Business Update with Mark Lacter

El Segundo company named fastest-growing in the U.S.

When you look at fast growing private companies in the U.S., you need look no further than a small city next to Los Angeles International Airport.

Steve Julian: Business analyst Mark Lacter, tell us about the company that's based in El Segundo.

Mark Lacter: It's called Fuhu, Steve - that might ring a bell with some parents because Fuhu is the maker of the Nabi.  The Nabi is an Android tablet for kids, and it's a very cool device that mimics a lot of the capabilities of regular tablet, including the ability to play games and get onto the Web (with controls that parents are able to set up).  Last year, they sold 1.2 million Nabis, and that helped push the El Segundo company to the very top of Inc. magazine's list of fastest-growing businesses.  That's number one on a list of 5,000 companies, with a three-year growth rate of 42,148 percent.  Or, to put it another way, company revenue was $279,000 in 2009; it was almost $118 million in 2012.  Now, by the standards of an Apple or a Samsung, those are still not huge numbers -

Julian: - and maybe that explains why there's been relatively little media coverage of this company.

Lacter: It might also explain why local tech companies in general get short shrift.  Many of them are quite successful, but they're often on the small side, and they're also privately held as opposed to publicly-traded on a stock exchange.  That's one big difference from Silicon Valley, which has so many huge public corporations: Apple, Intel, HP.  L.A. County has only six Fortune 500 companies, and not a single one devoted solely to technology.  In Silicon Valley, there are 22 in the Fortune 500.

Julian: And yet, the L.A. economy has more than held its own without those large corporations.

Lacter: Matter of fact, the accounting firm PriceWaterhouse studied more than two dozen cities around the world to determine where it was easiest to do business (that's based on factors like access to labor), and what they found - somewhat surprisingly - was that L.A. ranked ahead of both San Francisco and Tokyo.  And, you can see evidence of that with the increase in venture capital money coming into all parts of L.A.  Now, it's important to keep an eye on all these up-and-coming companies because these businesses are helping generate higher-wage jobs.  And, for an area with a still-high unemployment rate - still over 10 percent in some places -- that's a big deal.

Julian: Speaking of companies, does anyone want to buy the L.A. Times?

Lacter: The answer is yes - most recently, the controlling owner of the Dodgers, Mark Walter, said he was interested in both the Times and the Chicago Tribune (though there's no way to know whether there are actual discussions taking place).  You also have several local groups, including one that involves billionaire Eli Broad, that have been interested to one degree or another.  But what was thought would be a fairly straightforward auction process has turned enormously complicated.  It's now to the point where the Tribune board has decided spin off the papers into a separate business, and that process will take until next year to complete and could preclude any sales for quite some time after that.

Julian: So, it's Limbo-land for the Times for who knows how long.

Lacter: Steve, it's not that Tribune really wants to keep the newspapers.  But, selling them off presents huge tax implications.  Also, there are assets that the potential buyers thought would be part of the package - assets that include real estate - that Tribune wants to hold onto.  So, what's left to sell are just the newspapers themselves, and frankly, they're among the least valuable properties.

Julian: Now, last week came word that the billionaire Koch brothers, who were believed to be interested in the Tribune properties, decided not to pursue a deal...

Lacter: ...that's right, they don't consider the Times or the other dailies to be economically viable.  You might recall a bit of an outcry over the prospect of having the Kochs, who are staunch conservatives, becoming the owners of these papers.  So, they're out of the picture.  But for the L.A. Times, it's really the worst of all worlds: no new owner and no vision for recasting the paper, at least in the near term.

Mark Lacter writes for Los Angeles Magazine and pens the business blog at LA Observed.com.


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