Photograph by Stephen Lam — Getty Images

Although Apple is the fifth-largest Fortune 500 company, the gadget maker reports higher annual profits than any other company. Earnings for Apple totaled $39.5 billion in 2014, a 6.7% increase from a year earlier. Much of the press attention for Apple has swirled around the company’s Apple Watch, but it’s the iPhone that by far remains the tech giant’s best-selling gadget. Results last year greatly benefited from the launch of two bigger-screened smartphones: the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.


2. Exxon Mobil

Photograph by Luke Sharrett — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Crude prices fell sharply in the second half of 2014, but Exxon Mobil’s earnings slipped only $60 million to $32.5 billion. That was good enough for second place in terms of profitability on the Fortune 500 list. Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson said the slim decline supported the oil-and-gas producer’s integrated business model, which combines upstream, downstream, and chemical businesses: “Our balanced portfolio uniquely positions Exxon Mobil to deliver superior results throughout the commodity price cycle,” Tillerson has said.


3. Wells Fargo

Courtesy of Wells Fargo Bank

Only two banks rank among the Fortune 500’s 10 most profitable companies, and Wells Fargo is the more profitable of the pair, even if J.P. Morgan recorded a more sizable increase in profit for 2014. Wells Fargo is also churning out pretty strong bottom-line gains: profit grew 5.4% to nearly $23.1 billion last year. A stronger economy helped the San Francisco-based bank report growing loans, deposits and a larger customer base.


4. Microsoft

Customers browse Microsoft Corp. Surface tablet computers at the company's store in Bellevue, Washington, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. Microsoft Corp. is scheduled to release earnings figures on April 23. Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Ryder — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like the banking sector, only two tech giants generate enough profits to rank among the most profitable firms on the Fortune 500. But unlike the relatively narrow gap between Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan, Microsoft’s 2014 profit trailed Apple by more than $17 billion. In total, Microsoft’s profit for 2014 was $22.1 billion, up just 1% from a year earlier. The big news for Microsoft last year wasn’t profits, but leadership. The software giant named Satya Nadella as CEO, only the third executive to lead the technology company in 40 years.


5. J.P. Morgan Chase

It was a year of records and reckoning for J.P. Morgan Chase. The bank's highest annual profit ever was tainted by the $6.2 billion "London Whale" trading loss on risky bets. The scandal also cut into CEO Jamie Dimon's bottom line when the board hit him with a 50% pay cut. But as Mr. Dimon likes to say: Life goes on. 2012 marked strong results across all of J.P. Morgan's units. Until interest rates finally rise from rock-bottom levels, however, the bank will continue to get pinched on the profit it makes off its loans.--T.Z.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York-based J.P. Morgan posted a pretty impressive comeback in 2014, after the prior year’s results were dragged down by a $7.2 billion charge to cover the costs of litigation and regulatory probes. That charge, which was recorded in the third quarter of 2013, resulted in a quarterly loss that was the first time the bank had failed to report a profit since 2004. 2014’s results looked a lot stronger in comparison, with profit jumping 21% to $21.8 billion. That’s the largest increase on a percentage basis among Fortune 500’s top ten most profitable firms.


6. Berkshire Hathaway

An image of Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, sits on display as shareholders tour the exhibition floor during the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., on Saturday, May 2, 2015. More than 40,000 people are expected Saturday at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, which marks Warren Buffett's 50th year running the company. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRK.A) overall profit grew just 2% to $19.9 billion, with results bolstered by the conglomerate’s huge and growing insurance operation as well as higher pre-tax earnings for the “Powerhouse Five” — a collection of Berkshire’s largest non-insurance firms, including Berkshire Hathaway Energy, railroad BNSF, and specialty chemicals manufacturer Lubrizol. If the U.S. economy keeps improving, Berkshire expects those five subsidiaries could post another $1 billion increase in profit, in part due to bolt-on acquisitions.


7. Chevron

Courtesy of Chevron

Unlike Exxon Mobil, fellow oil-and-gas producer Chevron posted a far steeper decline in profit, down 10% to $19.2 billion for 2014. Results were hurt by a sharp drop in crude oil prices, which resulted in particular weak profits for Chevron’s larger upstream business. The downstream business, however, improved and higher gains tied to asset sales helped offset the weak crude oil prices.


8. Walmart Stores

Customers shop at a Walmart.
Photograph by Gunnar Rathbun — Invision for Walmart

The largest company by revenue, Walmart (WMT) posted a slim 2% increase in profit, climbing to $19.2 billion, as the world’s biggest retailer added nearly 33 million square feet of retail space, with 511 net units globally. But Walmart made major waves earlier this year by announcing current and future associates would make at least $1.75 more than the minimum wage, implying pay of $9 per hour. And in early 2016, minimum salaries would rise to $10 per hour. The new wage structure is expected to hit Walmart’s operating income this year.


9. Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Johnson's brand baby oil bottles move through the production line at the J&J consumer healthcare products plant in Lititz, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Wednesday, June 18, 2014. Johnson & Johnson, the world's biggest health-care products company, beat expectations in its first-quarter earnings release in April and raised its 2014 forecast by focusing on new drugs and reducing its reliance on medical devices. J&J is expected to release second-quarter earnings figures on July 15. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Among the top 10 most profitable companies in the Fortune 500, drug maker Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) posted the second-largest profit growth in 2014 after J.P. Morgan. Profit increased 18% to $16.3 billion, bolstered by strong revenue growth for the company’s pharmaceuticals. New products to treat hepatitis C, type-2 diabetes and prostate cancer were among the treatments that helped lift sales. That growth helped offset sales declines for J&J’s medical devices and consumer items, which include baby and skin care products.


10. General Electric

Photograph by Kristopher Grunert

General Electric (GE) saw $15.2 billion in profit last year, an increase of nearly 17%. Almost every segment reported an increase in profit, led by stronger gains for oil and gas, aviation, and appliances and light. But GE’s largest business segment by both sales and profit — GE Capital — posted a 12% drop for the bottom line. This year, GE announced it would shed over four-fifths of its in-house bank over the next three years so it can focus on core industrial operations.

 

See the full Fortune 500 list at Fortune.com/Fortune500.

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