I was recently reading about a hedge fund manager who goes to the mall and tries to identify the ticker behind every store and product. I can relate. I do the same. It's the only thing that makes shopping bearable.

I pride myself on knowing about lots of companies -- their tickers, their business models, and their future prospects. A few years ago I came across a $15 billion (now $17 billion) company whose name I didn't immediately recognize: Danaher (NYSE:DHR).

Have you heard of it? Maybe you have; maybe you haven't. But I'd argue that Danaher is lesser known than companies capitalized at a similar level. To give you some sense of the flavor of Danaher's cohorts, they include Moody's (NYSE:MCO), Infosys (NASDAQ:INFY), Raytheon (NYSE:RTN), Adobe Systems (NASDAQ:ADBE), Clear Channel (NYSE:CCU), and General Mills (NYSE:GIS). Those are all pretty famous names to which Danaher doesn't immediately stack up.

What's in a name
While you may not know the name Danaher -- adopted by the company founders during a fishing trip on the Danaher River in Montana -- you know its brands: Aaliant, Bindicator, Fisher Pierce, Matco, and Willett, among others. Or maybe you don't. And I don't blame you. These brands are obscure. Willett, for example, "supplies ink jet coders, thermal-transfer printers, label applicators, inks and ribbons."

Danaher is simply a conglomerate of boring companies that the world can't do without.

And the company is adding more and more of these industrial companies to its stable every year. Most recently, the company announced the acquisition of Visual Networks, a leading provider of network application performance management solutions. Like I said, boring companies the world can't do without.

A superior system
The secret to Danaher's success over the years has been its proprietary management model: the Danaher Business System (DBS). Based on the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continual improvement, the DBS is what allows Danaher to acquire companies and make them more and more efficient. According to the company, it also helps meet its four customer priorities: "Quality, Delivery, Cost, and Innovation."

While many of these managerial visions are more hocus pocus than focus, the DBS has done nothing less than deliver incredible growth -- year after year after year. Over the past five years, revenue has grown at a compounded rate of 16.5%, gross profit at a rate of 18.9%, and net income at a rate of 22.7%. That's the magic of the DBS: a bottom line outgrowing a fast-growing top line. Moreover, the company's return on assets is close to 10% and return on equity is close to 20%.

This steady operational performance has earned Danaher investors greater than 30% annualized returns over the past 15 years. But the knock on Danaher has always been that it's vaguely expensive -- a lot like Wrigley. But just like the skinflints who could never bring themselves to pay up for Wrigley's good management, great brands, and strong growth, Danaher skinflints have missed out on incredible returns as well.

Foolish final thoughts
Is Danaher still expensive? The stock is flat this year, a year that has seen 20% revenue growth, 24% income growth, and improving margins. That has Danaher trading for 22x earnings -- approximately 20% less than its historical multiple. And that deal was even better back when I was thinking about making Danaher my Stocks 2006 recommendation: The stock could be had for $50 per share at the end of October. That had the stock trading at 18x trailing earnings -- less than its return on equity (a comparison often used by savvy and successful fund manager Ron Muhlenkamp).

But did I pull the trigger on Danaher? No. I was worried the price would go away too fast, and it did. There has been 15% price appreciation in the last month. A $17 billion company can't hide for long, no matter how obscure its brands.

I like Danaher, I own Danaher, and I think it's a great stock to watch in 2006. But it's not my best idea. That honor goes to the stock I reviewed in The Motley Fool's Stocks 2006 publication -- a company that should deliver 18% annualized returns over the next five years. And like Danaher, it's probably one you don't know. Stocks 2006 also contains insights into 11 more companies poised to help you earn market-beating returns over the next year and beyond. Click here for more details.

Moody's is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. If you're looking for great stocks at great prices, check out a free trial of Stock Advisor and let Fool co-founders Tom and David Gardner be your guides.

Tim Hanson owns shares of Danaher. No Fool is too cool for disclosure ... and Tim's pretty darn cool.