Yeah, I know you're not supposed to fall in love with the stocks you own, but can I help it if I really like MSC Industrial (NYSE:MSM)? I've been following it for more than a decade now, since my internship at Alex. Brown in Baltimore. Luckily for me, the company did nothing to disappoint its fans this quarter.

Sales were up a bit more than 12%, operating income grew 23% as margins expanded further, and earnings per share climbed 27% from the year-ago level. And while I'm not a big fan of quarter-by-quarter cash flow comparisons, free cash flow in the first quarter did climb nearly 19% from last year's level.

It's easy to understand MSC's success. The company enjoys the benefits of a direct-sales model (meaning lower overhead), and U.S. manufacturing activity has stayed strong outside of the automobile sector. The company's growing both by exploiting de novo markets like the West Coast and generating higher sales from its existing client base.

Of course, if there's a way to make money that isn't locked beyond thick walls of patents and lawyers, there will certainly be competition. In addition to a sea of mom-and-pops, MSC contends with the likes of Applied Industrial Technology (NYSE:AIT), Grainger (NYSE:GWW), Fastenal (NASDAQ:FAST), and even Lowe's (NYSE:LOW) and Motley Fool Inside Value pick Home Depot (NYSE:HD), to some extent. But as is often the case, a large, growing, and fragmented market means ample opportunity for nimble companies that focus on offering good customer service.

I can't pound the table on this stock, because it no longer trades below what I consider to be a reasonable margin of safety for new purchases. Nevertheless, this company is a champ when it comes to returning value to shareholders (check out the recent dividend increase), and I'm not planning on selling unless it becomes massively overvalued. In fact, the value hound in me wouldn't mind seeing a little dip again -- if only to load up on some more shares at a temporarily depressed price.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson owns shares of MSC Industrial, but has no financial interest in any other stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).