Privately Owned

DEFINITION of 'Privately Owned'

Privately owned refers to a company that is not publicly traded. This means that the company either does not have a share structure through which it raises capital or that shares of the company are being held and traded without using an exchange. Privately owned companies include family owned businesses, sole proprietorships and the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses. These companies are often to small to bother with an initial public offering (IPO) and tend to fulfill their financing needs from personal savings, family and retail banks. Although these smaller businesses fit the definition of a privately owned company, the term is most often used to refer to companies that are large enough to be publicly traded but are still being held in private hands. The shares of privately owned companies are more difficult to sell due to the uncertain nature of the their true value and the lack of an exchange to support transparency and liquidity. 

Privately owned companies are also referred to as being privately held. 

BREAKING DOWN 'Privately Owned'

Privately owned companies are far more common than publicly traded ones. Privately owned companies may be owned by an individual, a family, a small group or even hundreds of private investors as happens with large private investors. Companies that were once publicly traded can also be taken private again through leveraged buyouts. In 2016, for example, the ride sharing company Uber had over 7 million common shares outstanding and 11 million preferred shares that are held by a large number of venture capitalists. The Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 states that the total number of shareholders generally should not exceed 500. Crowdfunding and the trend of tech companies staying in the venture capital phase longer has raised questions on whether this shareholder limit should be increased. 

Why Companies Stay Privately Owned

IPOs are an incredible tool for raising a large amount of capital to fund the growth of a business and cash out early investors. That said, there are many reasons why a company may choose to stay privately owned. One, being a public company comes with an added layer of scrutiny as companies are required to issue shareholder reports that comply with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Privately owned companies should still keep their books in shape and report regularly to their shareholders, but there are usually no immediate legal implications of late reporting or not reporting at all. Two, privately owned companies can also use corporate structures that publicly companies can't, setting terms for investors that wouldn't be allowed in the public market. Three, many privately held companies don't feel the need to raise capital through an IPO. Some of these companies have revenues in the tens or hundreds of billions and can essentially self finance future growth without the headaches of having retail investors.