"It's the world's greatest company, period."
-- Arjun Murti, Goldman Sachs analyst
I'm what a lot of folks would call "obsessed" with finding great stocks. So when I heard Goldman Sachs oil oracle Arjun Murti boldly label a company as the world's greatest, you'd best believe I paid attention.
That's pretty high praise, but the facts speak for themselves. In fact, my research led me to take Murti's claim one step further: This is the greatest company in the history of the world.
The corporate titan in question produced modern-day history's greatest fortune, and it earned nearly double the combined 2008 profits of Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO ) , PotashCorp (NYSE: POT ) , and IBM (NYSE: IBM ) .
If you'd invested $1,000 in this company in 1950, your shares would now be worth about $2.3 million. And incredibly, this giant still has decades of slick profits ahead of it.
Meet ExxonMobil, the world's greatest company. Biggest, strongest, most efficient, most evil -- there's hardly a superlative that hasn't been applied to this most successful of the Standard Oil grandchildren. But while much is made of just how great or how evil folks peg Exxon to be, there's strangely little discussion over the core drivers of why its stock has been a huge success.
It would be easy to say that Exxon's success, and that of Standard Oil's lineage -- Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP via Amoco, etc. -- was just a function of being in the right place at the right time. Hawking oil and gasoline at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, after all, is a Category 5 tailwind.
But there's much more to Exxon's success. Fortunately, we can also spot those discernible traits in other opportunities.
1. An owner-operator culture
John Rockefeller didn't run an infamously efficient organization just for kicks. As the largest shareholder, he had a vested interest in the success of Standard Oil. When managers and employees are shareholders alongside you, they share your desire to manage the business for the long term.
Take a look at the cutthroat world of big-box retail, where smart growth and a fanatical focus on controlling costs are crucial to long-term success. Costco, for example, is known as much for its insider ownership and tenacious zeal for efficiency as anything. And not coincidentally, it ranks among the biggest winners in this space for investors over the past 20 years.
By the way, there's still plenty of alignment between Exxon's leadership and outside shareholders. The company consistently posts better margins and returns on capital than its Big Oil brethren. CEO and Chairman Rex Tillerson has plenty of incentive to keep it that way; he owns 1.3 million Exxon shares -- close to $88 million worth.
2. Enduring demand
Demand for oil is strikingly consistent. For most companies, steady demand equates to steady cash generation. But for Exxon, the consistency of demand for oil is just as important as the duration of that demand.
Constant doubts about the staying power of oil have helped to keep Exxon's shares consistently undervalued, allowing management and dividend reinvestors to steadily gobble up shares at attractive prices while the company continues to outpace expectations.
For another case study in the importance of demand, consider Procter & Gamble, which I've recommended to Income Investor members. P&G's core products (razor blades, toilet paper, disposable diapers, etc.) all face little chance of technological obsolescence. Better yet, demand is regular and firmly entrenched. Maybe I'm just a pretty boy, but I'd be living in my car before I stopped buying razors and toilet paper.
Now consider companies whose fates hinge on innovation, such as search player Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU ) or solar players First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR ) or Solarfun (Nasdaq: SOLF ) . As Google can attest, the Chinese search business isn't a cakewalk in any sense. As for solar, color me bullish on the technology and industry but bearish on the companies. The industry is subsidy-driven and the technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, making any sort of forecasting a crapshoot. I have no clue what any of these companies will look like in 10 years -- if they exist at all. Exxon, however ... well, I'm pretty confident about what it will still be doing in 10 years. Call it a hunch.
Ponder that for a second, and now take look at this. According to dividend guru Jeremy Siegel, these are among the highest-returning S&P 500 stocks from 1957 to 2003:
1. Kraft Foods
2. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, now owned by Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI )
3. Standard Oil of New Jersey (ExxonMobil)
Cheese. Tobacco. Oil. Coke. I think you get the picture.
3. No one loves a sinner
Some folks feel a bit queasy about investing in so-called sin stocks: tobacco companies, brewers, Big Oil, etc. Just like the long-standing (and false) belief that oil demand will dry up in the not-so-distant future, many investors' aversion to investing in sin stocks just leaves the stocks that much cheaper for the rest of us. Their loss. Our gain. As an investor, you'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. Again, consider the primo status of oil and tobacco on the above list.
And here you thought Exxon's secret sauce was a blend of industrialization and cold-blooded ruthlessness. OK, sure, maybe there's a pinch of both in there, but plenty more was involved in the company's success. Take that knowledge forth, Fool, and:
1. Look for owner-operator cultures and management teams motivated to focus on long-term results.
2. Know that steady, lasting demand helps deliver expectation-beating results over time.
3. Don't be afraid to snuggle up with sin stocks.
James Early is looking for similar opportunities over at our dividend-focused newsletter service, Income Investor. Specifically, he's searching for undervalued stocks boasting impressive, durable competitive advantages, with a nice dividend to boot.
Exxon is a great company -- but because we're hunting for tastier yields, it hasn't made the cut as one of our elite Buy First recommendations. To find out which six dividend giants made our final cut, you can click here to try our service free for 30 days.
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This article was first published April 9, 2009. It has been updated.
Senior analyst Joe Magyer owns shares of Procter & Gamble. Costco and Coca-Cola are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Baidu and First Solar are Rule Breakers choices. Costco is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble are Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of Costco and Procter & Gamble. After getting through all that, The Motley Fool's disclosure policy needs to go lie down for a bit.