Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Winona? Who would ever go there?!?

Want to know what the best performing stock in the U.S. has been over the past twenty-five years?  No, it’s not Apple.  Or Microsoft.  Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported that Minnesota’s very own Fastenal (NDQ: FAST) holds that distinction, rising 27% per year since 1987.  That’s double the annual return of Apple and triple the S&P 500.

Fastenal, the Winona-based* distributor of nuts and bolts, is a fascinating story.  Founder Bob Kierlin started the business with a single store, a used car, and boxes of nuts and bolts in the late 1960s and through years of hard work and drive, the company has quietly grown to over 2,500 store locations and 15,000 employees.  It is an all-American story that warms our capitalist hearts.

Fastenal is pretty well-known among investors today, after this amazing period of creating significant wealth for its shareholders.  In fact, it is what you might call a “darling” stock, especially among growth-oriented money managers.  But how well-known was it back in 1987, and what characteristics back then might have led an astute investor to join the party before the run began?

As it turns out, not many investors were paying attention at the beginning.  In 1987, Fastenal had a market capitalization of a mere $50 million, small enough to put it in the bottom decile of public companies at the time and well below the radar of most professional money managers.  Moreover, it was based in a small Midwestern town that most New Yorkers had likely never heard of, and much of its stock was held by employees of the firm.  Far from being the latest, greatest technology company, its operations served a very basic purpose: get nuts and bolts to the people on the manufacturing line who needed it.

The reason that we bring up Fastenal is that there are hundreds of small public companies around the country that share many of the same characteristics as the Fastenal of 1987, many in our own backyard.  These are companies that serve basic needs, are run by honest and hardworking folks, and quietly generate significant returns to their shareholders over long periods of time.  And yet because of their size, or their location, or their unwillingness to play the Wall Street game, their stocks remain below the radar of most investors. 

They are the reason we get excited about investing in small- and micro-cap stocks.

*Several years ago we met with a well-healed investment consultant on the east coast and happened to mention the hamlet of Winona, Minnesota, when talking about a portfolio company.  The consultant, oblivious to how arrogant he was about to appear, exclaimed: “Winona?  Who would ever go there?!?”  Sometimes the best companies come from the most unknown places—just look at Fastenal.