For Tom Gardner, it's never about the hot ticker, nor is it a stellar balance sheet, or even an enviable competitive advantage. For Tom, the investing ideas about which he is most passionate are the ones that go deeper than numbers.
On a recent hunt for great stocks, the Fool's co-founder thumbed through the list of all the IPOs in the past year, and made a decision to focus first on insider ownership.
"Most of the companies that came public last year represent situations where executives are OUT-owned by their investors," Tom says. "I don't like this scenario for recent IPOs. Why did the company come public? Who is really calling the shots? Does the business have genuine and articulated long-term goals beyond the exit points for their primary owners? Blech. Didn't like most of them."
Who's the boss? And why?
With only a handful of companies passing that first test, Tom then started researching some non-financial factors. He concluded that the story -- the reasons behind a company's existence and the leader's presence in the organization -- is among the very most important elements of the examination of a potential investment.
"Look at a CEO like John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods. Did he open his first store because he had a business plan and Wall Street funding and a dream of going public? No, he did it because he really believed in natural and organic foods, and he has lived his life that way." Tom thinks he has found another CEO in the mold of his favorites, people like Mackey, Jim Sinegal of Costco, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks.
The CEO in question is Carl Russo, founder and head of Calix (NYSE: CALX ) , makers of broadband access equipment that lets phone companies deliver next-generation services to residences without expensive upgrades. He stumbled into a career in business after his mother died of leukemia -- his father was too distraught to run the family's electronics distributorship, so Russo abandoned his studies as a research physicist to take over the family business.
Years later, he snagged one of the highest prices ever paid for a privately held tech company in 1999 when he sold Cerent, his optical networking company, to Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO ) for $7 billion. He spent a couple years with Cisco before, according to a BusinessWeek profile, he retired to race cars. No, really. But despite becoming a top contender in the Champ Car series in only two years, he sought out his next challenge.
Mastery at every step
From his investing to hiring at the Fool, Tom loves to find people who demonstrate mastery, figuring someone who has the discipline and drive to become a leader in one field can adapt to another. Russo found success in building his own business, generating huge sales increases at Cisco, racing cars, and then, with Calix, extending the mastery he gained at Cerent to turn around a failing company.
When Russo joined Calix, the company had just laid off half of its employees and was struggling in nearly every way. Today, less than a decade later, Calix is capitalized at roughly $1 billion and counts major players such as CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL ) among its 900 customers. It raised $82 million in its IPO last March, and now boasts impressive top-line growth rates, increasing gross margins, $100 million in cash on the balance sheet, and no debt.
And Calix recently closed the purchase of its fierce rival Occam Networks, a move that makes competitive sense, according to technology analysts GigaOM. "As stand-alone companies, both Occam and Calix were too small and faced competition from much bigger rivals such as ADC Telecommunications [now part of Tyco Electronics]. They also had incomplete portfolios. This is a good combination and a great opportunity for these companies to vie for business from some of the larger broadband service providers who typically opt for the Alcatel-Lucents (NYSE: ALU ) and Huaweis of the world."
Wait, don't buy yet
While all that sounds great, Tom's not ready to pull the trigger just yet. The fact that Russo created $7 billion of value with his previous company and that his new company is capped a little below $1 billion definitely makes this company worth watching ... but not yet a purchase.
"I'm not saying this is a buy. Obviously, valuations are running high across tech," he says. Plus, the stock is lightly traded, so there's definitely the possibility of significant swings in share price, as evidenced by Monday's fleeting drop of nearly 20%. "But this is exactly the sort of situation I like to find and add to my watchlist. I'm looking at companies like this across the marketplace, where a long-term leader has a big stake, there is healthy growth, a sound balance sheet, and then we dig in deeper. I love starting with ownership and leadership."
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