Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

Company Research

This guide identifies sources for basic business and company information, but not specific resources for broad business disciplines such as accounting, marketing or management.

Determining Company Status: Public v. Private

Determining the status of a company is the most important part of conducting company research. Public and private companies differ considerably in the availability of information about their operations, therefore you should have a basic understanding of their differences.

a. Publicly Traded Companies

Publicly traded companies sell stock to the general public on one of the major stock exchanges. Anyone who purchases stock in a company owns part of that company. As a result, the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) requires public companies to disclose financial and other information to their owners, so that investors can determine for themselves if their company's securities are a good investment. This makes researching public companies much easier than private companies.

b. Private/Closely Held Companies

Privately or closely held businesses, are those for which there is no public ownership of its shares or assets. Although closely held businesses tend to be small, family owned or jointly owned by a small group of people, they can also be large or wholly owned subsidiaries of major publicly traded companies. It should be kept in mind that the majority of businesses in the United States are private. Because privately held companies do not sell shares to the public, they are not required by law to report financial information to the SEC. As a result, it is more difficult to locate detailed information about a private company's operations.

c. Subsidiaries

A subsidiary is a distinctly separate firm controlled by a parent company. A subsidiary is referred to as "wholly owned" when 100% of its stock is owned by its parent company. Large publicly held multi-national companies often own dozens of smaller privately owned subsidiaries for which financial information is filed under the name of the parent company. As a result, having knowledge of whether a private firm is a subsidiary of a public corporation is extremely important when looking for company information.

For example:
Travelscape, Inc., a leading merchant of hotel rooms, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Expedia, Inc., which is a wholly owned subsidiary of InterActiveCorp, a publicly owned media conglomerate that owns Home Shopping Network, USA Networks and Ticketmaster.