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Originally published June 17, 2011 at 10:01 AM | Page modified June 17, 2011 at 1:45 PM

F5 Networks: A behind-the-scenes front-runner

F5 stock showed a nearly 146 percent increase last year, No. 1 on the list. It was also among the top 10 companies in profit margin, market capitalization and return on assets.

Special to The Seattle Times

Founded: 1996

Headquarters: Seattle

Major operations: Customers in more than 100 countries, including 60 percent of the Fortune 500

CEO: John McAdam

Employees: 2,012

Major products/services: Provides application delivery networking software and hardware to optimize on-demand information technology, cloud computing and virtual computing

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Go behind the scenes with Seattle-based Internet jeweler Blue Nile.

CEO Peter Rose of Expeditors International

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CEO John McAdam of F5 Networks

McAdam shares how F5 Networks makes text messaging or using Facebook possible.

Best of the Northwest | Project home

2010 winners

Starbucks: More robust after restructuring

Alaska Air: Independent carrier flies high after bumpy ride

F5 Networks: A behind-the-scenes front-runner

Amazon.com: Gadgets, gizmos overtake media sales

Coinstar: What's the next big thing in automated retail?

Two-decade winners

Flir Systems: Diversifying beyond defense contracts

Microsoft: Tech giant enters new markets

Precision Castparts: Staying strong in metalworks market

Starbucks: More robust after restructuring

Micron Technology: Fighting its way back in tough chip industry

Financial data

Interactive database | This year's ranking and full financial data on 82 companies

Comparing the companies' performance, plus financial summaries

Top 10 | Sales stats: Sales growth, total sales and sales per employee

Stock performance: 2010 results, market cap, price-earnings ratios and dividends

Measuring returns: Return on equity and assets

Debt: Debt-equity ratios and debt-free companies

Employees: Largest work forces and biggest changes

Analysis

Top performers navigate hard times with skill, emerge stronger | Jon Talton

After 20 years, Seattle area remains enviable engine of enterprise | Jon Talton

20-year track record

How our ranking system was born | Letter from the business editor

How we ranked the companies

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Buy an airline ticket, rent a movie, do some day trading, download a video game, get cash from an ATM or purchase an item online and the chances are you're running fast and safe, thanks to the hardware and software of F5 Networks.

You'll never know it. F5 serves the companies that serve consumers. As Chief Executive John McAdam said, "The beauty is, we sit between the application running on a computer and the Net." F5 makes sure its clients' servers run at maximum efficiency, and that data are secure.

Investors do know, and they're happy. The Seattle company turns in some of the strongest performance numbers in this year's Best of the Northwest. F5 stock showed a nearly 146 percent increase last year, No. 1 on the list. It was also among the top 10 companies in profit margin, market capitalization and return on assets. The company has no debt.

Tour F5's headquarters overlooking Elliott Bay, and you'll find the technology center, where the company shows off its products to potential clients. White noise indicates the cooling needed to keep the servers in good order. Hanging overhead are flags of some of the company's customers: Microsoft, SAP, Dell, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard among them.

In fact, F5's customers include 43 of the Fortune 50 and 60 percent of the Fortune 500. The 15 top commercial banks, six largest airlines, 10 biggest insurance companies and 14 out of 15 executive departments in the federal government depend on F5 technology. So do 17 out of 20 cloud infrastructure and Web-hosting outfits. Microsoft and Apple may hate each other, but both use F5. Customers span the globe.

McAdam, a Scotsman with a rich brogue and a shy smile, became CEO in 2000, just in time to navigate the dot-com bust. When the Great Recession hit, F5 was ready. Although it saw a slowdown in December 2008, by March business was picking up again.

"I spend a lot of my time working with Wall Street," he said. That means scrutinizing the financials on a "granular" level, with daily revenue reports and the ability to make decisions on a weekly basis. "But the real key is, we drive our business. If we do that well, we will be liked."

Still, staying on top means F5 must keep up with the new information-technology infrastructure being deployed by its customers, and changing consumer appetites and demands. "It's a time of massive change," McAdam said.

But that's where F5 thrives — even if most users in the cloud never know it's there.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com

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