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The Fortune 500

Ah, springtime. Each year it arrives like clockwork with its trademark signs: ramps on the menu, crocuses peeking out of the ground, the anticipation of longer days and beach season. Another rite of spring for the past seven years — as long as I have been at Fortune — has been the preparation and release of the Fortune 500, the definitive ranking of America's largest companies. The 500 is our king of lists, for 60 years running the definitive ranking of the biggest in business in revenue, and it is our own biggest issue in every way: heft (390 pages this year), hits (millions of page views each year) and in bandwidth; it is a massive project drawing in almost all the Fortune staff in some way from early April until the end of May. I started at Fortune in April 2007, in the middle of the Fortune 500 close, and every year since I've been involved in some way or another. Over the years I've come to look forward to the day I get to first lay eyes on the top-secret new 500 list more than almost any other day of the year. That's because in its numbers lie telling data, revealing narratives, over-arching themes, countless stories of success and retrenchment, and so much more.

The 500 is first and foremost a measure of scale. Walmart, No. 1 this year, clocks in with sales of $476,294,000,000. That's twelve digits, six zeros and almost half a trillion dollars. We don't dip "down" into eleven figures until No. 23, IBM at $99.75 billion (work on the 500 long enough and the difference between $126.7 billion and $128.7 billion starts to seem amusingly meaningless).

But pull the camera back — waaaay back — and you can see a narrative of business by the decade: The list's first two decades were a testament to the sheer dominance of General Motors; the now-beleaguered automaker held the number one spot from 1955 to 1974 straight, and for all but nine years from 1955 to 2000 (you remember the saying — as goes General Motors, so goes America). Then came ExxonMobil, then an on-fire Walmart, which ascended in 2002 (we only started adding service companies in 1995). The last decade has been a two-horse race between Walmart and ExxonMobil.

Individual storylines play out on the list over the years: Apple has marched steadily upward since 2005, moving from No. 263 that year to No. 103 in 2008, No. 71 in 2009, to No. 35 in 2011, to No. 17 in 2012 to this year, landing in the top five for the first time. Sometimes whole industries ebb and flow in unison, like homebuilders (14 piled on in 2007, all fell off in 2010). Last year Facebook made the list for the first time. Today we welcome newcomers Coach, Blackstone and Alaska Air, and we bid adieu to Yahoo, OfficeMax and Pitney Bowes, among others.

You can also see in the 500 with vivid clarity what we all know to be true: the stunning surge in corporate productivity. This year the collective profits for the Fortune 500 crossed the trillion dollar mark for the first time ($1.08 trillion, to be exact). That's up 31.7 percent over 2012. But in the same time the group added only 180,000 jobs, an increase of 0.7 percent. (I have vivid memories of the financial crisis in 500 terms, too; in 2010, companies on the list shed a collective, and gutwrenching, 821,000 jobs.)

We often get asked who's No. 500 — that company teetering right at the edge each year that just barely hung on as we tallied up the totals. This year our caboose is United Rentals, a Stamford, Connecticut-based seller and leaser of commercial construction, HVAC and other heavy equipment with revenue of $8.8 billion. Hurrah United Rentals! Surely they're celebrating up in Stamford today. (At the same time, No. 501, Irving, Texas- based industrial machinery maker Flowserve, is likely plotting its strategy for knocking United off and taking its spot next year. Because hey, that's business.)

Speaking of celebrating, there's a final number that's particularly key to the Fortune team this year. That's 5, as in 5 o'clock today, when our entire staff will meet in a conference room to have a big official toast to the release of the list — as well as the launch of our newly-independent, brand-new website, Fortune.com. We've been working our butts off on both these babies for months.

Yes, the 500 is a killer set of numbers. But today, five o'clock will also be a quite valuable number indeed.

About the author

Leigh Gallagher is an Assistant Managing Editor at FORTUNE, where she edits feature stories on a wide range of topics and is responsible for FORTUNE's "40 Under 40" rankings.

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