Everyone would love to find the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that gives you everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: If you don't look, you'll never find truly great investments. So let's first take a look at what you'd want to see from a perfect stock, and then decide if MDU Resources (NYSE: MDU) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
When you're looking for great stocks, you have to do your due diligence. It's not enough to rely on a single measure, because a stock that looks great based on one factor may turn out to be horrible in other ways. The best stocks, however, excel in many different areas, which all come together to make up a very attractive picture.

Some of the most basic yet important things to look for in a stock are:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales don't mean anything if a company can't turn them into profits. Strong margins ensure a company is able to turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. Debt-laden companies have banks and bondholders competing with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Money-making opportunities. Companies need to be able to turn their resources into profitable business opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding those opportunities.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. Earnings multiples are simple, but using normalized figures gives you a sense of how valuation fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Investors are demanding tangible proof of profits, and there's nothing more tangible than getting a check every three months. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at MDU.

Factor What We Want to See Actual Pass or Fail?
Growth 5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15% 5.7% fail
  1-Year Revenue Growth > 12% (17.4%) fail
Margins Gross Margin > 35% 24.3% fail
  Net Margin > 15% 6.6% fail
Balance Sheet Debt to Equity < 50% 60.3% fail
  Current Ratio > 1.3 1.51 pass
Opportunities Return on Equity > 15% 10.2% fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 15.66 pass
Dividends Current Yield > 2% 3.1% pass
  5-Year Dividend Growth > 10% 5.5% fail
       
  Total Score   3 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Total score = number of passes.

MDU's score of 3 won't turn many heads. But you may not know that if things go right in its market, MDU could be poised to turn things around in a hurry.

MDU is primarily known for its utility business, as a distributor of natural gas and electricity in the upper Midwest. Like peers National Grid (NYSE: NGG) and Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), MDU has fairly high debt levels, and its net margins leave something to be desired.

But because of its geographic exposure, MDU is also betting big on the Bakken shale gas formation. Just as Enerplus Resources (NYSE: ERF) and Brigham Exploration (Nasdaq: BEXP) have focused on the Bakken as a potential game-changer in natural gas, so, too, is MDU diversifying its business to become a vertically integrated explorer, producer, and transporter of gas.

With natural gas prices in the doldrums, that strategy hasn't paid off yet. But if gas prices rebound, you can expect MDU to follow suit.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

Want to own the perfect stock? Click here to read our special report, "5 Stocks the Motley Fool Owns -- And You Should Too."

True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Duke Energy and National Grid are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.