Revolutionary companies with sky-high growth prospects naturally capture our interest, just as utility or insurance companies almost instantly make us feel ready for a nap. But these impulses won't always steer you right. Some boring businesses can actually lead to exciting gains.

Despite their yawn-inspiring nature, these sleepy companies offer quiet but strong growth, coupled with powerful and steadily increasing dividends. Best of all, they frequently fly under the radar, remaining undervalued as investors seek flash and sizzle elsewhere.

Why boring works
Boring companies can be great investments because they're often part of great companies. If you think that electric cars will take over our highways in the near future, you might automatically think of companies that make such vehicles, such as China's BYD. Unfortunately, every other investor thinks of those obvious companies, too.

Sometimes, the "next hot thing" doesn't even materialize as expected. The Palm Pilot was a great success, leading many people to consider its maker a top-dog pioneer, destined to keep growing its business. Instead, competitors ate its lunch, smartphones now do what Pilots used to do, and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) saved Palm in what some critics call a stupid deal.

Rather than risking a financial flameout, piggyback on great growth by investing in the less exciting players behind the scenes. In the electric-car arena, for example, you might look into companies such as Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI), which are developing batteries for those vehicles. Even if electric cars never take over, Johnson Controls will likely still profit from its activities in climate control equipment, car seats, solar energy products, and more.

Not so boring
Many seemingly dull companies are actually rather interesting (and surprisingly profitable) once you learn more about them. Consider solid waste collection, otherwise known as the garbage business. This $55 billion industry is about much more than trucks and landfills. Waste Management (NYSE: WM) commands 24% of the market, with Republic Services (NYSE: RSG) controlling 17%. Both companies trounced the market's performance over the past decade as they expanded their recycling and recovery efforts.

Waste companies now generate value by recycling all kinds of unlikely castoffs, from roof shingles to electronics, and by generating energy via landfill gases. All of a sudden, their growth potential is far greater than it would be if they were just collecting and piling up trash.

Warren Buffett and his investing colleagues at Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B) were impressed enough with Republic Services to buy shares of it themselves. Trash is just one of the myriad of boring industries in which Berkshire now specializes. It's heavily involved in insurance, energy, railroads, furniture, bricks, rugs, shoes, underwear, and paint (along with businesses that are more exciting to me, such as See's candy and Dairy Queen ice cream). Buffett has averaged 20% annual growth in his company's per-share book value since 1965, mostly with boring businesses.

Stealth performers
Here are two more boring companies to consider:

  • Trinity Industries (NYSE: TRN) makes railcars and their parts, barges, highway construction products, propane tanks, and wind towers. Trinity has beaten the market over the past 10 years, and it's been hiking its dividend by 15% annually on average since 2005. It's likely to benefit from upcoming infrastructure spending and the growth of railroads.
  • Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF) is North America's biggest iron ore producer, supplying pellets to steel companies, along with metallurgical coal. You can probably guess one reason why it's in a slump lately (yes, the recession), and why it might emerge soon (the inevitable recovery). You may not have heard of Cliffs before, but it's a $9 billion company by market cap, with a rapidly growing dividend. Better yet, it's been positioning itself for more even growth lately, building capacity by buying a coking coal producer.

You don't need fancy companies to make you rich. No matter what the market is doing, there are always bargains to be found -- often in places most people don't think to look.

Even exciting companies and recent market darlings seem to be on sale these days. Could this be the opportunity of the decade?

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway and Waste Management are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Republic Services and Waste Management are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing a covered straddle position on Waste Management. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, which is also a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.