The Ultimate Rule Maker: Cisco

When I think of a Rule Maker, I think of somebody that's ruling the roost in an industry that provides a product or service that's indispensable. I think of the type of company that can sell products at higher prices than its competitors, and customers will still come in droves because the product is just that much better. I think of -- Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) .

The technology aspect of our lives versus only 10 years ago amazes me sometimes. In a given day, I'll watch an on-demand movie from Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) , check the weather over the Internet from my Nintendo Wii, tweak my video queue on my Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI  ) Total Access account, or talk to a friend on my Vonage (NYSE: VG  ) VoIP phone service. Oh, yeah, I might also write a new article from my home in San Francisco and zip it over to Fool HQ in Virginia.

And while there are many different products and services that I'm interacting with along the way there, it's the Internet infrastructure that makes it all possible.

More than just routers
Cisco was born as a company making routers, a key piece of networking technology. Routers connect multiple networks and keep a map (called a routing table) of the best routes for traveling data to take when trying to reach a given destination. Today, the idea of a router has expanded as many other devices, such as switches, have taken on routing capabilities.

Though Cisco has historically been known as a router company, its current product lines span the breadth of networked communications. Cisco still dominates the market in routing, but it also sells optical switches used for switching fiber optic networks, home networking equipment (under the Linksys brand), data security devices, and VoIP phones -- among many other products. And just to make sure it has a hand in all the data coming in and out of your home, Cisco bought Scientific Atlanta, a leader in TV set-top boxes, in late 2005.

Setting down the rules, and it shows
If you've ever had the pleasure of watching Muhammad Ali box, Michael Jordan play basketball, or Wayne Gretzky run the ice, you know what it looks like when a leader sets the pace. Rule Makers like Cisco are the business equivalent of those athletes -- it's their world, and everyone else is just here to watch, or at best play catch-up. And just as Jordan's leadership led to championships for the Bulls, Cisco's eminence has led to industry-leading growth and profitability as well as a whole heck of a lot of cash.

In fact, while Juniper (Nasdaq: JNPR  ) continues to tag along, saying, "Hey, I make good routers too" and Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU  ) busies itself trying to figure out how to make two wrongs into a right, Cisco -- now a $150 billion company -- continues to put up strong double-digit top-line growth. Better still, 20% of that top line makes it to the bottom line and even more ends up as free cash flow. And though Cisco has taken on debt for the first time over the past couple of years, its balance sheet still holds more than three times its debt in cash and investments.

Right now, Cisco isn't quite as cheap as it had been over the past few years, but you can still pick up shares at a decent price given the quality and growth of the company. Even though Cisco is up nearly 50% since the lows it hit in mid 2006, the stock is still only trading at 25 times trailing 12 months' earnings, or a PEG ratio of 1.7 times. Sure it's not exactly "value," but when it comes to true Rule Makers, it can be tough to find them in too many fire sales.

Superstars in the later years
Sometimes, you do end up with that uncomfortable situation when you wish a superstar would just retire. I don't see this happening with Cisco. The company has proved itself adept at both organic growth as well as integrating additive acquisitions. Technological change will keep U.S. companies and consumers coming back to Cisco again and again, while growth and development in emerging markets worldwide will continue to bring new customers to the company's door.

So when it comes to networking, whose house is it? Cisco's house.

Now go back and read about the other contenders for the best Rule Maker. For more stock ideas, visit Motley Fool Inside Value, where we identify industry leaders trading for bargain prices. Try Inside Value free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer's house isn't as big as Cisco's house, but it keeps his head dry all the same. He does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy doesn't make the rules, it just enforces them -- with extreme prejudice. You can visit Matt's CAPS pagehere, or check out his blog here.

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