If you're like me, you're sick to death of people hyping TVI (NASDAQ:TVIN). Television, Internet, cocktail parties -- you can't escape the thousands of people who have ridden TVI up more than 30 times in value since 2001.

What? You mean you're blissfully unaware of TVI and its chemical and biological decontamination business? Are we going to the same parties? Because if I hear one more person tell me how dumb I was to have missed the rapid growth in infection control, I think I'm going to scream.

Anatomy of a sleepy winner
No, TVI is not a "hot" stock. But it is proof positive that you don't need to find a hot, change-the-world technology to generate great investing returns.

It's one of the best-performing stocks of the past five years, but it's been in business, doing essentially the same thing, since 1977. It's an even better performer than truly "hot" stocks such as electronics designer JabilCircuit (NYSE:JBL), organic grocer Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFMI), wireless telecom giant Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), and networking solutions firm Emulex (NYSE:ELX). Each of these companies has generated massive returns for investors, along with lots of media coverage, yet the near-invisible TVI did better.

That's not to say it's been a smooth ride for TVI's investors. The stock market moves in funny ways -- particularly when it comes to obscure small caps. If you'd bought TVI in 1998 and held it through 2002, you'd have lost money. Very frustrating.

But never forget, a stock and a company are sometimes very different. During this period of stock stagnation, TVI's sales increased more than 150%, and the profit picture improved.

Who could blame an investor for getting impatient? I mean, all of that underperformance is tough to bounce back from, right? But the business continued to grow. The combination of business improvements, a static share price, and increased focus on security acted like a coiled spring. While the company has performed well, the stock has been a 30-bagger.

Leave the stock; take the business
How would you feel if you had given up on the stock just before this incredible rise? Someone did just that. That's why when Fool co-founder Tom Gardner and I are analyzing small caps for Motley Fool Hidden Gems subscribers, we focus more on the business and less on the stock. The former provides the engine for long-term returns, while the latter is little more than the launching point.

We're late to TVI (not to say that this company is finished with its staggering growth), but that's OK -- there are no called strikes in investing. Tom and I comb through the world's best small-cap companies each month looking for opportunities just like TVI. They may not all be 30-baggers, but we're more than happy to be patient with companies that show the kind of trajectory TVI did: a healthy, growing business -- and a totally neglected stock.

For totally free, 30-day guest access to Hidden Gems andBill and Tom's best small-cap stock ideas, click here.

This article originally ran on Jan. 26, 2006. It has been updated.

Bill Mann owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. TVI has been highlighted as a Tiny Gem in Hidden Gems. Whole Foods is a Stock Advisor recommendation. This message is sponsored by the Fool'sdisclosure policy.