California Forum

It’s California’s second richest company, but you probably haven’t heard of it

Medical bottles baring tracking codes are shown in a McKesson distribution center. Headquartered in San Francisco, McKesson is California’s second richest company behind Apple, but has a much lower profile.
Medical bottles baring tracking codes are shown in a McKesson distribution center. Headquartered in San Francisco, McKesson is California’s second richest company behind Apple, but has a much lower profile. AP file

California is so big that you can be a huge corporation – and still hide here.

For example, here’s a question that stumps even Californians who know the state well: What’s the second-richest company in California after Apple?

The answer: McKesson.

Never heard of it? You’re not alone. McKesson is “a massive corporation hiding in plain sight,” Fortune wrote recently. Its headquarters hides in a conspicuous place – at Post and Market Streets in San Francisco. That a company can be both so big and so unknown shows how the tech sector has warped Californians’ sense of what matters in business.

McKesson is not only California’s second-largest company, with nearly $200 billion in annual revenues, but also the fifth-largest company in America. A massive health care middleman, McKesson distributes pharmaceuticals and other supplies from manufacturers to doctors and hospitals.

This is an unsexy, low-margin business, which is why, despite its massive revenues and reach, McKesson’s market cap of $32 billion badly lags Apple ($772 billion) and Facebook ($542 billion).

And while other California giants dominate the headlines, McKesson almost never makes state news.

When I called McKesson to say I was writing a column about the company, the polite executive who called back seemed puzzled about my interest. And on recent visits to McKesson Plaza, outside headquarters, I encountered two sets of protestors – one opposing Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has offices in the building, and the other supporting higher wages for janitors who work there. Not one protestor, however, knew anything about McKesson.

This is unsurprising. McKesson, already ubiquitous, hasn’t put great efforts into branding that startups do. McKesson also is one of the country’s oldest companies – a longevity worth studying in a state that worships high-flying tech startups.

McKesson began in 1833, when an entrepreneur named John McKesson opened a drug import and wholesale business in Manhattan. It pioneered the development of gelatin-coated pills in the 1870s, and by the 1900s, had created a nationwide distribution network for medicines, chemicals, and liquor. McKesson became a California company through its 1967 merger with Foremost, a food-centric conglomerate co-founded by retailer J.C. Penney. Beginning in the 1980s, the company refocused on health, acquiring businesses that distributed health-related products.

That devotion to health care, in an aging country, has paid off. A company that had less than $20 billion in annual revenues two decades ago is now pushing $200 billion. The company has burrowed itself into every corner of health care, but the heart of the operation remains its distribution centers, a system that rivals Amazon’s in in revenues.

Of course, McKesson is not just a logistics company. It’s also a technology firm that uses advanced health data and analytics with the stated goal of making all kinds of health care systems – from those that get you prescriptions, to those that allow you to pay your bill – more efficient.

When McKesson draws critical notice, it’s usually because something has gone wrong in American health, which means the ubiquitous McKesson bears some piece of the blame. The most recent example involves opioids. While most criticism has gone to drug manufactures, doctors and pharmacists, McKesson and other distributors have faced media scrutiny and government fines for not effectively tracking suspiciously high orders of opioids to certain parts of the country.

But in today’s California, McKesson is mostly noteworthy among our richest companies for sins it has not committed.

McKesson does not keep us glued to screens, and ignoring our loved ones. It does not spread hate through social media. It did not help the Russians steal the 2016 presidential election. It also hasn’t whined about the California business climate, threatened to leave the state, or forced San Francisco to give it massive tax breaks, as Twitter did.

There’s something to be said for a California-based business so predictably corporate in this, our era of disruption.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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