When we started compiling our annual Top Companies list in 1989, it consisted of 70 companies that earned just over $2.2 billion. To illustrate just how much Sarasota and Manatee businesses have grown since then, consider this: The 2005 top-grossing company made $2.8 billion all by itself.

In 2004, more than 140 locally based companies, grossing $10 million or more, made the list. This year, the bar was raised to $20 million in minimum gross revenue, and 108 local companies still qualified, collectively grossing more than $19.2 billion in revenues.

For the most part, the war in Iraq and contentious presidential elections have not hurt our economy. "Businesses are still being cautious about adding staff," says Kathy Baylis, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County. Over the past year, Unisource Administrators, VenVest, HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital and PPi Technologies have all expanded their facilities here.

Add to those success stories Benderson Development Company, which relocated 40 to 50 executive jobs and its headquarters from Buffalo, N.Y. to Manatee County, softening the blow of last year's departure of Tropicana's corporate headquarters to Chicago and the loss of 300 high-paying jobs.

Overall, 65 of this year's companies reported increases in revenues over last year's figures, on average 17 percent (although Homes by Towne, Neal Communities, Lee Wetherington and KHS Bartelt all reported increases of nearly 60 percent). Only 16 businesses posted decreases.

Real estate reported the biggest revenue gains, an average of 33 percent. Close behind were home building/construction (27 percent), retail (26 percent), insurance (22 percent) and manufacturing (19 percent). Last summer's spate of hurricanes aren't deterring new home buyers, and as rebuilding (and renovating older homes to withstand high winds) continues, look for that trend to continue into next year.

Home building/construction companies like Benderson, along with manufacturing companies, make up the bulk of the companies in Manatee County, but that may be changing as Lakewood Ranch continues to draw office tenants, many of them from south Tampa Bay. The corporate park has grown to nearly 40 businesses since it opened in 1997.

Meanwhile, niche companies remain important to the local economy. Consider Rectrix Aerodome, a new charter service that landed at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. Its nine elite pilots ferry affluent flyers across the country in 14 private jets. Then there's BioLife, a homegrown company just five years old whose Quick Relief wonder powder stops bleeding within 15 seconds of contact. Last year BioLife won the Governor's Award for Major Market Entrepreneurship. The company's revenues could reach $40 million over the next five years.

"The timing is right for us," says Benderson's Fineberg. Although the company sold a large chunk of its assets for $2.3 billion last year, it still maintains one of the Northeast's largest real estate portfolios and is rapidly expanding into Florida. "We're excited to be here," he says.

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