Electrical Wholesaling ranks the largest U.S. electrical distributors.

The big story to come out of this year's "The 250 Biggest" (based on 1998 sales) reads like no story at all. It reads, in fact, much the same as the account last year.

*Acquisitions of big electrical distributor companies continue, although at a slower pace than in 1997.

*For the most part, those doing the acquiring tend to be other big electrical distributors on the list.

The ranks of specialized electrical distributors (those concentrating in wire and cable, lighting, utility products, automation and control, etc.) on the list continue to grow.

*The acquisition activity changed the roster of the 250, but it had essentially no impact on the structure of the electrical wholesaling industry. The market share figure for these 250 firms (as well as for each of the categories Electrical Wholesaling divides the group into) remained exactly the same in 1998 as in 1997.

The 250 firms listed this year on Electrical Wholesaling's ranking of the largest electrical distributors did around $32.0 billion in electrical product sales in 1998. Together, they accounted for around 44% of the industry's business, based on electrical wholesaling industry sales estimated at around $72.3 billion for the year 1998.

The four national chains--Consolidated Electrical Distributors, Inc., Westlake Village, Calif.; GE Supply Co., Shelton, Conn.; Graybar Electric Co., St. Louis, Mo.; and WESCO Distribution, Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa.--probably approached $10.8 billion in combined sales volume, or around 15% of industry sales in 1998. The market share among this group appears to have held steady in 1998.

In total, the 250 firms listed here employ 74,633 people in electrical wholesale operations. That figure includes data on several companies whose number of employees was estimated through internal or industry sources. Among them, they run 4,466 electrical supply locations.

The majority of firms on the list favor doing business as chains, whether national in scope or confined to a state or a region (three or more contiguous states). Multi-regional chains, of which Electrical Wholesaling has identified ten, sprawl past one region's boundaries into several geographic areas. In all, 160 firms on the list (including specialists) operate as chains, running five or more houses. Some of these chain distributors run far-flung operations, like CLS, Hartford, Conn., with branches in New England and also in Ohio, Michigan, Texas and California.

After the chains in number come the 57 multi-branch companies with two to four houses in a more or less local market; the 13 largest single-house firms on the list; and the 51 specialty distributors, such as wire and cable distributors and lighting specialists that now make up 20% of the 250 Biggest.

To qualify for a spot on the 250 Biggest this year, a firm had to have $24 million or more in electrical product sales for 1998 at wholesale. That includes sales of products a typical electrical distributor handles, such as lighting fixtures sold at retail in a lighting showroom and voice/data communication products. It does, however, exclude revenues from motor repair, plumbing supplies, mill supplies and the like. This year's cutoff moved up over the previous year's $23 million.

The firms in the listing rank by dollar sales volume insofar as possible. To place a firm on the list, we estimate its sales if the distributor did not provide it, using publicly available information and our own records of comparable company and geographic area data. Both full-line and specialized electrical distributors qualify for ranking, as do companies that have multiple types of businesses.

Based on the 160 distributors furnishing a sales volume and an employee count for this listing, the median sales per employee for this group moved up to $411,000. That figure marks a new high, up from 1997's $392,000, 1996's $371,000, 1995's $363,000 and 1994's $343,000.

The 250 Biggest provides an overview of activity among the companies at the top of the electrical distribution industry. It also serves as a guide to the entire industry's size and structure. Most important in this time of industry change, it provides a reality check on the status of the electrical distribution industry's consolidation. The business remains highly fragmented, with very slow movement toward consolidation.