A Pack Of Hard Chargers

With the U.S. stock market barreling into record territory and with the economy still on a growth streak, much of Corporate America logged a pretty good year. But what did it take to get to the head of the class? The BUSINESS WEEK 50 will bring you the answer.

This is our third annual ranking of the U.S. corporate elite. Once again, it goes beyond approaches that rank by sheer revenue size or shareholder returns alone. We put companies to much tougher tests: above-average growth, along with top-flight profits and market returns.

The companies that made the cut this year are remarkable indeed. As a group, their CEOs refused to leave well enough alone, tearing up proven models in their quest for better results. The challenges they faced were often daunting, from collapsing markets abroad to fierce price competition and rivals consolidating at home.

We're proud of how our list has consistently captured the hardest chargers. The 50 we identified last year as the brightest stars among the 500 companies in the Standard & Poor's Index had share price gains of 31.7% for the 52 weeks ended Mar. 12. By comparison, the S&P 500 gained 21.1% over the same period.

As in past years, our choices mirror the dynamism of the American economy. America's technology leaders, such as Microsoft and Dell Computer, retained their top spots in the rankings. But there are plenty of newcomers, including such well-known names as Ford, Wal-Mart Stores, and America Online. You can read their success stories inside in a package prepared by Senior Editor Jane Sasseen and her team.

You will also find a comprehensive package of tables. We grade all the companies in the S&P 500 by our methodology. We also break out performance data for individual companies and industries among the 500. If you're hungry for more, log on to our Web site (www.businessweek.com). There you'll find links to an in-depth Company Profile from S&P PersonalWealth for each company in the BW 50. This year, we've included extended interviews with some of our top CEOs, who can tell you how they beat the pack. And for investors, we'll regularly update the market performance of the BW 50.

Abrupt change is what business is all about in the 1990s; it's likely to be even more so in the 21st century. Our list is designed to recognize those who have triumphed in these turbulent times. We think there are many valuable lessons in the pages of this year's special. We hope you'll profit from them.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.