Riding Robots to Riches

"Resistance is futile."

"You will be assimilated."

Our culture is chock-full of references to robots -- irresistible, unstoppable, inhuman machines. But as much as we fear them, we're strangely drawn to the things -- both as moviegoers and, one suspects, as investors.

So if I told you there's a business out there that's using robots to replace the human workers in its factories, you'd probably think: "Cool. The company saves on salaries, health-care costs, and workers' compensation. The employees get to hand off the most dangerous jobs to the machines. Everybody wins."

And if I told you the company also intends to market a line of consumer robots for use in factories, in health care, and as exoskeletons for paraplegics, I suspect that would get your investor Spidey senses tingling. Especially if I told you the company is already publicly traded, and you can invest in it with the click of a mouse.

Until, that is, I mentioned that the company is Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) .

Avoid robotic thinking
Ordinarily, when you think of a "rule breaker" company -- one showing spectacular growth based on a novel idea that changes the way the world does business -- you think small. You think "under the radar," "start-up," perhaps "micro cap." The last thing you think of is a $120 billion company with more than $160 billion in annual sales.

And yet, for all its size, Toyota has a history of thinking like a start-up, of breaking the rules. It wasn't so long ago that the Big Three automakers had the world convinced that hybrid gas-electric automobiles were unworkable, uneconomical, that "the consumer demand just isn't there." But Toyota defied that common wisdom and dared to sell a hybrid car to the consumer market. It dared to compete head-to-head with first-mover Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) -- and to swiftly emerge victorious as the undisputed hybrid-car king. Before Ford (NYSE: F  ) , GM, or DaimlerChrysler knew what hit them, the rules had changed, and Toyota owned a 64% share of the U.S. hybrid market.

Think about investing in robots
"But why stop there?" thought Toyota. It was so much fun crushing Honda the first time, let's do it again. According to a recent report in Japan's Asahi newspaper, Toyota is now taking aim at its Japanese rival in the robot space. While Honda may have won the "cute" vote with its famed ASIMO droid, Toyota now looks like the odds-on favorite to commercialize humanoid robots.

So Toyota has cool ideas. Toyota can turn its ideas into market-dominating products. But isn't Toyota still too big to be a Rule Breaker? Let's find out.

Yes, it can
There's no limit to how old, or how large, a company can be when it shakes up the established order, changes the way business is done, and makes investors a fortune in the process. So long as it passes the series of eight tests originally laid down by Fool co-founder and Motley Fool Rule Breakers lead analyst David Gardner, I'd argue that even a hundred-billion-dollar company like Toyota "could be a contender":

1.A Rule Breaker should be in an important, emerging industry.
Hybrid vehicles that get 60 miles to the gallon? "Real, live" robots? Enough said.

2.A Rule Breaker should be the top dog and first mover with gusto in that industry.
Honda may have blazed the trail for the hybrid revolution. It may have taught ASIMO to walk -- but Toyota's the company that's making money from these concepts. That said, the vast majority of Toyota's revenues are derived from traditional car sales, a mature industry not noted for its Rule Breaking attributes.

3.A Rule Breaker should have a sustainable advantage.
Ever wonder why Toyota keeps gaining market share, and Detroit keeps losing it?

4.A Rule Breaker should have good management and smart backing.
Toyota's performance speaks for itself. And the company earns more than Nissan and Honda combined, more than the sum total of all profits recorded by Ford, GM, and DaimlerChrysler over the past year. In short, Toyota is its own "smart backing."

5.A Rule Breaker shouldhave strong consumer appeal.
Toyota has twice floated the idea of raising its prices in order to help American companies compete for sales. Let me repeat, Toyota is so popular that it has to price itself out of the market if its competition is to remain in business. So yes, I'd say the company's got some appeal.

6.A Rule Breaker stock should have a relative strength of 90 or better.
For all its commercial success, this is the one criterion where Toyota stumbles. While its stock price remains strong, it hasn't been a barnburner in recent months.

7.A Rule Breaker stock should havethe potential to appreciate 10-fold in five years.
Can a $120 billion company become a $1.2 trillion company in five years? It's unlikely, but some large companies have put up impressive results over a five-year span. Consider:

  • In late November 1998, eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) sported a $7 billion market cap. Granted, it's suffered a bit of a slide over the past few months. But before that slide began, the company had experienced a 10-times rise in value within just five years -- despite the entire rest of the dot-com universe collapsing into virtual rubble.
  • Already a large company in 1996, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) managed to grow in value five times in just four years, reaching $50 per share in 2000. And unlike many dot-coms who boasted similar accomplishments, Wal-Mart's still selling up there in the neighborhood of $50.
  • When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) went public at a $24 billion market cap last year, nearly every pundit in the country called it overpriced and doomed to fall. Lo and behold, less than a year later, the company's up more than threefold. Can you imagine a quarter-trillion-dollar Google? Few can. But those few who foresee that future, and accept the risk that it will materialize, may become wealthy Fools indeed.

8.A Rule Breaker stock should havebeen called "overvalued" by a significant constituent of the financial media.
If no one else volunteers, I'll say it: trading at 24 times free cash flow, Toyota looks wildly overpriced for a car company (if it were only a traditional car company). I've been saying the same thing for nearly two years now, and watching in agony as the stock climbed from $50 to $70 -- a 40% gain -- as the S&P 500 rose just 7%.

Of course, given our druthers, any Fool worth his salt would rather buy a Rule Breaker before it crests the $100 billion mark. That's where you find the companies on whose stocks you can retire in comfort. And that's where we focus our efforts at Motley Fool Rule Breakers.

Less than a year into our service, we've already scored our first double -- Archipelago Holdings (NYSE: AX  ) , which looked attractively priced at under $1 billion when we found it. One buyout offer later, the company's now worth twice that sum. With the company likely to merge with the New York Stock Exchange, we'll be out one stock, and up a whole lot of cash.

While I wouldn't bet on Toyota becoming our next pick, the company does score strongly on many of David Gardner's Rule Breakers tests -- so anything's possible. Meanwhile, we recently added another -- much smaller -- robotics player to our team of earth-shaking tiny giants. Even if Toyota isn't your cup of tea, if you're interested in investing in the rapidly growing field of robotics, you owe it to yourself to take a free 30-day trial to Rule Breakers and learn more about this company. You've got nothing to lose, and a brave new world of investing ideas to gain. Fool on!

Fool contributorRich Smithowns no shares in any company mentioned in this article. eBay is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool isinvestors writing for investors.


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