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Help:Exploring a company's external relationships

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Exploring a company's external relationships is a research guide. See the other research guides
Series: How to research U.S. corporations
Main page:
Subpages:
  1. Sources for basic corporate profiles
  2. Exploring a company's external relationships
  3. Analyzing a company's social responsibility record

This page focuses on ways in which one can research and examine a U.S. company's external relationships, such as those who buy a firm’s products, those who invest in a company and those who lend it money.

Parent company/subsidiaries

If you are researching a large company, there is a good chance that it has subsidiaries or is itself a subsidiary of a larger corporation. This is vital information for any campaign.

An indication of where a particular company fits into a corporate hierarchy may be obtained from sources such as Hoover’s (hoovers.com) or Dun & Bradstreet (dnb.com/us); public companies must provide a list of subsidiaries in their 10-K. These lists are included in the Mergent Manuals (see above). Keep in mind that the fact that a company is publicly traded does not mean that it is an ultimate parent company. It is not uncommon for large companies to make a public offering of stock in a subsidiary while retaining a majority of the shares.

The most complete data on corporate family trees can be found in a publication called the Directory of Corporate Affiliations (www.corporateaffiliations.com), which covers public and larger private companies. It is published in print form by the Lexis-Nexis Group, which also makes the information available on its online service or via subscription or credit card on the web. Dun & Bradstreet publishes a similar work called America’s Corporate Families, which is available online as Who Owns Whom (library.dialog.com/bluesheets/html/bl0522.html) on the Dialog database service.

Outside directors

Outside directors – i.e., those who are not are not members of management – are supposed to serve as watchdogs, protecting the interests of shareholders against transgressions by executives of the company. As the scandals involving Enron, WorldCom and other companies have shown, outside directors often look the other way or are oblivious to accounting and other forms of fraud.

Nevertheless, board members are ultimately responsible for the actions and policies of a company, so it is perfectly legitimate to put pressure on them when a company is trying to bust a union or otherwise act in a socially irresponsible manner.

As noted above, a publicly traded company’s proxy statement is the best source of information about directors, including their stock ownership, their compensation for serving on the board and their other affiliations. Proxy statements are not always complete when it comes to listing other affiliations (especially when they involve privately held companies or non-profits), so it is worth the effort to check other sources such as the following:

The website of Forbes magazine (forbes.com) has a feature called People Tracker (forbes.com/cms/template/peopletracker) that allows you to search for an individual’s corporate affiliations (as well as listings on the Forbes lists of rich people).

To find references to individuals in SEC filings, use full-text search services such as 10K Wizard (10kwizard.com).

The Dun & Bradstreet Library on Lexis-Nexis has a file called EXAFFL that allows you to search for an individual’s affiliations with public and private companies. Westlaw has a similar database called Executive Affiliation (see online).

Who’s Who in America (marquiswhoswho.com/products/WAprodinfo.asp), available in print form in libraries or online via Dialog, Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw, provides biographical information on thousands of prominent individuals. Keep in mind that the information is supplied by the subject, so there may be omissions or embellishments. Standard & Poor’s Register (library.dialog.com/bluesheets/html/bl0527.html), also available in libraries or on Dialog, Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw, provides affiliation information for executives and directors. The Social Register, available in larger reference libraries, has information on socially prominent persons. One way of tracking down articles on better known directors is to use the Wilson Biographical Index, which can be found in most libraries.

If the director you are researching is a well-connected member of the power elite, also try plugging his or her name into a search engine called Namebase that contains an index of references to people in hundreds of books, articles and reports about big business, corporate crime, the intelligence agencies, the federal government, etc.

Institutional shareholders

Most big publicly traded companies are no longer controlled by individuals or families; instead, the largest portion of their stock is held by entities known as institutional shareholders. They include pension funds, university endowments and various categories of investment managers. These institutions wield enormous power in the stock market, so it is standard procedure to engage these investors in corporate campaigns. Sometimes the institutions can be allies, especially Taft-Hartley pension funds (those in which unions play a role in managing) or public employee pension funds (which are often susceptible to political influence). Many of these funds, as well as giants such as TIAA-CREF (the pension fund for many academics and employees of non-profits) (tiaa-cref.org), may be sympathetic to campaigns that raise some issue of social responsibility.

Dealing with institutional investors is a complicated process that you should not undertake without consulting shareholder activism specialists at groups such as the following:

Before engaging institutional investors, you need to know which ones have significant holdings in your target company. You can get a free list of the top ten on several websites, including Yahoo Finance (enter the stock symbol, hit enter, then click on Major Holders) (finance.yahoo.com).

If you have access to Lexis-Nexis, you can get a longer list in the Vickers Securities file in the Company library. However, to get the most complete data, you need to subscribe directly to services provided by Vickers or Thomson Financial. These products include a complete list of institutional holders plus an indication of whether the institution has voting authority for all or some of the shares. The Thomson service is more expensive, while Vickers has introduced subscriptions with unlimited usage for a flat monthly fee.

Wall street analysts and their reports

Like outside directors, Wall Street analysts (who are employed by brokerage houses and investment banks) are a category of corporate watchdog that has turned out to be toothless. Corporate scandals of recent years have featured cases in which analysts promoted dubious stocks to pump up initial public offerings handled by their employer—or else to expand their employer’s investment banking business.

The reputation of analysts may have been tarnished, but they remain important influences on the way in which companies are regarded by the market. For this reason, corporate campaigners continue to spend time communicating with analysts, making sure they aware of pertinent facts about the target company.

It is thus useful to know how to find out which analysts follow a particular company. The standard source for this information is a publication called Nelson’s Directory of Investment Research (nelsoninformation.com), which is available in print form in reference libraries and online via Lexis-Nexis (lexisnexis.com).

In addition to knowing which analysts cover a company, it is useful to read what they have written about your target company. At one time, brokerage houses used to give away analyst reports for free. Today, if you are not a major customer, you have to purchase access to these documents through an online service. The most extensive of these is Investext (research.thomsonib.com), which is available by direct subscription (as part of the Thomson Research or via Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw (whose versions may not be quite as comprehensive).

Analyst reports are also available through at the Reuters website (reuters.com), where you can buy individual reports using a credit card.

Creditors

Borrowing money is one of the ways in which companies obtain the funds needed to build new facilities or buy other companies. Corporations may borrow from a single lender, from a group of lenders that form a syndicate to provide a large loan, or by issuing bonds or other debt securities. Corporate campaigns often focus on the role of major creditors, making an issue, for example, of the fact that a bank is lending money to a union-busting employer. The bank then becomes a secondary target of the campaign.

Publicly traded companies, which have to disclose the size of their debt, often (but not always) reveal which banks it is borrowing from. In many cases this is disclosed only by including a copy of the credit agreement in the exhibits to the company’s 10-K filing. Dun & Bradstreet (dnb.com) often includes the name of a company’s primary bank in its information products. There are also several specialized newsletters (such as the Bank Loan Report, which is included in Nexis) that track bank lending to large companies.

Bondholder information is harder to come by than institutional shareholder data. The Vickers Securities file on Lexis-Nexis (see above) has a limited amount of data on bond holdings by various types of institutions. The one group of institutional investors that have to disclosed detailed bond holdings are insurance companies. This information appears in the Annual Statements that carriers have to file with state insurance departments.

UCC filings

Another source of information on creditors, especially for smaller companies, are Uniform Commercial Code filings (UCCs). These are public lien documents that have to be filed when property is used as collateral on a loan. The UCCs indicate the names of the secured party (the lender) and the debtor (the borrower). UCC filings can be used when a company borrows from a bank or when it purchases equipment on credit.

UCC documents can usually be obtained from the same state office that is responsible for corporation filings (see above). They are also available on some official state websites or they can be purchased through services such as KnowX (knowx.com). The liens databases on Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw allows you to search the UCC databases of nearly all states at once.

Customers and suppliers

Companies are usually quite resistant to disclosing the names of their largest customers or suppliers. Publicly traded corporations have to reveal this information in their 10-K filing only if the company is heavily dependent on a small number of customers or suppliers, since that is a significant risk factor that investors need to know about. However, smaller companies may list the larger firms they do business with in order to impress investors.

For this reason, useful information about your target company’s customer or suppliers may not come from the company’s own SEC filings but rather from those of other public companies it deals with. You would find this out by doing a full-text search of the entire EDGAR database (sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/webusers.htm) (see above) for references to your target company. One of the best search engines for doing this is the one on the 10K Wizard website (10kwizard.com).

Another approach is to take advantage of the fact that many companies will brag about their dealings with large companies on their websites and will often provide links to their major customers’ sites. Several of the major web search engines allow you to search for links to a particular site, so you can enter your target company’s domain names and see what links turn up.

If you want to know which companies supply a particular product, the best source is the Thomas Register (thomasnet.com), a guide to products manufactured in North America. The multi-volume work can be found in larger reference libraries or in limited form on the web.

Government contracts

Among a company’s customers, perhaps the more significant are government agencies, since a corporate campaign can demand that an anti-union or socially irresponsible firm not enjoy the privilege of doing business with the public sector.

States are beginning to put contract information online through the websites of procurement agencies. Otherwise, you can contact the relevant agency directly (and may be asked to file a freedom of information request). A subscription website called Onvia (onvia.com) provides data on state and local government procurement opportunities.

Information on federal contracts has traditionally been available through the Federal Procurement Data System, (fpds.gov) which is produced under the auspices of the General Services Administration (gsa.gov). You can also look for references to federal contract awards in the Commerce Business Daily (cbdnet.gpo.gov), which is searchable online. A more comprehensive and accessible online source of contract information was introduced by OMB Watch in October 2006. The site, Fedspending.org, provides details of individual awards as well as annual summaries of the activities of particular contractors, with the results grouped by parent company. It also has data on federal grants and loans to businesses as well as individuals.

Brand names, trademarks & advertising

Public companies usually mention their leading brands in the portion of the 10-K that describes the firm’s operations. For a comprehensive list of brand names and the companies that own them, consult reference works such as Brands and Their Companies (library.dialog.com/bluesheets/html/bl0116.html) which is published in print form by the Gale Group (galegroup.com) and is available electronically on the Dialog database service (dialog.com).

Information on company trademarks (as well as patents) can be found at the website of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (uspto.gov).

The leading reference works on advertising, known informally as the Red Books, are the Standard Directory of Advertisers and the Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies, both published by National Register Publishing (nationalregisterpub.com/). You can purchase online access to the books. For a list of the leading national advertisers, see Ad Age’s annual compilation (adage.com/datacenter/).

For information on which companies are sponsoring which events, see Sponsorship.com.

Market shares

The Gale Group (galegroup.com) publishes an annual volume called Market Share Reporter that collects data from trade journals and other sources on the rankings of the top companies in a large number of business sectors. It is available electronically in the Market Library of Lexis-Nexis.

Trade shows

Trade shows are events at which companies display their wares to customers and potential customers. They are thus useful for gathering intelligence about a company’s marketing plans. Some corporate campaigners also find them useful opportunities to put public pressure on a company. To learn about upcoming trade shows at which your target company may exhibit, try TSNN (tsnn.com)or ExhibitorNet (exhibitoronline.com).

Exports and imports

The best source of data on international shipment of goods is an expensive service called PIERS (Port Import/Export Reporting Services) (piers.com/), which is available online directly from the company or via Lexis-Nexis.

Articles and resources

Associate Managing Editor's note: This article is based on The Corporate Research Project with the permission of Philip Mattera, the project's director.

Related SourceWatch articles

Sources

External resources

  • Good Jobs First: Offers a variety of information on economic development subsidies and a research guide on the subject.

External articles