The backbone of any successful company is strong management. The people at the top ultimately make the strategic decisions and therefore serve as a crucial factor determining the fate of the company. To assess the strength of management, investors can simply ask the standard five Ws: who, where, what, when and why?
Do some research, and find out who is running the company. Among other things, you should know who its CEO, CFO, COO and CIO are. Then you can move onto the next question.
You need to find out where these people come from, specifically, their educational and employment backgrounds. Ask yourself if these backgrounds make the people suitable for directing the company in its industry. A management team consisting of people who come from completely unrelated industries should raise questions. If the CEO of a newly-formed mining company previously worked in the industry, ask yourself whether he or she has the necessary qualities to lead a mining company to success.
What and When?
What is the management philosophy? In other words, in what style do these people intend to manage the company? Some managers are more personable, promoting an open, transparent and flexible way of running the business. Other management philosophies are more rigid and less adaptable, valuing policy and established logic above all in the decision-making process. You can discern the style of management by looking at its past actions or by reading the annual report's management, discussion & analysis (MD&A) section. Ask yourself if you agree with this philosophy, and if it works for the company, given its size and the nature of its business.
Once you know the style of the managers, find out when this team took over the company. Jack Welch, for example, was CEO of General Electric for over 20 years. His long tenure is a good indication that he was a successful and profitable manager; otherwise, the shareholders and the board of directors wouldn't have kept him around. If a company is doing poorly, one of the first actions taken is management restructuring, which is a nice way of saying "a change in management due to poor results". If you see a company continually changing managers, it may be a sign to invest elsewhere.
At the same time, although restructuring is often brought on by poor management, it doesn't automatically mean the company is doomed. For example, Chrysler Corp was on the brink of bankruptcy when Lee Iacocca, the new CEO, came in and installed a new management team that renewed Chrysler's status as a major player in the auto industry. So, management restructuring may be a positive sign, showing that a struggling company is making efforts to improve its outlook and is about to see a change for the better.
A final factor to investigate is why these people have become managers. Look at the manager's employment history, and try to see if these reasons are clear. Does this person have the qualities you believe are needed to make someone a good manager for this company? Has s/he been hired because of past successes and achievements, or has s/he acquired the position through questionable means, such as self-appointment after inheriting the company? (For further reading, see: Get Tough on Management Puff and Evaluating a Company's Management.)
Know What a Company Does and How it Makes Money
A second important factor to consider when analyzing a company's qualitative factors is its product(s) or service(s). How does this company make money? In fancy MBA parlance, the question would be "What is the company's business model?"
Knowing how a company's activities will be profitable is fundamental to determining the worth of an investment. Often, people will boast about how profitable they think their new stock will be, but when you ask them what the company does, it seems their vision for the future is a little blurry: "Well, they have this high-tech thingamabob that does something with fiber-optic cables… ." If you aren't sure how your company will make money, you can't really be sure that its stock will bring you a return.
One of the biggest lessons taught by the dotcom bust of the late '90s is that not understanding a business model can have dire consequences. Many people had no idea how the dotcom companies were making money, or why they were trading so high. In fact, these companies weren't making any money; it's just that their growth potential was thought to be enormous. This led to overzealous buying based on a herd mentality, which in turn led to a market crash. But not everyone lost money when the bubble burst: Warren Buffett didn't invest in high-tech primarily because he didn't understand it. Although he was ostracized for this during the bubble, it saved him billions of dollars in the ensuing dotcom fallout. You need a solid understanding of how a company actually generates revenue in order to evaluate whether management is making the right decisions. (For more on this, see Getting to Know Business Models.)
Aside from having a general understanding of what a company does, you should analyze the characteristics of its industry, such as its growth potential. A mediocre company in a great industry can provide a solid return, while a mediocre company in a poor industry will likely take a bite out of your portfolio. Of course, discerning a company's stage of growth will involve approximation, but common sense can go a long way: it's not hard to see that the growth prospects of a high-tech industry are greater than those of the railway industry. It's just a matter of asking yourself if the demand for the industry is growing.
Market share is another important factor. Look at how Microsoft thoroughly dominates the market for operating systems. Anyone trying to enter this market faces huge obstacles because Microsoft can take advantage of economies of scale. This does not mean that a company in a near monopoly situation is guaranteed to remain on top, but investing in a company that tries to take on the "500-pound gorilla" is a risky venture.
Barriers against entry into a market can also give a company a significant qualitative advantage. Compare, for instance, the restaurant industry to the automobile or pharmaceuticals industries. Anybody can open up a restaurant because the skill level and capital required are very low. The automobile and pharmaceuticals industries, on the other hand, have massive barriers to entry: large capital expenditures, exclusive distribution channels, government regulation, patents and so on. The harder it is for competition to enter an industry, the greater the advantage for existing firms.
A valuable brand reflects years of product development and marketing. Take for example the most popular brand name in the world: Coca-Cola. Many estimate that the intangible value of Coke's brand name is in the billions of dollars! Massive corporations such as Procter & Gamble rely on hundreds of popular brand names like Tide, Pampers and Head & Shoulders. Having a portfolio of brands diversifies risk because the good performance of one brand can compensate for the underperformers.
Keep in mind that some stock-pickers steer clear of any company that is branded around one individual. They do so because, if a company is tied too closely to one person, any bad news regarding that person may hinder the company's share performance even if the news has nothing to do with company operations. A perfect example of this is the troubles faced by Martha Stewart Omnimedia as a result of Stewart's legal problems in 2004.
You don't need a PhD in finance to recognize a good company. In his book "One Up on Wall Street", Peter Lynch discusses a time when his wife drew his attention to a great product with phenomenal marketing. Hanes was test marketing a product called L'eggs: women's pantyhose packaged in colorful plastic egg shells. Instead of selling these in department or specialty stores, Hanes put the product next to the candy bars, soda and gum at the checkouts of supermarkets - a brilliant idea since research showed that women frequented the supermarket about 12 times more often than the traditional outlets for pantyhose. The product was a huge success and became the second highest-selling consumer product of the 1970s.
Most women at the time would have easily seen the popularity of this product, and Lynch's wife was one of them. Thanks to her advice, he researched the company a little deeper and turned his investment in Hanes into a solid earner for Fidelity, while most of the male managers on Wall Street missed out. The point is that it's not only Wall Street analysts who are privy to information about companies; average everyday people can see such wonders too. If you see a local company expanding and doing well, dig a little deeper, ask around. Who knows, it may be the next Hanes.
Assessing a company from a qualitative standpoint and determining whether you should invest in it are as important as looking at sales and earnings. This strategy may be one of the simplest, but it is also one of the most effective ways to evaluate a potential investment.