Far too many of the gigantic companies that failed in our recent economic meltdown shared the same problem. They lost sight of their core businesses and instead focused way too much on complicated financial engineering. In many cases, they were lured by the siren song of "significant extra profits with very little apparent risk" from derivatives and excess leverage.

As should be apparent from the sheer number of huge businesses that failed as the credit market dried up, that was a very tempting siren song, indeed. What made the siren song so alluring was that it played to large companies' key strengths: scale and diversification.

From billions to pennies
You see, as a company gets big, it can start taking advantage of its size. It gets better pricing on its raw materials thanks to its scale and better terms on its loans thanks to its large cash-generating abilities. As its offerings grow over time, the chances are that its products will not all follow identical revenue cycles, and that diversification will make its operations seem less risky.

That is wonderful for the company and its investors, up to a point. And that point is when the company starts thinking of ways to leverage its newly found muscle through fancy financial engineering. When that happens, the company opens itself up to the kind of excessive leverage that brought down Fannie Mae (NYSE:FNM), Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns.

After all, it's really only a small step from financial engineering to the kinds of esoteric spreadsheet-based models that "can't possibly fail outside of a black swan event." Look what happened to General Electric (NYSE:GE). What was once the world's largest company -- known for its industrial products from light bulbs to locomotives and turbines -- was nearly taken down by its finance arm's aggressive lending.

The advantages of staying nimble
A critical factor in the meltdown was excessive debt, or "leverage" as the financial engineers like to call it. When investments work out in favor of a company, that debt magnifies the impact of the returns the company's stockholders see. Leverage looks brilliant when things are going well, but it's a knife that cuts both ways. When an investment turns against a heavily leveraged institution, even a small and otherwise manageable loss can wipe out equity almost instantly.

If a company didn't leverage itself to the hilt, however, it missed out on the magnification effects from the bubble -- and its burst. While the upside may not have appeared nearly as sweet, the downside became survivable. In addition, with a clean balance sheet that helped mute the impact of the crash, that company is now nimble enough to take advantage of the gaping holes left by its failing, overleveraged competition.

How did some avoid that siren song?
Part of what made the initial leverage so tempting to companies was the relentless drive for growth that comes from being publicly traded and subject to Wall Street's pressures. Wall Street can be a very difficult pressure to ignore, because large institutional shareholders can force changes to a company's board and management team.

But if a company has a significant amount of insider ownership, that pressure is easier to resist. High insider ownership reduces the influence of outsiders pushing for greater leverage to juice returns. In addition, high insider ownership means the management team has a lot of its own skin in the game. As a result, as the company succeeds or fails, they personally succeed or fail.

Combine the two -- limited debt and high insider ownership -- and you have a recipe for a successful counterattack on Wall Street's pressure to "lever up."

Five companies set to dominate
Now that the damage has been done, the surviving companies have the opportunity to lick their wounds and recover -- and fill the gaps in the market left by their failed compatriots. And the companies in the best position to fill those gaps are those that survived strongest and most intact. You know, the ones with limited debt and significant insider ownership, like these:


Total Debt
(in Millions)

Net Income
(in Millions)


(in Millions)

Morningstar (NASDAQ:MORN)





National Instruments (NASDAQ:NATI)





Intrepid Potash (NYSE:IPI)





Quality Systems (NASDAQ:QSII)





Lancaster Colony (NASDAQ:LANC)





With a powerful combination like that, the sky's the limit as the economy turns around.

It's companies like these that form the core of our Motley Fool Stock Advisor service: nimble, financially strong, and run by leadership with their own skin in the game. If you're interested in owning your stake of companies like these before they take advantage of the white space opened up by the struggling giants, then join us today. If you'd like to see who has already made the cut as a Stock Advisor selection, click here to start your 30-day free trial. There's no obligation.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta owned shares of General Electric. Morningstar, National Instruments, and Quality Systems are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Morningstar and has a disclosure policy.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.