Here are the biggest Louisville-area business stories of 2021

The complex is equipped with 90,000 square feet of floor space and is set up for more than 4,000 spectators.

Are we wrapping up 2021 or 2020 — sometimes it’s hard to tell.

In this space and time last year, Louisville Business First wrote to explain why we didn’t include Covid or general social unrest stories in our list of top local business stories of 2020. Those were THE stories, of course. And it feels like at times we’re right back where we started.

Related content: A LOOK BACK: Our favorite LBF photos of 2021

For this year’s list of the 10 biggest LBF stories — presented here in no particular order — we are punting on stories everyone is dealing with, like supply-chain issues and lack of workforce to fill open positions. And, perhaps you’ve heard that Covid is still around.

We’ll keep this intro short and let the news shine. Enjoy looking back at our top business stories of 2021, as recapped by our staff.

University of Louisville’s top leadership turns over

One of the biggest, and perhaps most surprising, news days of 2021 came to us relatively late in the year — so it’s probably still fresh on a lot of minds.

And it’s likely a day that many close followers of the University of Louisville will not soon forget.

For more than three days, starting around Dec. 5, we’d been following an internet rumor that Athletic Director Vince Tyra was taking a new job at Florida State University. As sports rumors go, this one had some credibility because the AD job was open there and we’d heard of clashes between Tyra and University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi.

As the week went on, meetings were scheduled to discuss Tyra’s contract and at least one FSU sports website was reporting it was a done deal. But then the real plot twist: Bendapudi was actually on the hunt for a new position as well. Overnight, the story went from being about Tyra leaving for Florida State to Bendapudi leaving to take on a job as president of Penn State University.

By the end of the day Dec. 9, both executives had resigned from UofL — though Tyra did not wind up landing the Florida State job.

UofL’s Board of Trustees has picked interim leaders: Lori Stewart Gonzalez as interim president, and Josh Heird steps in as interim athletic director.

— David A. Mann

Texas Roadhouse CEO, founder Kent Taylor dies at 65; other notable deaths

We lost one of Louisville’s great entrepreneurial minds this year.

Kent Taylor, founder and CEO of Texas Roadhouse Inc., died at age 65 on March 18. The company said he took his own life following a battle with post-Covid-19 symptoms, including severe tinnitus. He left behind two daughters, a son, four grandchildren and a legacy Louisville won’t soon forget.

Taylor’s first restaurant concept, Buckhead Grill & Bar, opened in 1991. He went on to establish several lasting restaurant brands including Texas Roadhouse, Bubba’s 33 and Jaggers.

Often seen sporting his signature brown cowboy hat, Taylor was a maverick entrepreneur with a mind that never stopped creating.

After his passing, Texas Roadhouse’s board of directors appointed Jerry Morgan as CEO. Morgan had just been named president Dec. 17, 2020, after more than two decades with the company.

Taylor wrote a book about his journey in the months leading up to his death. The book, “Made From Scratch: The Legendary Success Story of Texas Roadhouse,” was released in August via Simon & Schuster.

“After sixty-five years on planet earth — making good and bad decisions and facing my share of challenges — I’ve realized that each day and each moment gives us a choice,” Taylor wrote in “Made From Scratch.” “Happiness does not come with fortune or fame; it is a state of being that resides in our hearts and minds. Fear is inevitable, as is pain. I’ve never met a successful person who did not overcome some personal hurdle or tragedy.

“But we can make a choice each and every day to either listen to the negative around us and react emotionally, or we can smile and try to be the most positive person in the room.”

Taylor was one of several deaths in the business and civic community in 2021.

We also said goodbye, among others, to: Lee Leet, 53, founder and CEO of QSR Automations; Rebecca Matheny, 53, longtime leader of the Louisville Downtown Partnership; Doug Stegner, 92, former chairman and CEO of Meidinger & Associates; David Power, 49, chairman and CEO of The Power Agency; Jean D. ‘J.D.’ Farley, 94, former owner of Luckett & Farley; Hank Wagner, 78, longtime president of Jewish Hospital; former Indiana University Southeast Chancellor Ray Wallace, 61; Scott Hand, 52, head brewer of Monnik Beer Co.; and former UofL head football coach Howard Schnellenberger, 87.

— Haley Cawthon

Climavision launches with $100M investment

Kentucky’s top-funded startup with a $100 million private equity investment from The Rise Fund, TPG’s impact investing platform.

The Louisville-based company, led by co-founder and CEO Chris Goode, is developing a weather services and intelligence platform powered by a private network of high-resolution radars. It has since recruited a string of experienced technologists and scientists to join both its executive and nonexecutive teams.

Prior to the company’s launch, Goode, a Lexington, Kentucky native, had served as the top executive at Enterprise Electronics Corp. (EEC), the world’s largest privately held commercial supplier of weather radar systems. That’s where he first started thinking about an idea that would later become Climavision.

EEC, a 50-year-old company based in Enterprise, Alabama, sells radars directly to government entities and other customers in a business model where the customer owns the asset. Goode said he always felt there was an opportunity to flip that around, where the company itself would own the radars and data technology and then sell it in a software-as-a-service (Saas) model.

Goode said he sees a very clear path toward building a global business, and he’s excited to be doing it from Louisville.

“One of the things that’s very meaningful for me is — yes, to launch the company — but to be able to launch it in my home state is something that we take a lot of pride in because I think there’s a lot of things about Louisville and elsewhere within the state that are undervalued,” he said. “I feel like this is going to be a really positive impact on a number of different levels.”

— Haley Cawthon

Stock Yards buys Commonwealth, Kentucky Bank

Stock Yards Bank & Trust had two major acquisitions in 2021.

By the close of this year, the Louisville-based bank’s assets will total $7.4 billion after acquiring Kentucky Bank and Commonwealth Bank & Trust.

Kentucky Bank had $1.1 billion in assets and more than 200 employees prior to the acquisition announced in January 2021. The combined stock-and-cash transaction, representing a total consideration of about $190 million, closed in June.

The ink had barely dried when Stock Yards announced its merger with Commonwealth just two months later.

Commonwealth, another Louisville-based bank, had more than $1.3 billion in assets at the time of the announcement. That combined stock-and-cash transaction with Commonwealth Bancshares Inc., representing a total consideration of about $153 million, is expected to close during this quarter.

“It’s definitely rare to have announced two good-size acquisitions within six months of each other, but at the same time, both of these banks were well known to us,” Hillebrand said in a November interview. “This is all a part of our strategic plan, and through our planning, we know the banks that we would like to partner with over the long term.”

There’s a purpose behind the two recent acquisitions: They created the scale Stock Yards needs to keep up with rising regulatory and technology costs, Hillebrand continued. Small banks have the same regulatory burden as trillion-dollar banks, and as those expenses continue to climb, many banks are left with one of two choices: get bigger or partner up.

In other bank-related M&A news for 2021: In September, Jasper, Indiana-based German American Bank announced its intent to merge Citizens Union Bank (CUB) of Shelbyville Inc. with German American Bank in a deal valued at $154 million. After the transaction is completed, German American and CUB will have combined assets of approximately $6.4 billion, based upon June 30, 2021, financials.

— Haley Cawthon

Kindred to be acquired, launch of ScionHealth

Kindred Healthcare made several headlines throughout this year as it planned its exit from the local health care scene.

In June, LifePoint Health, a Brentwood, Tennessee-based company announced its intent to acquire Kindred. The deal closed Dec. 23. A condition of the deal is the departure of CEO Ben Breier from the company. Breier has been with the company since 2005 and held the top slot since 2015.

But that’s not it for Kindred. In October, it and LifePoint announced they would create another health care company, ScionHealth, to be headquartered in Louisville. It began operation at the close of the deal.

ScionHealth includes 79 hospital campuses in 25 states — Kindred’s 61 long-term acute care hospitals and LifePoint’s 18 community hospitals and associated health systems.

Rob Jay, LifePoint’s executive vice president of integrated operations, will head ScionHealth as CEO. The management team includes people from both companies.

Kindred employs about 1,000 people in Louisville and more than 23,000 across the company.

Acquisition news from an out-of-state company like LifePoint can cause some apprehension about what it means for a major local employer, said Tammy York-Day, president and CEO of the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council, a group of aging and health care companies which formed in 2017 to boost the economic vibrancy of the industry in Louisville.

But the announcement of ScionHealth and its structure positions Louisville for continued growth in the health care industry, York-Day said.

She said it isn’t a loss for Louisville like some people feared, and it could create more jobs.

— Laurel Deppen

Health companies go public

BrightSpring Health Services, by far Louisville’s largest private company by revenue, filed an initial public offering with the Nasdaq exchange in October.

BrightSpring’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission was for $100 million. It defined itself as a leading home and community-based health care services platform, focused on delivering complementary provider and pharmacy services to complex patients.

It has presence in all 50 states. Locally, it’s the largest private company in terms of revenue, and it’s one of the area’s largest employers with 1,100 employees and about 46,000 companywide.

BrightSpring’s $5.6 billion in 2020 revenue brings it in line with Louisville’s second largest publicly traded company, Yum Brands Inc. Humana is still Louisville’s largest public company, with 2020 revenue of $77 billion.

City economic leaders have noted that BrightSpring’s decision to go public is a sign of the strength of Louisville’s health and aging care economy.

BrightSpring isn’t the only health care company to be added to Louisville’s list of public companies this year. NXT-ID Inc.’s parent company, LogicMark LLC, has had an office in Louisville since 2013.

This year, the company appointed a new CEO and closed its offices in Connecticut and Florida, leaving Louisville as its headquarters. Chia-Lin, NXT-ID CEO, said in November the decision was based on talent and opportunity. NXT-ID provides internet-of-things (IoT) technology products and services for health care applications.

Other Kentucky companies announced a move to go public this year — Talaris Therapeutics, co-based in Louisville and Boston, Morehead-based AppHarvest, and Lexington’s Rubicon Technologies, which will go public via a merger.

— Laurel Deppen

Norton Sports & Learning Center opens

The Louisville Urban League’s Norton Healthcare Sports & Learning Center opened at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in February 2021.

The $53 million, state-of-the-art facility has 90,000 square feet of floor space with a 4,100 seat, 200-meter banked Mondo indoor track and a 400-meter Humana Outdoor Track & Field Stadium. In addition, the complex has a four-lane mini-bowling alley, an interactive rock-climbing wall and a multipurpose space that is used for educational programming.

The center was built on a long-vacant 24-acre brownfield in the Russell neighborhood. In 2014, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced plans to develop the property into a $35 million West Louisville Foodport. The project fell apart due to lack of funding.

After the demise of the Foodport project, Louisville Urban League President and CEO Sadiqa Reynolds shared her vision for a sports complex that would serve as an economic engine for West Louisville by hosting local, regional and national indoor and outdoor track meets, other sporting events, concerts and community programming.

The Urban League raised $43 million toward the development over a 22-month period in the form of philanthropic gifts, corporate sponsorships, and tax credits. That included $10 million from Louisville Metro Government, $6.5 million from Humana Inc. and $5 million from Norton Healthcare Inc. Norton Healthcare also signed on as the naming rights partner. The Urban League borrowed the remaining $10 million.

— Michael L. Jones

Ford’s big investment (and other big investments for the state’s big year)

An influx of public money dominated the news in 2021 with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer estimating that Greater Louisville could receive up to $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan and other public aid connected to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But those dollars pale in comparison to the private investments in the Greater Louisville region this year. According to Greater Louisville Inc., new and existing businesses in the Greater Louisville region have announced nearly $7 billion in new investments and the creation of more than 9,000 jobs in 2021.

One the biggest investments of the year came from Ford Motor Co. The automaker announced in September that it planned to partner with South Korea’s SK Innovation and invest $6 billion in twin electric vehicle battery manufacturing plants.

The Kentucky battery manufacturing facilities, collectively known as BlueOvalSK Battery Park-Kentucky, will be located on a 1,500-acre site in Glendale, Kentucky, just south of Elizabethtown. The nearly $6 billion investment is expected to add more than 5,000 jobs to the regional economy and attract even more economic growth in the area from automotive suppliers.

The state saw more than $10 billion in economic investment in 2021, with plans for more than 15,000 jobs.

Among other highlights:

  • GE Appliances, a Haier company, announced in October that it would be investing $450 million and creating 1,000 more jobs at its Appliance Park facility in Louisville.
  • Sazerac Co. on Dec. 22 announced a $408 million new facility on 1,400 undeveloped acres in Charlestown, Indiana, that is expected to create 369 jobs for the spirits company. Previously in the year, it announced a nearly $50 million expansion of its New Albany, Indiana, plant that will add 50 jobs.
  • Fifth Third Bank announced in October that it would invest up to $20 million in the Russell neighborhood over the next three years through its community partner Russell: A Place of Promise.
  • Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport announced new nonstop flights to Los Angeles and Boston and also continued on its more than $400 million, multiyear transformation project at the airport.
  • Louisville-based Hollenbach-Oakley LLC closed on over 81 acres of land in Simpsonville, Kentucky. The development will be called Simpsonville Commons, and it will be a Class A business park and should cost $100M.
  • Also in Simpsonville, Kentuckiana Curb Co. detailed a $200 million investment with two buildings totaling more than 400,000 square feet.
  • Click here for Project Watch, an interactive map of all of the area’s largest ongoing projects.

— Michael L. Jones

Churchill Downs Inc. announces new gaming venue

Churchill Downs Inc. announced in September a new gaming facility at 140 S. Fourth St. in Downtown Louisville. Called Derby City Gaming Downtown, the $80 million entertainment venue will move into the former U.S. Bank headquarters at the corner of South Fourth and West Market, diagonal to the Kentucky International Convention Center.

The 43,000-square-foot venue will provide guests a unique gaming experience with 500 historic racing machines, a fresh-air gaming area and a 200-space parking lot.

Construction on the facility was stated to begin in late 2021, and it’s expected completion date is mid-2023. The investment in the new entertainment venue will create 450 jobs, including 350 construction jobs and about 100 new permanent jobs.

In late July, Churchill Downs unwrapped several massive multiyear projects that include the transformation of the storied Churchill Downs Racetrack and an expansion of Derby City Gaming — complete with a $76 million hotel. The projects at the racetrack, two of which total $135 million, include the renovation and updating of the grandstand area adjacent to the Twin Spires along the track’s homestretch; the introduction of permanent all-inclusive stadium seats; and the redesign of the storied paddock area — all meant to “transform” key areas of Churchill Downs.

And speaking of Churchill Downs, 2021 saw yet another controversial Kentucky Derby winner.

Medina Spirit, trained by Hall-of-Famer Bob Baffert, failed two drug tests following the horse’s win at this year’s Kentucky Derby. The post-race tests found the drug betamethasone at a prohibited level in the horse’s system. Betamethasone is a legal drug, but it’s not allowed on race day in Kentucky, Maryland and New York.

In the wake of Medina Spirit’s failed test, Baffert was suspended by Churchill Downs and barred from entering horses in the Kentucky Derby in 2022 and 2023.

In December, Medina Spirit died following a workout in Santa Anita Park in California. A source close to Baffert said the possible cause of death was a heart attack.

— Eleanor Tolbert

Equifax buys unit of Appriss Inc. for $1.8 billion

Equifax Inc. announced the acquisition of a business unit of Appriss Inc., a private equity-backed data and analytics solutions firm in Louisville, in August for $1.8 billion.

The all-cash transaction closed in October. This deal established not only an Equifax division in Louisville, but the third largest Equifax office globally.

The unit was Appriss Insight LLC, which provides data and analytics solutions to government agencies and commercial enterprises to improve community and workplace safety, improve health care credentialing, enable more effective law enforcement investigations, and mitigate fraud and improper payments in government entitlement programs. It is now a part of Equifax’s Workforce Solutions subsidiary.

Equifax employs 13,000 people around the world, including the 300 Louisville employees transitioning from Appriss Insights. The unit recorded revenue of $150 million in 2021.