Six 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 $0.65 per share. Today, with another baseball season at the midway point, Progressive sits around $19.

In other words -- even with the wild market swings and the current bloodletting on Wall Street -- it's been more than a 28-bagger over the past 19 years, turning a $5,000 investment into roughly $145,000.

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 own 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 20 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 just about 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, and then 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 65-baggers will also be small companies. They will not carry AT&T's (NYSE: T  ) $190 billion market cap, for example. While AT&T may very well provide solid returns over the next few years, its massive size will limit it from achieving jaw-dropping gains. Progressive itself can't even be the next Progressive, because it now sports a $13 billion market cap. While that's not nearly as big as AT&T, it is still too big to achieve outsized gains in the future.

Small companies offer individual investors like us many other advantages. Most institutional investors, who have billions of dollars to allocate, must avoid small caps, at least until they grow larger. That makes them underfollowed and increases the chances that they're incorrectly valued. 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 is 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 Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) stock, which trades some 50 million shares per 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 are most often trading between $5 and $50 per share (at least the ones we care about). They are 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), or 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 past big winners to find the common ties that bind them. Tobacco king Altria (NYSE: MO  ) , energy giant ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , and consumer products maker Clorox (NYSE: CLX  ) all have different business models. All, however, have trounced the market over the years, and all have paid a dividend ever since they were small companies. Clorox has issued dividends since 1969, Altria since 1928, and ExxonMobil has paid them for more than 100 years!

Just because a company is small and pays a dividend, though, does not mean 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 1965, when it was still capitalized at around $250 million.

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 in creating value. Tyco (NYSE: TYC  ) under its previous management team led by Dennis Kozlowski, Adelphia, WorldCom ... the list of corporate disappointments is too long to list here.

This is why we love to see strong insider ownership at a company. Even as firms like Lehman Brothers (NYSE: LEH  ) lose more than half their value in the banking crisis, shareholders know that insiders own some $300 million worth of stock and therefore have people on the inside fighting for their interests.

6. Boring excitement
So 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, approximately 20 miles from downtown Cleveland. Low-key. Not flashy. 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 Arkansas 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 we go looking for it again.

Hidden Gems is now more than 5 years old, and our total average return during that time is around 20%, compared with 1% like amounts invested in the S&P 500. If you'd like to check out all of our recommendations, plus the top five small caps to buy right now, 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 and heads up the Hidden Gems newsletter. He owns shares of Cisco. Rex Moore is a Stock Advisor analyst and owns no companies mentioned. Tyco and Wal-Mart are Inside Value recommendations. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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