The First Secret of Small-Cap Investing: DEMAND PROOF OF MANAGERIAL EXCELLENCE
Great businesses are made, not born. And the secret to making a great business is having solid leadership in place — a management team that can drive a company on the route to sustainable excellence.
As with any stock investment, it’s imperative to establish that a small company’s leaders are more than competent — they have the skill and expertise to deliver profits to shareholders. Although there are many ways to determine whether a company’s management team is up to the task, a few factors rise to the top.
First, a company should have an operating history of at least three years. For companies that have recently gone public, this period could include years before its initial offering. There should have been no jarring changes of management during the company’s recent past as well. A company’s management can’t be evaluated without evidence, so the team responsible for the success of the venture to date must still be in place in order to make judgments.
Second, a company must be profitable to be considered for investment. The promise of future profits is not sufficient. Nor is it enough for a company to have recently turned the corner and posted positive earnings for the first time in its history. If a company has been able to deliver several recent years of profitability, management has passed the most important test of its skills.
But it’s not enough that a business’s management is merely competent. Our third suggestion is that stock investors strive for excellence — seek companies that meet or surpass the performance measures of their peers and competitors.
Fourth, the strength and consistency of historical growth is certainly area where investors can discern the hand of management in building a business poised for long-term future success.
Fifth, the trend and level of a company‘s pretax profit margins is perhaps the single most important comparative factor. Successful, quality companies can be identified by the margins they eke out on each dollar of revenue. Higher margins than competitors are almost always a sign of management expertise. Relatively stable annual margins are demanded of all companies. Growing margins are a positive.
To be sure, smaller companies may be in the phase of building their business, investing now to support greater success in the future, so the analysis of margins when compared with more established competitors should keep this possibility in mind.
A company’s return on equity should be reviewed carefully, but this measure not be less useful as a quality consideration for newer-stage businesses. Smaller companies can earn higher returns on initial equity, but these levels are not sustainable. Caution must again be exercised when comparing small businesses with established enterprises. Finally, any company included in a growth stock portfolio must have identifiable drivers of future growth. Tailwinds should be stronger than headwinds. No business can coast to success on the coattails of its past success, so management must be able to present a viable vision for how it intends to grow the business in the years ahead.
Next: the second secret to small-cap investing: Invest for the long term (but monitor in the short term).
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