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Top local business stories of the year [Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.]

By John Reid Blackwell, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dec. 31--Good news rose to the top of the list that Richmond Times-Dispatch readers selected as the top business news stories of the year.

Health Diagnostic Laboratory expands

At a time when many companies are reluctant to expand or are even cutting back on jobs, Health Diagnostic Laboratory was one of the bright lights of the Richmond-area economy in 2012.

The company, which started in 2009 with just a handful of employees in a small office in the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park, surpassed 600 employees in 2012 and expects to grow more in 2013.

HDL provides diagnostic testing to detect early risk factors for such conditions as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and it provides patient counseling to prevent those conditions. The company's growth has been linked to rising demand for preventative health measures.

In March, construction crews started to tear down the BioTech 3 building in the research park in downtown Richmond to make way for HDL's multimillion dollar expansion that includes building two six-story buildings.

By December, the first building was well under way; plans are to start the second in 2013.

"Our sign is up on the building," said Tonya Mallory, the company's co-founder, president and chief executive officer. "Now, when you come into downtown off of (Interstate) 64 onto Fifth Street, you can see the HDL sign. It is kind of exciting because it changes the skyline coming into town from the airport."

The $68.5 million expansion represents the second-largest investment in the 17-year-old park's history, behind Altria Group Inc.'s$350 million research center.

In 2012, HDL also expanded internationally, with a sales organization in London. "We are going to grow that business and next year we will be determining whether or not we will put bricks-and-mortar over there," Mallory said.

Amazon opens fulfillment centers

Seattle-based online retailer announced a year ago that it had selected central Virginia for two massive fulfillment centers to ship products to its customers.

It was one of Virginia's largest economic development announcements in years.

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Construction on each of the 1 million-square-foot centers in Chesterfield and Dinwiddie counties proceeded at a fast pace through most of 2012.

"It was a wooded area," at the start of 2012, said Will Davis, Chesterfield's economic development director. "Ten months later, we had a million-square-feet, fully functioning fulfillment center" in the Meadowville Technology Park.

By early October, the distribution centers shipped their first products. By the time the holiday shopping season came around, the two centers employed a combined total of more than 1,000 full-time and seasonal workers.

"It's a shot in the arm for the local economy," said Morgan Ingram, economic development manager for Dinwiddie.

"We have definitely had a lot more prospect activity," she said, just because of the name recognition of Amazon.

Amazon's decision to open the distribution centers in Virginia also set off a massive lobbying effort by many of the state's traditional, brick-and-mortar retailers, who pushed state lawmakers to require online businesses to remit state sales taxes on purchases made by Virginia residents.

In February, the General Assembly passed a compromise measure under which Amazon would start collecting and remitting sales taxes in Virginia beginning Sept. 1.

Warren Buffett buys newspapers

Richmond-based Media General Inc. sold the Richmond Times-Dispatch and 62 other publications in the Southeast to Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the investment company managed by billionaire Warren Buffett, for $142 million.

That deal, which was completed in late June, was just one of a handful of newspaper acquisitions for Berkshire Hathaway at a time when the print media industry nationwide continued to face declining advertising revenue.

Buffett, a former newspaper delivery boy, said in an interview with The Times-Dispatch in May that he strongly believes in the future of small-town and regional newspapers in communities that care deeply about local issues. Yet, he said, the business model must evolve to adapt to changing technology and consumer habits.

BRAMCO & Prudential: An Alliance For Life

"Newspapers will be around," Buffett said. "It won't be like the old days, but they will be around."

The sale of the newspapers was a difficult one for J. Stewart Bryan III, whose family started Media General and has been in the newspaper business for 125 years. After the sale of its newspapers, Media General became purely a television broadcasting and digital media company.

"It is a very bittersweet day," Bryan said when the deal was announced in May. "My head says well done, while my heart is crying."

Allen Meade Ferguson awaits sentencing

Allen Meade Ferguson, a prominent Richmond resident and longtime philanthropist, faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 15 by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson.

The former head of the Craigie Inc. investment firm, Ferguson pleaded guilty Nov. 14 to charges of mail fraud and money laundering. He was 75 at the time.

Ferguson, in a statement then, said he deeply regretted his conduct and apologized to banks for his actions and to his family for disappointing them.

He was formally charged Oct. 22 in criminal information alleging that he claimed non-existent assets to obtain bank loans.

Ferguson, in a statement of facts, admitted that he lied on personal financial statements submitted to banks from 2006 through 2009, claiming he had $1 million in deferred compensation and $2 million in Virginia tax-free bonds.

Prosecutors said he knew he had no deferred compensation since 1998 and had not owned $2 million in tax-free bonds since at least January 2009.

Relying on information supplied by him, Wachovia Bank gave Ferguson a $655,000 loan at the end of January 2009.

He and his wife, Mary Rutherfoord Mercer Ferguson, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in March 2011 and converted the case to a Chapter 7 liquidation in June 2011.

The couple listed liabilities of $6.77 million and assets worth $2.46 million in their bankruptcy filings.

Her father founded Mercer Rug Cleansing in Richmond in 1936 and she was the president and sole stockholder. Hadeed Carpet of Alexandria bought the rug-cleaning business for $1.265 million at auction in December 2011.

BRAMCO & Prudential: An Alliance For Life

Their house on Three Chopt Road in Richmond'sWest End was sold in a short sale and an estate in Rockbridge County was sold this year in a foreclosure. Estate sales at both properties were held and artwork was sold separately.

"The trustee is gathering the proceeds from the estate and art sales," said Roy M. Terry Jr. of the Sands Anderson law firm, who is representing the couple in their bankruptcy.

"The bottom line is the banks have recovered a substantial amount of what is owed them through the sale of corporate assets, which includes commercial real estate and the Mercer Rug company," Terry said.

"The Fergusons voluntarily initiated the corporate bankruptcies which brought about those payments to the banks."

Change of leadership at Altria

After four years as chairman and chief executive officer of Altria Group Inc., Michael E. Szymanczyk retired in May as the top executive for the nation's largest tobacco company and one of the Richmond area's top employers.

Szymanczyk had previously served 12 years as president and CEO of its Philip Morris USA subsidiary.

Stepping into the top leadership role for Henrico County-based Altria was Martin J. Barrington, a 58-year-old former Hunton & Williams law firm partner who joined Philip Morris in 1993.

Szymanczyk's tenure at Altria and Philip Morris USA was a time of great change for the company, as it moved its headquarters from New York City to Henrico County and consolidated its cigarette manufacturing in the Richmond region. It also expanded its tobacco portfolio with acquisitions of smokeless tobacco and cigar businesses.

At the same time, the company was adjusting to a new reality as the U.S. tobacco industry became regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

"Basically, they had to transition into a new company that was going to be somewhat regulated, and at the same time be able to grow earnings and cash flow going into the future," said Steve Marascia, a research analyst for Capitol Securities Management in Henrico.

"I think he was successful," Marascia said of Szymanczyk. "Earnings have increased every year since he has been running the company. They have been raising dividends and the stock price has appreciated as well."

For Barrington, the challenges include continuing to steer the company through an ocean of smoking-related lawsuits while also managing its business under FDA regulation.

"More importantly, he has got to find a way to transition the company during a period when U.S .cigarette consumption is declining about 4 percent a year," Marascia said. While they are cutting costs to counter the decline in cigarette revenues, you can only cut costs for so long. The question then becomes how they are going to grow revenues in the future."

Genworth Financial CEO departs, new one named

The mortgage market crisis continued to haunt Genworth Financial Inc. in 2012, although the company did stem some of the losses in its mortgage-insurance business that has hurt earnings and kept its stock price down since the recession.

In May, Michael D. Fraizer resigned as the company's chief executive officer, just before the Henrico-based insurer reported a first-quarter profit that declined from the same period in 2011 and fell below analysts' expectations, and less than a month after the company announced it would delay a plan to raise funds by selling a 40 percent stake in its Australian mortgage-insurance business.

Fraizer had been chairman, president and chief executive officer of Genworth since it was created in 2004 as a spinoff of General Electric Co.'s insurance and retirement-products subsidiary.

This month, the company named longtime insurance industry executive Thomas J. McInerney to be its chief executive officer, about a month after the company also announced a strategic plan that could include a sale of its international-protection and wealth-management businesses over the next two to three years.

(804) 775-8123

Staff writer Carol Hazard contributed to this report


(c)2012 the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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