The headline seems preposterous.

Pure substance-less hype.

Prattle. Nonsense. Cheese.

Can anyone really earn 25 times their money in just five years? That computes to an annual return of 90% per year, turning a $40,000 investment into $1 million by May 2011. It strikes veteran investors as unfathomable.

But turn back the clock five and a half years to December 2000, and observe with me Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN), then valued at $140 million. Today, it's worth $3.5 billion. Yep, the stock has risen 25 times in value in little more than five years.

The question is: How could you have found it back then?

Finding great returns
Well, it would have been extremely difficult had you not been intentionally trying to unearth the next small-cap winner. We embrace that challenge with our thousands of contributing members every day in Motley Fool Hidden Gems, because logic and history demonstrate that the major winners of tomorrow are companies capitalized at less than $1 billion today.

So what was so special about Urban Outfitters in 2000 that we actively screen for in Hidden Gems now? Among other things:

  1. Solid financials.
  2. A non-dilutive board.
  3. Founding leaders with major ownership stakes.

Back then, Urban Outfitters featured double-digit sales growth, $20 million in cash, and no debt. Rather than printing stock options like free lottery tickets, the board of directors was buying back stock. The company's two founders -- Richard Hayne and Scott Belair -- were (and are) engaged as board members. Thirty years after starting the business, they had a major incentive to drive the company. Together, they owned more than 45% of the business. Their combined stock holdings were worth $77 million in 2000. Today, they still own more than $1 billion of Urban Outfitters stock.

Other companies that have fit this mold in the past are Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) unit America Online, Gap (NYSE:GPS), Simpson Manufacturing (NYSE:SSD), HJ Heinz (NYSE:HNZ), as well as The Washington Post (NYSE:WPO) and Columbia Sportswear (NASDAQ:COLM).

These factors -- solid financials, a non-dilutive board, and founding leaders with major ownership stakes -- are some of the core variables we screen for in Hidden Gems. From there, we carry out qualitative research with our thousands of members. To go beyond the quantitative screen, you have to do qualitative research to learn that back in 2000, Urban Outfitters was powering up its expansion of Anthropologie stores with great success.

All the way to a 25-bagger.

We are looking for the greatest small caps today in Hidden Gems. Take a free trial, read through our 50 active recommendations, and do so with no obligation to subscribe by clicking here.

This article was originally published on Dec. 22, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool co-founder and Hidden Gems lead analyst Tom Gardner owns shares of Time Warner. Columbia Sportswear is a Hidden Gems recommendation. Time Warner and Gap are Stock Advisor recommendations.HJ Heinz is an Income Investor recommendation. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.