Researching Corporations and Their Owners

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Photo: Mike Kononov on Unsplash

Government records on corporations reveal only the tip of the iceberg, if that.

Unfortunately, the identity of the real owners can be obscured. So-called shell companies are created to disguise the real, “beneficial,” owners.

The good news? There are many ways to research companies, who really owns them, what they do and more. These include:

  • Free databases
  • Subscription databases
  • Official records
  • Corporate websites
  • Court records
  • Internet searches
  • Social media

This GIJN resource describes official and unofficial sources of information about companies.

GIJN’s video collection includes a talk by David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winner, about reporting on company finances.

Free International  Resources

A number of nonprofit groups collect the reports that companies must provide to governments.

Here are the best compilations:

OpenCorporates is an open data source for information on more than 150 million companies. The information is sourced from national business registries. The database can provide such things as a company’s incorporation date, its registered addresses and the names of directors and officers. It can show connections between companies. It’s developing a database of corporate events. Follow the blog for updates and examples of how the media uses OpenCorporates. Journalists, NGOs, academics and other public benefit users can apply for a free public-benefit API key.

Investigative Dashboard sponsored by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has millions of relevant items from data sources around the world, including many about corporations. Search for documents beginning here (click “search” for advanced search options). There is a guide to company registries in 38 countries here. That’s part of a larger catalogue of databases of 226 million public records and leaks caches including the Panama Papers and the WikiLeaks State Department Cables. Not every database — including leaked material — is searchable by the public. Journalists who register can get access, however. Journalists also can make requests for free research help, including searches of commercial databases to which OCCRP subscribes. Here’s a good introductionRead a GIJN article with seven tips on using the database such as an alerts feature so you’ll always be notified of new developments regarding the individuals or companies you’re investigating. Also see User Manual for search tips and more, or this Elastic post for an even deeper look at string queries.

The ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has compiled a database of corporate information based on leaked documents about nearly 785,000 offshore companies and trusts. The database can be searched by names, companies and addresses connected to offshore entities and country; or by jurisdiction. ICIJ’s archive of stories based on the Panama Papers makes good reading.  Also see Beyond Panama: Unlocking The World’s Secrecy Jurisdictions. See three tips on using the database.

For good background information, the World Bank’s STAR (Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative) includes beneficial ownership guides on 23 countries that show what steps to take to identity beneficial owners and other related parties.

Panjiva is a user-friendly import/export database free for journalists. Note: brands can opt out of public disclosure. It includes data on US, China, India, South America and more.

Commercial Sources

There many private databases about corporations, most of which require a subscription for the best information.

Free access may be possible through public and university libraries.

The cost of using commercial databases may be worthwhile and some companies will provide lower rates for journalists.

One long-established database is D&B Hoovers. Its free website offers capsule descriptions of thousands of companies based in the United States and abroad. More detailed descriptions are available on the subscription service Nexis.

Other major subscription vendors include: Arachnys, ORBIS, Bureau van Dijk, Bloomberg, PrivCo (a source for US private company businesses), Thomson Reuters, LexisNexis and DueDil.  

Image: Screenshot of Sayari’s variety of public records data

New on the scene is Sayari, a US research firm that, in 2018, launched a multi-faceted database that covers more emerging, frontier and offshore markets.” Sayari is a subscription service, basically $1,000 a month, but a 30-day free trial is available and the company is interested in working with journalists.

The list of paid vendors is long. One way to see what’s available is to check out the library websites of university business schools.  

The Harvard University Business School boasts a huge collection, and while its holdings are inaccessible to the public, the online catalogue can serve as a tipsheet of possible resources.

Official Government Registries

Many governments require corporations to register, but soft rules often mean they file minimal and misleading information.

Here’s where to find these national registries around the world:

Links to Resources for Some Large Economies

United States

The Securities and Exchange Commission holds corporate information in its EDGAR system. The online system is used by all publicly traded companies to file  quarterly and annual corporate reports and financial statements. Any non-US company listed on a US stock exchange — including those from China, Russia and the EU — must file here and report on their global activities; this makes EDGAR a prime source for journalists backgrounding corporations around the world.

A good place to start is with the annual report, Form 10-K, which provides a detailed company history, audited financial statements, executive compensation, a description of products and services and an annual review of the organization, its operation and the markets in which the company operates. Form 10-Q is a quarterly report that includes unaudited financial statements and information about a company’s operations during the previous three months. 8-K Reports are supplementary filings for specific events such as a bankruptcy, disposition of assets, departures executives and other events of importance to investors.

Investment company filings are also in EDGAR. SEC Form 497 is used by investment companies. A Statements of Additional Information (SAI) is a supplementary document to a mutual fund’s prospectus. EDGAR also maintains annual listings of International Registered and Reporting Companies, those foreign-owned firms that are required to file periodic reports in the US. For more detail, see the EDGAR Guide.

Many businesses are incorporated in the state of Delaware, so a good place to start is the Delaware Division of Corporations. No data is collected on beneficial owners, however, and “company formation agents” can act as nominee directors. (See a Transparency International description.)

The National Association of Secretaries of State can get you to all US state sites (see “online business services” in small print at bottom after picking a state). There you will find links to places such as the California Corporation Search and New York’s Corporation and Business Entity Database. From these state registries you can typically get a company’s incorporation date, its registered addresses and the names of directors and officers.

Other databases on places to find corporate information from US states are maintained by LLC University and Coordinated  Legal Tech.

Panjiva is a user-friendly import/export database free for journalists. Note: brands can opt out of public disclosure.

Look for US government contractors here.

United Kingdom

Companies House is free and provides details about companies, including:

  • Registered address and date of incorporation
  • Current and resigned officers
  • Document images
  • Mortgage charge data
  • Previous company names
  • Insolvency information
Canada

SEDAR is Canada’s site for public company filings, which began in January 1997.

France

Infogreffe — Trade and Companies Register — Commercial Court Registry provides basic company information free of charge. In French.

Germany

Company Register in multiple languages allows free searches, but some documents cost money.

China

The National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System can be accessed here. In Chinese.

Here’s a description of what’s available, by China Checkup.

One example: Chinese business records were used by the US NGO C4ADS in a report on the North Korean system to support its weapons development. At one point, C4ADS noted, “The Chinese business registry filing for Dandong Hongri Diandang Co Ltd. clearly shows its status as a joint venture between DHID and Dandong Kehua Economic Trade Co Ltd.”

Other Sources

Online searches of corporate websites and social media will surface scads of information.

A few recurring suggestions from professional researchers:

  • Search for company officials and directors. Check out methods included in Finding Former Employees, a presentation at the 2017 GIJN conference.
  • Use LinkedIn for research. Try the advanced search, where, for example, the menu allows users to choose between former and current employees. Look at company pages and industry groups
  • When looking for media reports, pay attention to the business and specialty press. To find them, try Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory.
  • Look up the company address and phone number. Then use map checks and street-view images for more information.
  • Corporate philanthropy may be a backdoor for information. In the US, see CitizenAudit, Propublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and Guidestar. For the UK, see Open Charities, CharityBase and the government’s charity register.
  • Contact NGOs, such as groups concerned with pollution or human trafficking, to see what information they have. Violation Tracker is a US search engine on corporate misconduct in the US.
  • Consider looking into trade associations to learn about a company’s activities in that context.

More Official Places to Look

Every point of intersection between governments and the commercial sector may generate a public record.

Here are suggestions of where else to look for a company’s interactions with government:

  • Land ownership – Names and descriptions
  • Land development – Building, zoning and special permits
  • Environmental regulation – Discharge permits, emissions reports and enforcement actions
  • Labor regulation – Professional registrations and labor disputes
  • Court records – Reveal litigation by and against
  • Financial regulation – Filings or enforcement
  • Intellectual property – Patents and trademarks registrations
  • Government contracting – Bids and awards records
  • Government subsidies – Records of payments
  • Political donations – Contributions to officials
  • Lobbying registration – Disclosures about influence

Thinking in terms of which sector the company operates in may lead to the discovery of pertinent information.

For example, Open Oil has a database of over 2 million public domain documents filed by oil and gas and mining companies to financial regulators around the world.

Transparency International has a tool to examine publicly available financial data of the 20 largest European banks. Also see TI’s  Corporate Political Engagement Index 2018.

Court records can be invaluable. PACER, for example, holds the electronic archives of the US federal court system, including the Supreme Court, appellate and district courts, and US bankruptcy courts.

Consider what laws and regulations affect the business and what paperwork is involved. These connections will vary dramatically by locale and the type of business, but may provide leads.

Some official actions, or requests for official action, may be reflected in governmental publications of record. For Europe, checkout Open Gazettes, which provides a convenient access point to European gazettes.

Guides for Journalists

There enormous material online about how to research corporations and understand company finances.

Here are a few aimed at journalists:

One inspirational source of ideas is the Dirt Diggers Digest Guide to Strategic Corporate Research, by Philip Mattera, the director of the Corporate Research Project in the US. It dates back to 2014, but is wonderfully comprehensive in its scope.

How to Follow the Money: Tips for Cross-border Investigations is a GIJN Q&A with OCCRP editor Miranda Patrucic. It begins:

GIJN: What’s your first move when you get hold of a company’s financial records?

Miranda Patrucic: I ask myself three questions:

  • What is in the balance sheet and how did they get it?
  • Where does the money come from?
  • And what is in the “notes” section?

Patrucic also provided tips on Understanding Financial Records at the GIJC17 conference. And at IJAsia18, she presented Corporate Crime, Tax Scams & Corrupt Acts

Have a look at Understanding Corporate Accounts and Investigating Companies: A Do-It-Yourself Handbook, published by the UK group Corporate Watch.

This GIJN article, How China’s Top Investigative Newsroom Digs for Data, was written by by Huang Chen, a data editor at Beijing-based Caixin Media.

The Investigative Journalist’s Guide to Company Accounts – Second Edition by Raj Bairoliya — is “aimed at complete beginners” and available through the Centre for Investigative Journalism in the UK.

Finding and Reading a Balance Sheet: Accounting Basics for Journalists, is an article by David Trilling in Journalist’s Resource by the Shorenstein Center.

Who’s Running the Company? is a guide to reporting on corporate governance, by the World Bank’s Global Corporate Governance Forum and the International Center for Journalists. It’s a wide-ranging 2012 report with many tips, examples and resources.

Canadian journalist David Milstead presented Red Flags and Hidden Gems in Financial Documents at the 2018 IRE Conference.

Jo Craven McGinty, who writes The Numbers column for The Wall Street Journal, who presented at the 2018 IRE conference, reviewed the research that undergirded a number of big stories.

Kelly Carr, a freelance investigative reporter and a senior associate at Quinlan Partners, a licensed private investigative firm, addressed how to research shell companies during her 2018 IRE talk.

More GIJN Resources:


This guide was put together by Toby McIntosh, director of GIJN’s resource center. He was a Washington-based reporter and editor with Bloomberg BNA for 39 years and the editor of FreedomInfo.org, a nonprofit website. He also runs a blog, eyeonglobaltransparency.net.