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  • InsideTrack
  • October 05, 2022

    Researching Private and Public Businesses, Specialized Industries

    While publicly traded companies have a wealth of information easily available, private businesses are more difficult to research. Law librarian Carol Hassler offers tips and websites that will aid in your legal research.

    Carol Hassler

    businesswoman looking at reports

    Oct. 5, 2022 – Discovering publicly available information is an important part of researching businesses and their owners. While publicly traded companies have a wealth of information available across several sources, private businesses are more difficult to research.

    Federal and state regulatory frameworks often require some level of business filing with a public agency. Wisconsin law requires corporations, limited partnerships, limited liability partnerships (LLPs), and limited liability companies (LLCs), as well as foreign (out-of-state) organizations to file a report annually with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI).

    Federal law requires quarterly and annual filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

    Additional sources of information may include specific regulatory agencies, like those for banks and financial institutions, or industrywide data.

    Requesting Annual Reports

    Private companies are not required to file much information with regulatory agencies. When researching a private company, requesting the annual report can be a useful step to get basic information about ownership.

    Carol Hassler Carol Hassler is a law librarian at the Wisconsin State Law Library. She is a member of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin (LLAW). LLAW's Public Relations Committee coordinates regular contributions by its members to InsideTrack.

    Current businesses registered with the DFI are required to file annual reports (Wis. Stat. 180.1622). These filings update business information like the owner or member names and addresses, as well as address information for the registered agent and principal business office.

    The DFI manages the Corporate Records database in Wisconsin. This database is a helpful source for researching current, former, or alternate business names – names that can also be used for court record and other database research.

    Annual reports are not freely available online in Wisconsin, but copies can be purchased through the agency’s website. Other state corporate record systems can provide a glimpse of more company data for free if that company is registered to do business in that state.

    For example, Culver Franchising System’s Wisconsin information page provides basic information and a list of reports on file. But a search of the same company in Florida’s Division of Corporations database – as a foreign LLC – provides instant, free access to recent annual reports filed for Florida. The state agency that registers companies in each state will often have an online search, but report availability and fees vary from state to state.

    Finding Registered Agents and Officers

    Registered agents are the legal point of contact for a business or nonprofit, and are listed for each business on the DFI Corporate Records database. It can be common for companies, particularly foreign corporations, to list an attorney or other locally contracted registered agent.

    Searching public records of officers or principal owners can lead to other associated business entities or assets. With smaller businesses, sometimes the registered agent is the primary owner of the company. Searching DFI’s Corporate Records advanced search by the registered agent’s name can be useful when researching LLPs and LLCs, where the registered agent may also be the primary owner or member of more than one business.

    Examining UCC Filings

    Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filings are voluntary liens created when personal property is used as collateral in a loan. For businesses, a lender may secure a loan by filing a UCC financing statement on an asset. Financing statements can include the name and address of the filer, the debtor’s information, secured parties, and a description of the collateral.

    UCC filings may be searched in Wisconsin through the DFI’s Online UCC and Trademark filing system. Creating a free account is required in order to search this database. Search the UCC and Trademark filing system by organization name, personal name, or filing number.

    Very limited information is available from the immediate search, but documents can be viewed by paying a fee. For more information and guidance, the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® book, Commercial and Consumer Transactions in Wisconsin, discusses secured transactions and financing statements in more detail.

    Researching Public Companies

    Publicly traded companies are much easier to research due to the detailed information they are required to regularly file with the SEC. This spring, librarian Elizabeth Manriquez published a Legal Research 101 article on securities research that outlines laws, regulatory bodies, and research sources in more detail.

    The SEC’s EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system) website is the primary public database for these filings. Foreign and domestic public companies are required to file financial information and reports through EDGAR.

    This is the primary system for companies and others submitting documents under the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, and the Investment Company Act of 1940. There is no fee to search and download information.

    SEC data may also be useful when researching a private company that was recently publicly traded but went private, so recent reports could be available.

    In addition, some information may have been filed with the SEC in situations where a private business merged with or was acquired by a public company.

    Finding Information for Specialized Industries

    Certain industries may be researched through other public records sources as well.

    For example, look to the Wisconsin DFI for more information on banks and financial institutions, the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance to research insurance companies, or the Public Service Commission (PSC) to research public utilities.

    The Wisconsin DFI regulates nonprofit entities and charities in Wisconsin. To learn more about charities, use the DFI’s online credential search and search by organization name or fundraisers. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a public database to look up tax-exempt entities as well.

    Locating Industry Data

    Often, specific financial and workforce information is not publicly available for private companies. Industry profiles can provide an overall picture of similar businesses.

    Industry information is often trackable on the federal level. Use standardized industry codes to search for data in public or subscription databases.

    The U.S. Census Bureau uses the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) to classify businesses for collecting and analyzing statistical data. The NAICS replaced the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system in 1997, but if you need to do historical research the SIC database is also available to search through the U.S. Department of Labor.

    Among other agency reports and publications, public industry data is also available through the U.S. Census bureau’s Economic Census, or the IRS Corporation Statistics site.

    Further Research

    Public information is everywhere, repackaged in subscription databases and analyzed in books or articles. It can be helpful to learn more about the regulatory requirements of specific business types to help you understand what types of information may be publicly available. Start with these PINNACLE titles to get an overview of Wisconsin business models:

    There is a wealth of public information available to intrepid searchers, including public contracts, professional licensing and complaints, and more. A general familiarity with public record requests can also be helpful. These books provide overviews of public records laws for requests for information that may include information about a business:

    Where to Find Out More

    If you are feeling overwhelmed by the resources above or are still unsure where to start, contact a librarian! We are trained to assist patrons with finding and using the best resources for them and their unique legal research topics.

    Law librarians are available at these Wisconsin libraries:

    For information about accessing specialized business research databases, contact a business library:

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