The Motley Fool recently released its list of The 25 Best Companies in America, naming the best businesses the nation has to offer. Yet, even among companies that didn't make the final cut, some stocks distinguished themselves with their high quality and promise. Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) is one of those companies, and it definitely deserves at least an honorable mention for its achievements.
The case for Netflix
Netflix is the top supplier of rented video and television content, now present in more than 40 countries, and serving more than 38-million paid subscribers worldwide through the fourth quarter.
Netflix's two main businesses are rent-by-mail DVD delivery, and streaming, though most subscribers choose to interact with the service over the Web. A growing number of competitors have conspired to chip away at the business, but with limited success to date. Of them, Amazon.com possessed an estimated 5 million subscribers as of October.
The stock is down sharply from about $300 a share in the summer of 2011, but has since rallied from lows, thanks to a sparkling fourth quarter report in which the company reported an unexpected profit despite heavy investments to grow its infrastructure and presence overseas. All this indicates that management's prescribed strategy is working. Here's a closer look at what that means for stakeholders.
There's wide variance between how Netflix positions its culture in a now-famous internal presentation given by founder Reed Hastings, and what employees say in reviews at Glassdoor. Only 69% approved of Hastings as of this writing.
"I had a great ride at Netflix up to the point where Reed torpedoed the company with the Qwikster idiocy. Despite the obsession with testing user experience, almost nothing was done to test consumer reaction to the Qwikster plan before it was announced (haphazardly at that)," says one former Director of Engineering.
Such comments might speak poorly for Netflix if Hastings had positioned the company as an open door. Instead, only top performers with the intestinal fortitude to navigate a complex and chaotic market need apply. "Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position," Netflix says in its culture presentation.
For most of its history, Netflix has demonstrated a fervent commitment to the customer experience with its service. Look at distribution. No other company has proven so adept at creating a seamless experience across multiple devices.
Amazon.com and Hulu Plus have made improvements in their own services, of course, but it was Netflix that beat Nintendo to the punch in bringing its own style of streaming to the Wii U console before the gamer had a planned in-house alternative -- TVii -- ready. Netflix has proven to be nimbler than rivals at serving customers.
Consider the Qwikster flap. Real and painful subscriber losses of a year and a half ago have been rendered irrelevant by attractive content deals and successful worldwide expansion. The stock set a new 52-week high recently on better-than-expected fourth quarter earnings.
Which brings us to shareholders. Now that years of capital-destroying share buybacks are behind it, Netflix is aiming its resources at building a competitive content advantage through exclusive deals that include worldwide rights. A recent agreement with Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), which goes live in 2016, serves as a good example.
"The Disney deal is particularly significant because it is our first Pay 1 deal with a major studio in the U.S. and because of the strength of the Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm titles," Hastings said in his first quarter letter to shareholders.
Netflix is also expanding investments in original content with the long-term goal of creating an HBO-like catalog that viewers will find irresistible, which, in turn, would leave room for price increases across a much larger customer base. Investors betting on Hastings executing this vision when the stock was stuck below $60 a share -- as Carl Icahn did -- are now sitting on a double.
While Netflix doesn't have a grandiose purpose in the same sense as Google, which proposes to organize the world's information, Hastings makes no bones about wanting to leave the world a better place. For more than a decade, he's been involved in efforts to improve education in his home state of California. More recently, Hastings joined Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett in signing a pledge to donate half of his family's wealth to charity.
The case against Netflix
If there's a reason to keep Netflix off this list, it would be Hastings' stubborn insistence that buybacks made sense when they didn't. Foolish colleague Morgan Housel did the unfortunate math in a November 2011 column:
Companies have a poor track record of managing share buybacks, but this might be the most egregious example of wasting shareholder money in recent times. By selling $200 million worth of shares for 70% less than it paid for them just months ago, Netflix effectively flushed $140 million of shareholder wealth down the drain in nine months flat. That's the equivalent of losing 1.3 million subscribers for a year.
Doesn't get much worse than that, does it? To be fair, Hastings appears a lot more humble in earnings calls and interviews today than he did two years ago. But this is still an area worth watching.
Should you stream on?
Even though Netflix didn't end up making the Best 25 list, its ability to grow and sign enviable content deals with major studios strongly suggests the company deserved the distinction of being one of our 40 or so finalists. But does the streaming sensation belong in your portfolio?