In Louisville, the Big 10 employ 10% of all workers, creating billions in wealth controlled by an increasingly powerful elite

City Hall
City Hall‘s tower. The 1873 building blends Italianate and Second Empire styles.

By Jim Hopkins
Boulevard Publisher

Boulevard isn’t promising news about every Louisville business. Instead, we’re aiming for the Big 10. They dominate the economy, employing more than 60,000 people — one of every 10, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worldwide, the figure is even greater: an enormous 1.9 million.

The single-largest, of course, is UPS’s Worldport hub at Louisville International Airport, with 22,000 employees — the biggest fully automated package handling facility in the world, according to UPS. Launched in 1982, it turns over approximately 130 aircraft daily, processing an average of 1.6 million packages a day.

This table shows the 10 Boulevard will write a lot about:

10 big employers graphic

For sure, there are other large private employers not on that list. Three huge hospitals — Norton Healthcare, KentuckyOne Health and Baptist Healthcare — have a combined 22,000 workers, according to the Greater Louisville Inc. chamber of commerce, which cites Business First data. But they’re all not-for-profits. Unlike the 10 companies on our list, they don’t have to release much information to the public, a key research tool for journalists, as I explain below.

Four of the Big 10 elevate the city’s profile nationally and globally as members of the prestigious Fortune fraternity: health insurer Humana, ranked No. 52 on the magazine’s 500 list; fast-food goliath Yum Brands, 218; and hospital and nursing giant Kindred Healthcare, 372. Brown-Forman, 702 on the magazine’s 1,000 list, is among the world’s 10 biggest spirits companies, selling its flagship Jack Daniel’s whiskey and other brands in 160 countries worldwide.

YumSome of the companies don’t have especially big workforces here, but are nonetheless important as big employers beyond the city. Plus, because they’re Louisville-based, they create high-paying corporate jobs in finance, research and development, marketing, and legal affairs. Steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse is a good example; it employs around 500 in Louisville, but another 48,000 in 49 states and five foreign countries.

Crucially, nine of the 10 are listed on U.S. stock exchanges, which means they publish quarterly financial reports and other Securities and Exchange Commission documents that open a window on internal operations. The 10th, GE Appliances owner Haier, trades on the more opaque Shanghai exchange.

The $12-billion Browns

Those documents are also a rich source of information about Louisville’s wealthiest and most powerful residents. Some are famous: Papa John’s founder John Schnatter owns well over $600 million in his company’s stock. Some aren’t: Texas Roadhouse founder Kent Taylor has $200 million.

And some are richer than our wildest dreams. The Brown family’s combined stake in Brown-Forman is worth more than $12.8 billion, ranking them the nation’s 20th wealthiest family, according to Forbes magazine. They’re sandwiched between the No. 19 Sacklers ($13 billion); their 20 family members’ fortune comes from the popular painkiller drug OxyContin. And at No. 21 and $12 billion, three Marshalls of Great Northern Oil Co. Seven Waltons of Walmart retained their No. 1 spot with $130 billion. 

We know much of this because the Big 10 disclose how much they pay more than 50 of their top executives each year, a roster I track in two spreadsheets — plus the value of their stockholdings. All told, Kentucky has an estimated 74,000 households with $1 million or more in investible assets, according to the Phoenix Global Wealth Monitor. That’s 4.2% of the state’s 1.7 million households. Almost certainly, a majority are in the Louisville and Lexington areas.

Wealth fuels influence
Ina Brown Bond

Many of Louisville’s richest shower money on the jewels of cultural institutions. To cite just one example, in 2013-2015, the W. L. Lyons Brown Foundation gave $1.5 million to the Speed Art Museum; $1.3 million to the Muhammad Ali Center, and $350,000 to Metro United Way, according to its public IRS tax returns. The foundation is run by Brown-Forman heiress Ina Brown Bond.

Bond is one of 10 directors of Glenview Trust Co., a boutique wealth manager in one of the city’s most exclusive enclaves, serving more than 500 of the commonwealth’s richest families and their $6.5 billion in stocks and other assets. The board of directors there is a who’s-who of the city’s behind-the-scenes power structure.

The richest also exert political muscle, donating millions to campaigns that tilt government, and to academia to influence higher education. Look at last year’s race for governor,  this year’s battle for GOP U.S. Senator Rand Paul‘s coveted seat, and the millions flowing into a Republican super PAC to take control of Kentucky’s House of Representatives from the Democrats. That’s why I watch the flow of money in politics.

Schnatter and Koch
Schnatter and Koch.

At U of L and UK, Papa John’s founder Schnatter has joined one of the nation’s most conservative and powerful billionaires, Charles Koch, to spend nearly $20 million in the past two years alone to launch campus free-enterprise institutes that could chill academic freedom there.

Economy now in hyperdrive

That’s creating opportunity, and uncertainty. Many of the Big 10 are at the heart of it, even as more of them slip further from local control. One of the largest and oldest, GE Appliances and 6,000 local workers, just got sold to China’s Haier for $5.6 billion. Aetna of Hartford is trying to buying Humana for $37 billion; founded in 1961, Humana has 12,500 employees in the city. Four more of the Big 10 have always been based out of state: Amazon in Seattle; Ford in Dearborn, Mich.; GE in Fairfield, Conn. (but soon, Boston), and UPS in Atlanta.

To be sure, some are staying put and adding on: Kindred bulked up last year after buying Atlanta hospice and home care company Gentiva Health Services for $1.8 billion, boosting total national employment 65%, to 102,000. It’s now building onto its headquarters at Broadway and Fourth to accommodate up to 500 more jobs.

BenRiach whiskey
Classic Speyside.

In June, Brown-Forman spent $405 million for Scotland’s BenRiach Distillery Co., returning to the single-malt whiskey business. In December, Ford announced a $1.3 billion expansion of its Kentucky Truck Plant, creating 2,000 more jobs on top of the current 9,000. UPS is investing another $300 million. One of its largest customers, Amazon, is another top local employer, with 6,000 workers. (And adding a wrinkle, the giant retailer is starting to act like a UPS competitor, too.)

About the Big 10

Here are Boulevard’s “about” pages with company histories, links to the latest Google News about each one, plus profiles on Glassdoor, LinkedIn and other resources.

  1. Amazon
  2. Brown-Forman
  3. Ford Motor
  4. GE Appliances and Haier
  5. Humana
  6. Kindred Healthcare
  7. Papa John’s
  8. Texas Roadhouse
  9. UPS
  10. Yum Brands