Some companies are obviously great investments -- in hindsight. Sure, we should have bought Starbucks at its IPO and earned a hundreds of percent return over the years. Yet for every stock out there screaming "buy me," others simply give us a nudge and a nod. How can we tell tomorrow's obviously great investments from the thousands of pretenders?

The stars' walk of fame
On Motley Fool CAPS, these opportunities can be found among our four-star stocks. In CAPS' proprietary ratings system, they rank higher than most of the other 5,500 companies in the CAPS universe, but they're just shy of superstardom. While all the attention might be focused on their five-star peers, we can sift through CAPS to find four-star firms approaching greatness:

  • ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM)
  • Actuate (Nasdaq: ACTU)
  • CDC (Nasdaq: CHINA)
  • FedEx (NYSE: FDX)
  • Spectranetics (Nasdaq: SPNC)

Some of these names might surprise you, since you've probably filled up your gas tank at an Exxon station at one time or another or sent a package via Federal Express. Almost great? Even familiar names can still offer some of the best opportunities. Perhaps we've just forgotten the potential they still hold. However, the 95,000 CAPS investors chose these companies as less obvious sources for tomorrow's great buys, so let's see why they might merit your attention.

Building a better model
Businesses like Actuate help companies understand where they're going by studying what they've done. Using proprietary business analytics, Actuate helps a company perform better by analyzing its operations. While industry giants like Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL) have their own applications, business intelligence, data integration, and modeling are still areas where smaller companies like Actuate and MicroStrategy (Nasdaq: MSTR) can succeed.

Sometimes they do better by getting acquired, too. Hyperion, Cognos, and Business Objects were all bought out by industry titans. Is such a future in the cards for Actuate? Some CAPS investors, like Toumai2, feel it's a possibility, considering the positive developments at the company, its recently announced buyback program, and the industry consolidation already under way. Here's an excerpt from Toumai2's February pitch:

Customer base in principle solid. Although it can significantly influence short term results, the credit crunch is a temporary issue... Actuate has a very interesting proposition in this market and outstanding references. Share buy back program and insider trading are positive signs. Consolidation in [business intelligence] market may make [Actuate] a potential take over target but if so it will be bought at a premium.

Some 97% of the nearly 390 CAPS investors rating Actuate believe it will outperform the market. The bulls include CAPS All-Star tlevine984, who saw potential for expansion in its niche at the beginning of February:

Good company in the business intelligence space. Revenue growth has been soft, which has depressed earnings and the stock got hit hard on 2/1. Definite room for near-term upside!

A great opportunity for you
You've heard directly from CAPS investors on Actuate, but do you agree? Are these four-star stocks still investment-grade material? On Motley Fool CAPS, you can give your input, which can ultimately influence how they're rated. Outperform or underperform, near-term or well in the future, your opinion counts.

Sign up today for Motley Fool CAPS; it's completely free. Let's us hear what you have to say about the great and almost great companies that interest you.

FedEx is a recommendation of Motley Fool Stock Advisor. Deliver 30 days of free stocks with a risk-free trial subscription.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.