Diving into the weeds of a company's business can tell you a lot about whether it would make a good investment. Are sales growing? Is it generating a profit? Does it spend enough on research and development to keep new products in the pipeline?
Those are all tangible factors investors can sink their teeth into, but they don't necessarily tell the whole story of a company's worth.
It's about more than what's in the company ledger
While companies such as Costco and Whole Foods Market deliver the numbers that power them to the top of many stock pickers' lists, it's really more ephemeral attributes that differentiate them from their peers.
Cotsco founder Jim Sinegal's focus on his employees, for example, or Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey's conscious capitalism, are qualities that are difficult to quantify, but place their businesses in a different stratum than that occupied by the likes of Wal-Mart, which belatedly discovered how important it is to invest in its employees, or Sears Holdings, which preferred pinching pennies to upgrading its stores.
A key difference between a poor or bad business and a good or great one is its employees and how they're treated. Do well by them and you will have happier, more loyal, more productive workers.
Setting the bar high
Costco, for example, pays its employees on average over $20 an hour, and 88% of them have health insurance benefits. It has one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the retail industry, at about 5%. For four years running now, Costco has ranked as the best retailer to work for in Glassdoor's annual workplace surveys; in the career website's latest pulse-taking of best corporate executives to work for, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek came in at No. 13 with a 93% approval rating.
You might be surprised, though, to learn about a top boss who is thought of even more highly by his employees than Jelinek, but who heads up arguably one of the most reviled companies around.
Monsanto (NYSE:MON) CEO Hugh Grant placed sixth on Glassdoor's 2015 Highest Rated CEOs survey of the top 50 largest companies, with a 95% employee approval rating, putting him in a rather illustrious group of executives.
Although Monsanto might be the agricultural biotech environmentalists love to hate, and is the poster child for complaints about agri-corporation control over the world's food supply, its employees nonetheless think their boss is the best.
Glassdoor collects anonymous employee feedback about their company's executives over the course of a year, capturing overall job and company satisfaction, qualitative factors about what makes working at the company best, and what could be done to improve the situation. It then feeds the data into a proprietary algorithm that considers the quality, quantity, and consistency of reviews.
A Petri dish for change
Monsanto is a lightning rod for controversy. Its herbicide Roundup is the most popular weed killer in the world. and its crop seeds that are genetically modified to withstand exposure to the herbicide are used worldwide. But there is also growing global resistance to GMOs in the food chain, and consumer calls for labels to identify food that has been altered in the lab are gaining traction. The overapplication of Roundup is also creating "superweeds," plants that have mutated to be able to grow despite being sprayed with the herbicide.
While the demonstrations against Monsanto might create something of a bunker mentality among employees, they still appreciate the person who leads the company against these challenges.
Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant. Source: Monsanto.
Grant has helmed Monsanto since 2003 and has collected a number of accolades over that time, including being named by Barron's as one of the 30 most respected CEOs and being declared CEO of the Year by Chief Executive magazine. He also serves as Monsanto's chairman of the board and is well paid for his duties, earning $13.4 million in total compensation in 2014, a 7% increase from the year before.
Of 487 filtered reviews on Glassdoor, more than three-quarters of those Monsanto employees said they would recommend working there to a friend. As noted earlier, there's near unanimity in their view of Grant.
Many of the comments reflect the belief that management is highly supportive of the workforce, and that it believes in achieving a balance between work and life, providing new hires with vacation and holiday time off, leaves of absence, assistance with adoption, personal development opportunities, and matching charitable gifts.
Follow the leader
So does all that make Monsanto's stock a buy? The stock has been largely trading sideways as the agricultural biotech moves to acquire rival Syngenta. Its Roundup herbicide also faces competitive challenges, which in part explains Monsanto's pursuit of Syngenta. But it spent more than $1.7 billion last year on research and development, and it has the potential to use its recently acquired Climate weather data service to boost seed sales by linking free trials of the service to purchases, meaning there are plenty of avenues for growth.
Still, Monsanto's stock is not cheap based on various financial metrics, but there might be more to its future than just numbers. Glassdoor's ratings of employee sentiment about the company's CEO give investors the opportunity to see what is going on behind the scenes and provides insight into why it might yet make a great investment.
John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Costco Wholesale, Facebook, Google (A and C shares), Nike, and Whole Foods Market. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.