I was shocked by the 10 best stocks of the past 10 years. These were tiny, obscure companies, yet the returns were incredible. Their most obvious shared trait was their size -- they were all tiny 10 years ago.

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how I could have found the best stocks -- the best small caps -- before they were the best.

What'd you do?
Ten is too small a sample size, so I compiled a list of the 100 best-performing small caps of the past decade. While that's still too small to be a definitive sample, it's large enough to yield some meaningful observations.

With the 100 best small caps in hand, I started testing factors that I thought might correlate with great returns: profitability, dividends, balance sheet strength, and insider ownership, to name a few.

I thought I was on to something.

What'd you find?
Of the top 100 small caps, 69 were profitable 10 years ago. After backing out the eight companies we wouldn't expect to be profitable -- oil exploration outfits and young biotech firms -- I had 75% profitability. So could I say that early profitability correlated with outperformance?

Sadly, no. Using today's small caps as a control group, I found 73% profitability. And there's no way 3,496 stocks can be the 100 best of the next 10 years.

Then what?
My next step was to test for insider ownership. I found that 57 of the 100 best continue to have greater than 5% insider stakes. This seemed low, until I compared it with today's small caps, only 47% of which had similar-sized insider stakes.

That got me thinking more about management, and I started looking at the folks behind the 100 best small caps. Were they founders? How long had they been at the company?

And?
The results were astounding. Sixty-six of the best had founders or a CEO who had more than five years of experience at the helm of the company 10 years ago, and who had stayed ever since. An additional 18 had the same CEO at the helm throughout the company's years of incredible performance. Chico's -- the second-best-performing stock from 1996 through 2005 -- is a great example. Chairman Marvin Gralnick founded the company in 1983 and served as CEO until 1993. He returned to lead his company in 1994 when the new CEO resigned. This is a leader who would not let his business down, and the returns for longtime shareholders have simply been mind-blowing.

There are similar stories about the entrepreneurial spirit of leaders like these:

Company

Person

Role

Return 1996-2005*

Chico's

Marvin Gralnick

Founder, chairman

68%

Hansen Natural (NASDAQ:HANS)

Rodney Sacks

Chairman, CEO since 1990

70%

Patterson-UTI Energy (NASDAQ:PTEN)

Cloyce Talbott

Co-founder, CEO

35%

MDC Holdings (NYSE:MDC)

Larry Mizel

Director since founding, chairman, CEO

34%

Armor Holdings (NYSE:AH)

Warren Kanders

Founder, chairman, CEO

24%

Pacific Sunwear (NASDAQ:PSUN)

Greg Weaver

Former chairman and CEO Joined the company in 1987

40%

*Annualized. Data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Compare that performance and longevity with a company like Home Depot. After crushing the market for decades under the leadership of Arthur Blank, Home Depot's returns haven't been the same since Bob Nardelli took over. Even Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Dell shareholders have seen diminished returns since those companies' founders, Bill Gates and Michael Dell, assumed diminished everyday roles.

The Foolish bottom line
While today's average CEO tenure has dropped to less than five years, 84 of the 100 top-performing small caps of the past decade had either a founder or an experienced and devoted CEO leading them to market-trouncing results. That frequency is much greater than in the broader market, which is why analysis of management has become so important to our research at Motley Fool Hidden Gems.

At the end of the day, there's no simple screen to find winners 100% of the time. Yet among small caps, finding great management can get you one step closer. That's why we're happy that our portfolio of winners includes folks such as Leigh Abrams at Drew Industries.

Our recommendations are beating the market by 24 percentage points to date, and we're confident that we can do even better. By concentrating on small caps and great leadership, we hope to uncover the best stocks of the next 10 years. And we'd love to have you join us. Click here to learn more and be our guest free for 30 days.

This article was originally published on Feb. 15, 2006. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. MDC Holdings and Drew Industries are Hidden Gems recommendations. Pacific Sunwear and Dell are Stock Advisor recommendations. Microsoft, Home Depot, and Dell are Inside Value recommendations. No Fool is too cool for disclosure.