6 Signs of a Winner

The month is October ... the year is 1988. As the underdog Los Angeles Dodgers are shocking the Oakland A's in the World Series, Progressive is trading at $25. Adjusted for splits and dividends, that's around $0.60 per share.

Today, with another baseball season nearly upon us, Progressive sits at around $16. In other words, it's been about a 25-bagger over the past 19 years, turning a $5,000 investment into roughly $125,000. We believe there are several lessons to be drawn from the Progressive story that will help your future investing performance -- lessons that have helped our strong performance in Motley Fool Hidden Gems. We'd like to share them with you today.

1. The power of patience
Meaningful gains do not happen overnight, of course. In late 1988, George Bush had just won the presidential election. George H.W. Bush, that is -- the current president's father. That's certainly not ancient history, but the point is that it took 19 years for Progressive to increase this much in value. Time and patience are two of the most important factors in investing, and they can help overcome mediocre performance, thanks to the power of compounding returns.

Consider that a person contributing $2,500 yearly to an IRA and earning an excellent average annual return of 15% will accumulate about $116,000 after 14 years. Yet someone who started investing just four years earlier will nearly reach the same total by earning an average return of only 10%. The important thing is to simply get in the game as soon as you can. Once you're in, hurry up and be patient.

2. Small is big
Back before it started its fantastic run, Progressive was valued at just $300 million -- a small cap by any measure. Today's future 25-baggers will also be small companies. They will not carry Novartis' (NYSE: NVS  ) $110 billion market cap, for example. While it may very well provide solid returns over the next few years, Novartis' massive size will limit it from achieving jaw-dropping gains. Progressive itself can't even be the next Progressive, because it now sports an $11 billion market cap. Not nearly as big as Novartis, but still too big to achieve supersized gains in the future.

Small companies offer individual investors like us many other advantages. Most institutional investors, with billions of dollars to allocate, must avoid small caps -- at least until they grow larger. That makes small caps underfollowed and increases the chances that they're misvalued.

To see why, consider an analogy we've used before. The less activity in a marketplace or auction house, the higher the probability of pricing inefficiencies. When there's only one bidder for an autographed Michael Jordan game jersey, the chances for mispricing are infinitely higher than when thousands of investors bid every day -- every hour -- on the present price of, say, Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) stock, which trades some 17 million shares each day. That inefficiency provides opportunity for us smaller investors.

3. A penny shaved
Progressive was never a penny stock trading below $1 per share. Future 10- and 100-baggers -- at least the ones we care about -- are most often trading between $5 and $50 per share. They're rarely below $5, and they certainly aren't below $1.

Penny stocks represent ultra-tiny companies whose shares can easily be manipulated by unscrupulous people misrepresenting the businesses' true potential. In short, stay away from stocks that aren't traded on one of the major U.S. markets (the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, or American Stock Exchange), that have no revenues, or that are obviously being hyped via email or discussion boards. You'll save yourself a ton of grief.

4. Dandy dividends
In our research, we're constantly studying big winners of the past to find the common ties that bind them. Capital One Financial (NYSE: COF  ) , building efficiency specialist Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI  ) , and logistics expert Expeditors International of Washington (Nasdaq: EXPD  ) all have different business models and capital structures. All, however, have trounced the market over the years, and all have paid a dividend ever since they were small companies.

Just because a company is small and pays a dividend, though, does not mean that it is destined for greatness. But a dividend is a positive indicator, a telling sign of both financial strength and management's confidence that the company will continue to be solid through good times and bad. Progressive began paying its dividend back in 1971, the year it went public.

5. Shareholder-friendly
In any company we research, we believe it's extremely important that management's interests are aligned with those of the shareholders. While investors want to see their shares outperform over the years, managers who are indifferent to the stock price may be more interested in hiring friends and grabbing perks than creating value. Tyco International, Adelphia ... the list of corporate disappointments goes on and on.

That's why we love to see strong insider ownership at a company. Hess (NYSE: HES  ) chief executive John B. Hess is a good example; he owns about 11% of the oil and gas firm. Peter Lewis, Progressive's chairman and founder, still owns more than 7% of the company. His stake is worth in the neighborhood of $770 million today. If you want to talk about leadership with a vested interest in a business' long-term success, this is the perfect example.

6. Boring excitement
A world-class company like Progressive must be headquartered in New York, right? Or Hartford, Conn., the "Insurance Capital of America"? Nope. It hails from Mayfield Village, Ohio, in the eastern suburbs of Cuyahoga County, about 20 miles from Cleveland. Low-key. No flash. A bit boring, even.

Reminds us of the early days of Wal-Mart, when the company didn't raise an eyebrow among big-time analysts. Wall Street treated Sam Walton's boys like a bunch of hillbillies, it seemed. But these sleepy, small, "boring" companies -- with no hype built into their stock price -- can offer outstanding bargains to us individual investors.

Putting it together
Beating the market with small-cap stocks, as we've been doing in Hidden Gems, is not as difficult as you might think. We simply start by looking at what has worked in the past, and then look for it again.

Hidden Gems is now more than four years old, and our total average return during that time is around 25%, compared with 5% for the same amount invested in the S&P 500. If you'd like to check out all of our recommendations, plus more than 20 valuable investing lessons, we're offering a special 30-day free trial. Click here to give it a whirl.

This article was originally published on April 8, 2005. It has been updated.

Tom Gardner is co-founder of The Motley Fool. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. Rex Moore is a Stock Advisor analyst and does not own shares of any company mentioned. Wal-Mart and Tyco are Inside Value recommendations. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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