How Can Help Investors Avoid Costly Mistakes

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May 1, 2014 at 9:05PM

"... company culture is the hardest thing to quantify, but the most important predictor of where a company is headed."
-- Malcolm Gladwell, from an interview with Motley Fool CEO Tom Gardner

Paying attention to corporate culture can be a game-changer for investor decision making. Last summer, when I wrote Can a Sharp "Move" Deflate Zillow and Trulia?, the facts were correct and most of the conclusions were fairly accurate. However, a bias toward traditional measures like ratios, charts, and industry trends neglected to take into account the vast differences in culture between Zillow (NASDAQ:ZG) and Move (NASDAQ:MOVE), the operator of Competitor Trulia (NYSE:TRLA) seems to occupy the middle ground.

What is
Basically, this is a free peek inside the gold mine. Unless you have actually worked for a company, it is very difficult to evaluate how a corporate culture may provide a significant tailwind or headwind. On the Glassdoor site, both current and former employees have an opportunity to anonymously share feelings about their personal experiences. Employers are able to respond and share points of view as well.

It is a very democratic forum. However, keep in mind that everyone is a participant-observer. In other words, it is impossible for individuals not to be influenced by their own unique experiences, and related biases.

The aggregate Glassdoor company and CEO ratings give investors a quick way to compare companies within an industry. When a majority of current and former employees share similar points of view -- clearly the tribe has spoken.

What did the tribes have to say?
Zillow has a ranking of 4.2/5, with a 97% approval rating of CEO Spencer Rascoff, and 85% of employees would recommend the company to a friend. Move has a ranking of 2.9/5, with a 60% approval rating of CEO Steve Berkowitz, and 38% of employees would recommend the company. Trulia has a ranking of 3.7/5, with an 81% approval rating of CEO Pete Flint, and 66% of employees would recommend the company.

In reading the Glassdoor posts written by Move employees, it becomes clear there is a lot of discontent, and little or no confidence that the company will be successful moving forward. Ethical concerns have also been raised regarding sales quotas being more important than providing service to the company's Realtor customer base.

Alternatively, posts regarding the Zillow culture are very positive, and employees have confidence that the company is headed in the right direction. Even more impressive was that CEO Rascoff took the time to reply to the posts that were from employees who chose to leave, or were troubled by an issue. These were very cogent, thoughtful replies, not just a cursory sentence or two.

Move executives vote with their feet
In an eerily predictable fashion, key executives from Move have recently left the company to work for its two competitors.

Fellow Fool Steve Symington recently reported the unsuccessful Move and NAR legal challenges to prevent Errol Samuelson from joining Zillow as chief industry development officer. His replacement at Move, Curt Beardsley, defected to Zillow just two weeks later.

Trulia recently poached Move's List Hub V.P., John Whitney, in attempt to build MLS partnerships and improve listing accuracy.

Changing of the guard?
Historically, Realtors have controlled the lifeblood of residential real estate sales, the multiple listing services, or MLS. Zillow and Trulia provide consumers with a convenient alternative that allows them to conduct their own initial research. Competitors Move and are quick to point out that they have a more accurate platform. However, they may be missing a crucial point.

Zillow and Trulia have been in operation since 2005, although only publicly traded during the past couple of years. However, they have been perceived by Wall Street to have more nimble and creative business models as they relate to disrupting the traditional buyer-seller-agent paradigm. Shares of Zillow and Trulia have lofty multiples based upon traditional metrics, including price-to-sales ratio. Move is not a cheap stock, but compared to Zillow and Trulia, the market does not appear to view Move and prospects for future growth through the same optimistic lens.

 Z PS Ratio (TTM) Chart

Investor takeaway
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that employee confidence in a CEO tracks with Wall Street expectations. There are many questions for investors to consider prior to making the decision to purchase stock in a new public company. How strong is the balance sheet? What does the competitive landscape look like? Does the earnings forecast support the current valuation? Evidently, corporate culture can be an important variable for investors to consider as well.

The collective opinions of how employees feel about management and the future prospects of a company can be viewed as a valuable insight into a company's culture. This factor was totally absent when I did my initial analysis on Zillow and Move. Looking back, it would have been easy to use a free resource like Glassdoor to do this research.

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Bill Stoller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Zillow. The Motley Fool owns shares of Zillow. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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