If you could wave a magic wand and bestow just one characteristic on all of your investments, what would it be? (Besides the ability to print money, that is.)

I began thinking about this after reading Tom Gardner's "A 25-Bagger in Five Years," in which he identified three things that give a company the chance to achieve outsized gains over the years -- like 25-baggers that turn $5,000 into $125,000. Of the three he mentions, one characteristic is most important to me: a high level of insider ownership.

Why it matters
This makes sense, right? Think about any of your major personal investments:

  1. You are a stockholder, with a good deal of your wealth riding on this company's performance.
  2. Founders and managers with high levels of ownership also have their wealth riding on the company's performance.
  3. They are doing everything they can to increase the long-term value of their stock -- of your stock.

Having a wonderful time ...
With their reputations, their livelihoods, and their careers on the line, you can be fairly sure these managers and board members are motivated to do what's best for the company. It's like having someone on the inside working for you. Every day.

What is the opposite of that? Businesses in which management has very little tied up in company stock ... in which actions may be motivated by things that actually harm the stock's performance, like office politics, power plays, or working more with an eye on the clock (is it quittin' time yet?) than on improving the business model. Or, even worse, management that rewards itself with high salaries and bonuses that have nothing to do with outstanding performance.

Now, don't be chagrined if you find that some of your larger holdings have a low percentage of insider ownership. For example,Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) is only 0.2% owned by insiders. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has just 0.7%. Their size makes it awfully tough for anyone to own a significant share of the entire business.

But smaller companies are a much different story. In small-cap land, CEOs and managers with high levels of ownership are much more likely to rise above the mediocrity and work toward the common goal of great stock performance.

For instance
I ran a screen for some companies with high insider ownership, but I went a bit beyond that. The following businesses also have strong sales and earnings growth, high net margins, and high returns on equity -- a potentially winning combination.

Company

Insider
Ownership

Sales
Growth*

EPS
Growth*

Net
Margin*

ROE*

Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL)

22%

23%

30%

25%

28%

Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM)

13%

99%

100%

21%

44%

American Oriental Bioengineering (NYSE:AOB)

21%

57%

24%

24%

18%

Navios Maritime Holdings (NYSE:NM)

23%

174%

299%

23%

46%

Pain Therapeutics (NASDAQ:PTIE)

18%

19%

37%

26%

18%

*Trailing 12 months. Data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

And beyond
Insider ownership, especially in smaller companies, is one positive indicator in the quest for tomorrow's multibaggers. There are many more, of course, but insider ownership is one of the core variables we screen for in Motley Fool Hidden Gems.

The process is working, with the average recommendation beating the S&P 500 by more than eight percentage points. We invite you to take a free trial and look through all of our active recommendations -- as well as the team's top five stocks to buy now. There's no obligation to subscribe.

This article was originally published on Feb. 21, 2006. It has been updated.

Stock Advisor analyst Rex Moore yearns for the return of Green Acres. At the time of publication, he owned no companies mentioned in this article. American Oriental Bioengineering is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. Apple is a Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of American Oriental Bioengineering. The Fool is investors helping investors.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.