"As long as there are problems to be solved, there will be innovators to solve them. Companies that use the current tough times as an excuse to de-emphasize innovation are going to severely regret it."
-- Scott Anthony
At first, the idea sounds counterintuitive: Recessions actually offer disruptive companies their best opportunities to dominate. Companies tighten their belts, cash gets hoarded, consumers rein in their spending -- but for the disruptors, it's showtime. That's the chief thesis of Scott Anthony, author of The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times.
Look beyond the surface
Unusual as it may be, the theory appears to hold water. During economic downturns, Anthony argues, an abundance of scarcity forces companies to shed old, outdated business models and develop and produce new ideas. With the help of technology, innovation can occur at lightning speed. Just think, Anthony writes, how quickly Facebook went from a college dorm-room project to a global enterprise.
He also notes that many great companies, such as McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) , FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) , and Burger King (NYSE: BKC ) , were all formed during times of recession.
In fact, more recently, harsh economic times didn't seem to stop First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR ) from announcing plans for the world's largest solar plant, BMW from unveiling the first of its new hybrid vehicles, or salesforce.com (Nasdaq: CRM ) from continuing to develop the cloud computing sector while steadily increasing its revenues.
In addition, mergers and acquisitions will usually pick up speed in recessions, as the companies that have cash become more willing to spend to finance expansion, growth, and creativity. The Boston Consulting Group says this is a smart move -- according to its research, deals done during a recession generate 15% more return to shareholders than deals done during a boom period.
These industry shake-ups can have lasting impacts. Right now, as we steer our way through the greatest recession in decades, there are a plethora of opportunities to take advantage of.
Innovate, innovate, innovate
Craig Barrett, former boss of Intel, has said, "You can't save your way out of a recession; you have to invest your way out." He's right. To truly improve profits, companies can only cut costs for so long. The only true way to come out on the right side of the recession is to innovate, break rules, and hope your ideas are better than the next guy's. The Kauffman Foundation, in a study of entrepreneurship, found that about half of the current Fortune 500 companies were founded during recessionary or bear markets.
That's why companies such as IBM are holding a series of "innovation jams" designed to come up with new and influential initiatives, and why Warner Chilcott is using its financial clout to raise about $4 billion to purchase the drug business of Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) .
Time to break the rules
This line of thinking gets David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool and head of our Rule Breakers team, excited about investing right now. David is a classic growth investor -- he loves companies that are breaking the bounds of normalcy and igniting risky but intelligent shifts in their industries.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with David to discuss his investing strategy. He said he tries to invest in companies that he believes in, but which also have "dark clouds I can see through." David explained that if you can look past that dark cloud of adversity, but others cannot, you will often gain from other people's fears.
That's what David did when he recommended buying Marvel Entertainment about seven years ago. Marvel was a much smaller company then, but one he believed in. Many others thought that superhero movies would be a short-lived fad, and thus assumed the company was a bad investment. David stuck with his gut, recommended Marvel several times over, and has now netted more than a 1,300% gain!
His team recently selected Smart Balance (Nasdaq: SMBL ) as a Rule Breakers recommendation -- one with all the traits of a recession-beater. Although operating in a pretty niche segment -- healthy, cholesterol-reducing food products -- this company already controls about 15% of the buttery spreads market. It has been growing market share for eight years running, and is expanding its presence at two or three times the rate of store brands. That's pretty impressive for a small company operating in a cutthroat industry such as groceries and food products. It has a fantastic 15% debt/equity ratio, and has grown earnings (before interest and taxes) by 460% over the past two years.
The analysts at Rule Breakers offer two new stock ideas every month that fit these same criteria. Some picks have turned out differently than they anticipated, but since 2004, they're beating the S&P 500 by more than 21 percentage points on average. That's pretty impressive.
If you're interested in seeing all of David's past and present stock recommendations, or learning more about Smart Balance, click here for more information. We're offering a 30-day free trial with absolutely no obligation to subscribe.
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This article was originally published on Nov. 19, 2009. It has been updated.
Jordan DiPietro owns shares of First Solar. salesforce.com, First Solar, and Smart Balance are Rule Breakers picks. FedEx is a Stock Advisor selection. Procter & Gamble is an Income Investor pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble. The Fool's disclosure policy is brokenhearted over an early exit in the NFL playoffs.