We all know the phrase “too big to fail.” Perhaps we should add “too fast to be stopped.” For this, the 30th edition of Fortune’s list of Fastest-Growing Companies—which reveals the top three-year performers in revenues, profits, and stock returns—there’s a surprise. Routinely dominated by tech companies, with energy enterprises enjoying periods of ascendancy, the roster now reflects the rise of small banks and other financial institutions; 28 appear on this year’s list. The behemoth banks have sometimes been vilified by protesters or scorned by politicians. But here’s a different kind of response, as customer-focused competitors rise up. Such rejuvenation is crucial for the economy, and this list captures the revitalizing moment when corporate buds turn into flowers.
The past few years have seen dramatic reversals in the roster of smoking-hot companies. Oil and gas players, which rode the fracking boom to utter dominance, have vanished, while financial entities have rebounded from wipeouts in 2008–09 and claimed the crown as the top industry.
Almost as striking as the number of financial companies (mostly banks, but also insurers and a few real estate firms) on this year’s list is their geographic dispersal. Only two are based in the nation’s money capital, New York, with three or more each in such states as Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas.
No surprise that California is home to the greatest number of companies on our list (19). But more of the enterprises are located in the southern part of the state than in the north. Does that reflect “unicorns” in Silicon Valley choosing not to go public—or is SoCal not getting the respect it deserves as an entrepreneurial hotbed?
Fortune’s annual assemblage of rapidly ascending enterprises has always been based on a methodology that seeks to eliminate flashes in the pan. We don’t want to spotlight an outfit that lucks into one jackpot year, so we examine three-year performance in revenues, profits per share, and stock return. This year we also decided to spotlight one subset of that elite group: those that had the best 12-month record by the same three metrics. At left are the results. They reveal virtue, good timing—and, yes, sometimes a bit of luck too. The companies are a microcosm of our broader collection, with three financial entities (two of them community banks) representing the largest category, the dominant social media powerhouse (Facebook), and Chinese companies in gaming and education. There’s an outfit, Dycom (DY), that lays fiber-optic cable for the likes of AT&T and Verizon (VZ), and even Patrick Industries (PATK), which supplies parts to RV makers. (You might not consider that a hot industry until you ponder how many baby boomers have reached retirement and are taking to the Interstate.) One of the companies wouldn’t have made this grouping were it not for a blessing from the tax man. Ligand Pharmaceuticals generated $27 million in operating income, then was able to apply a $219 million tax benefit (the result of carrying forward net operating losses from the past). All in, Ligand’s $257 million in net earnings easily topped its $72 million in revenues. Companies with more profits than sales? Now that would be an exclusive list.
A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “100 Fastest-Growing Companies.”