What I like about the Fortune 500 list

May 10, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

A closer look at this year’s 500 gives a number of handy snapshots of the current directions big business is taking.

The Fortune 500 isn’t made for light reading. But if you leaf through the list at random, the way I used to leaf through the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia when I was a kid, you come across all sorts of stuff that’s kind of fun. The 500 is based on U.S.-based companies’ publicly reported revenues, not on any quality-based metrics: You get high-grade companies like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (No. 7) nestled near utter dogs like Fannie Mae (No. 5). I found some of this year’s corporate comings and goings especially interesting. My favorites:

LeBron who? Last summer Cleveland sustained a psychic trauma when basketball star LeBron James dumped the Cavaliers and went to Miami. Now the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has gotten a little mojo back by adding a company to the Fortune 500: Cliffs Natural Resources. Cliffs, which is heavy into iron ore pellets, coal, and other industrial raw materials, doubled its revenue with the aid of acquisitions and leaped to No. 477 on this year’s list from No. 750 last year. It could have been better for Cleveland, though. The company used to be known as Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. but renamed itself in 2008, saying, “We’re no longer only a North American iron ore player.” LeBron-Cliffs, anyone?

Chrysler returns. The automaker fell off the list 13 years ago, when it was acquired by DaimlerBenz (later DaimlerChrysler) in what proved to be one of the worst corporate deals ever, right up there with Time Warner (TWX) (owner of Fortune’s publisher) selling itself to AOL in 2001. Daimler dumped Chrysler onto the Cerberus leveraged-buyout firm, which put up almost nothing but still overpaid. Chrysler went broke and is now run by Fiat; it is owned primarily by Fiat and a trust for Chrysler workers and retirees. It has no publicly traded stock. However, under terms of its federal bailout, it has to file financial reports with the SEC, so it’s list-eligible again. Welcome back, No. 59.

Enter the buyout boys. At No. 256, KKR is the first buyout firm to make the list, thanks to an accounting oddity that tripled its revenues from what they’d otherwise be, and because its move last year to the New York Stock Exchange from Guernsey means it now files financial reports with the SEC.

Exit Unisys. Enter Cognizant. These two information-technology firms are heading in opposite directions. Unisys was one of only 62 companies to have been on the 500 every year since Fortune started the list in 1955. But the company’s revenue dropped in 2010, and this year it’s fallen off the list, to No. 520. Meanwhile Cognizant, on Fortune’s fastest-growing companies list for a record eight straight years, has grown (No. 484) its way onto the 500 only three years after first making the Fortune 1,000. Cognizant, formed in 1994, is a creature of the offshoring world, with most of its development centers in India. Unisys, by contrast, was formed in 1986 by combining old-line computer companies Burroughs and Sperry.

Newspapers struggle. We’re down to one newspaper company (Gannett, No. 415) on the list, from five 10 years ago. Washington Post Co., which wasn’t on the 500 then, is now No. 470. However, it declared itself “a diversified education and media company” in 2007 because its (now troubled) Kaplan education business has been growing like mad as newspapers shrink. Print just can’t catch a break.

Finally Buffett. His Berkshire Hathaway cracked the top 10 in revenue and profits for the first time because last year it bought the 78% of Burlington Northern that it didn’t already own. As part of that deal, Buffett split Berkshire Hathaway’s B shares 50 for 1. That got it listed on the S&P 500 index, forcing index investors to buy it, and running up its price. So I decided it was time to sell half my Berkshire stake, held in an IRA, into the run-up. The stock’s since risen 10%. Oh, well. Yet another example of why he’s Warren Buffett and I write for a living.

More from the 2011 Fortune 500:

Top 50

Apple’s all-star team

They’re hiring!

20 most profitable

Best big companies to work for

Biggest Tweeters

Baller and shot-caller CEOs