America is talking about Affiliated Managers Group!

OK, not really. In fact, there's a good chance you've never even heard of this company. Yet its value tripled after Tom Gardner recommended it in Motley Fool Stock Advisor in September 2002. (He subsequently issued a sell recommendation -- more on that later.)

What made this stock a success? Three main reasons, a couple of which are surprising:

1. Obscure company
Obscure and rather boring, AMG is a holding company of mid-sized money management firms from around the country. These businesses, which invest money in stocks for other people, include Essex Investment Management, Friess Associates, and Tweedy, Browne.

Most great success stories were unknown in the beginning. Even Wal-Mart garnered no excitement in its early days. But these under-the-radar companies can offer us individual investors bargain prices.

2. Efficiently run
AMG has done a great job of assembling high-quality asset management firms and leaving them largely autonomous. Yet all the affiliates benefit from lower administrative costs, access to better technology, new product development, and diversified approaches companywide. In addition, incentives are tied to the performance of cash earnings per share. Haphazard or indifferent management doesn't cut it at AMG. The result is a lean, efficient, well-operated machine.

3. Bad industry
When Tom uncovered this solid business, it had been beaten down nearly 40% from its 52-week high. Of course, we were smack-dab in the middle of one of the worst bear markets in years, and the entire asset-management industry was hurting. Who cared about these companies anymore?

But because of top-notch efficient management, AMG was able to weather whatever the market threw its way. It was also poised to reap big benefits when the market eventually turned around. The result: a quality company available at a bargain price.

The next AMG?
There are many other factors to consider when sizing up a potential investment, of course. But if you can identify a company that's (1) obscure, (2) efficient, and (3) in an out-of-favor industry -- well, that's a beautiful thing. You may have found a stock that's beaten down well below its fair value and is ready to break out when the industry recovers.

To illustrate, I selected a few industries that have hit the skids recently (which ones haven't really?), and screened for companies within those industries that had net margins and return on assets significantly better than industry averages. Here's a short list of such companies, which now trade well below their 52-week highs:

Company

Industry

Recent Price

52-Week High

MetroPCS Comm. (NYSE:PCS)

Comm. services

$6.82

$18.98

Eagle Rock Energy (NASDAQ:EROC)

Oil & gas

$4.58

$7.99

Precision Drilling (NYSE:PDS)

Oil services

$6.90

$9.65

Weatherford Intl. (NYSE:WFT)

Oil services

$15.61

$23.75

HRPT Properties Trust (NYSE:HRP)

Real estate

$6.28

$8.13

Towne Bank (NASDAQ:TOWN)

Regional banks

$12.72

$24.99

Frontier Oil (NYSE:FTO)

Oil & gas

$11.38

$18.40

Some of these aren't quite obscure, but I wanted to include some bigger names you might like to investigate. Just be warned: All these companies are presented for further research only. This is not a "buy" list.

Foolish bottom line
After tripling in value, however, Tom felt Affiliated Managers Group no longer carried a bargain price tag. Though he still believed in management and the business model, Tom issued a "sell" recommendation in 2006 because of AMG's sky-high valuation. But he continues to search for that winning trifecta every month.

The Stock Advisor service is now more than seven years old. Tom and his brother David's recommendations are beating the S&P 500 by an average of 50 percentage points. If you'd like to check out all of the formal Stock Advisor recommendations, as well as the top five stocks to buy now in the current market environment, we're offering a 30-day free trial. Click here to give it a whirl.

This article was originally published on April 21, 2006. It has been updated.

Rex Moore salutes another of his former schools, Robert S. Kerr Elementary in Tulsa, Okla. He owns no companies mentioned in this article. Precision Drilling is a Motley Fool Global Gains selection. The Motley Fool is investors helping investors.