After a long, cold summer for deal-making, Disney's (NYSE:DIS) $4 billion deal to buy comic powerhouse Marvel (NYSE:MVL) woke the market back up to the idea that undervalued smaller companies could suddenly start getting gobbled up by cash-rich acquirers.

For investors, an acquisition can be a great way to score a quick gain on your stock. However, betting on a stock simply to speculate on a buyout can often lead to disappointment if a deal never materializes.

So what do savvy investors do? They identify companies that have the potential to be taken over, but also have bright futures as stand-alone companies. For some more specific ideas, I looked to the small-cap seekers at the Motley Fool Hidden Gems service to answer the question:

What's your favorite small-cap takeover candidate that doesn't need a buyout to deliver market-beating returns?

Mike Olsen, senior analyst:
It's easy to see why Vail Resorts -- a collection of mountain resorts that includes Vail and Breckenridge -- is such an exciting story. It has an indefatigable geographic moat, great cash flow, and undervalued assets. Here at Hidden Gems we focus on things that we can measure, so a company with great cash flow always perks us up. And while that's very attractive to us, it also tends to attract private equity firms like bears to honey.

Amid a notably nasty environment for all things consumable, Vail shares have been taken to the woodshed. But even if the company's results only recover in a mild way, we believe that those shares are worth a good third more than where they're currently trading. And in the event that Mr. Market doesn't come to his senses on Vail's stock, I wouldn't be too surprised if those grizzly private equity folks came sniffing around for the sweet smell of cash flow.

After all, the private equity guys can see the exact same things that led us to Vail: It's the owner of some top-notch assets and those assets produce enviably robust cash flows. So one way or another I'm reasonably convinced the shares will see better times -- by means "organic," or forced by a suitor bearing a truckload of cash.

Stan Huber, senior analyst:
If you head to my control room, you'll see my radar beeping madly for a small medical-device company called Natus Medical. Natus has a dominant market position in hearing screening devices for newborns and derives a significant percentage of revenue from sales of disposable, one-use test accessories. It has also added neurology and infant-care products to its portfolio through small acquisitions and has proven adept at integrating these small companies and leveraging sales through its established global sales force.

While the company has ample growth opportunities in the near term, eventually it will need to add a fourth business area if it expects to grow beyond a $250 million revenue run rate. At that point in time, it should be large enough to attract suitors among the large health-care companies like Medtronic (NYSE:MDT) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ).

Since the current management team was brought in by the company's largest shareholder specifically to produce growth through acquisitions, it would seem that a takeover could be a potential exit strategy. If not, Natus should do quite well on its own -- which would be fine by me because I don't want to mourn the loss of one of my favorite ticker symbols: BABY.

Jim Gillies, senior analyst, Motley Fool Hidden Gems:
Brink's Home Security -- or, if you prefer their rebranded identity, Broadview Security -- provides home security systems and monitoring services to over 1.3 million households. A recent spinoff from Brink's Company, the company sports somewhat complex accounting that I believe hides the true, excellent cash flow dynamics of the business.

The company is cash rich, completely unleveraged, has stickier customers than the competition, and trades below seven times what I consider as its "steady-state cash flow" (that is, cash flow assuming new customer sign-ups only match the rate of customer defections). That's too cheap, and even assuming no growth going forward, I think the price should be at least 20% higher today.

Broadview has to remain a public company until October 2010 to preserve tax-free spinoff status for its former corporate parent. If the present cheap price persists, I expect prospective acquirers to start nosing around in November 2010. But if no suitors come bearing roses -- or a high enough buyout offer -- this will continue to be an outstanding stand-alone company.

Seth Jayson, Motley Fool Hidden Gems co-advisor:
In our last issue of Hidden Gems, we featured a trash-can stock that looks to me like it may not last long on the public markets. A favorite of Hidden Gems Dumpster-diver Jim Gillies, IESI-BFC is a trash hauler similar to U.S. giant Waste Management (NYSE:WM), only much smaller. Though the company serves over 1.8 million customers, it's not well known south of Canada, its native turf.

It survived the whole Canadian royalty trust debacle and currently trades at an enterprise-value-to-EBITDA multiple of 6.5 and a free cash flow multiple of under 12. While that valuation isn't stupid cheap, I can easily imagine Mr. Market or private equity paying a lot more once the economy straightens up and "M&A" is no longer a dirty word.

Since trash is a steady business no matter what the economy is like, IESI-BFC should do well over the long haul even in the event it isn't taken out -- so long as you get your shares on the cheap.

Andy Cross, Motley Fool Hidden Gems co-advisor:
How does that old saying about fishing go? Ah, that's right, it's: to catch the most fish go where the fish are.

Well, there is a school of fish swimming around the business services waters, and a few hungry sharks have been diving in -- Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) gobbled up Sun Microsystems back in April and IBM (NYSE:IBM) nabbed SPSS in July.

Who's next to go? Enterprise software provider TIBCO is a likely match for one of the big players such as SAP. However, I've got my eye on Compuware, a software and services provider that counts 46 of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies among its client base. Compuware's operating performance is better than most in its industry, and yet the stock sells at a discount to the rest of the market.

Whether this small fish continues swimming on its own or becomes dinner for one of those hungry sharks, Compuware is a stock I'm watching.

What do you think?
Think you've got a great small-cap acquisition target that we've missed? Scroll down to the comments section and share your thoughts.

The Motley Fool Hidden Gems team believes so strongly in its measured approach to small-cap investing that it's working with $250,000 of real money. Find out about the team's latest buy, along with the rest of the team's thoughts on dozens of high-quality small caps, with a risk-free trial by clicking here

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Johnson & Johnson, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned in this article. Walt Disney and Marvel Entertainment are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Walt Disney is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Natus Medical, Vail Resorts, and Brink's Home Security are Motley Fool Hidden Gems selections. The Fool owns shares of Vail Resorts, Medtronic, and Brink's Home Security. The Fool's disclosure policy has never once been caught with its pants down. Of course, it doesn't actually wear pants ...