Self-Preserver Stocks Could Sink Your Portfolio

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Strong companies must constantly evolve to conduct business in better ways that impress and keep their customers. Too often, though, corporate managements and industry interests do everything in their power to preserve their own tired, status quo ways. This blindness to customers' constantly changing tastes and expectations in favor of "what worked before" is dangerous.

Investors should beware such regressionary, growth-destroying behavior, and make sure such "self-preserver" stocks don't make it into their portfolios -- or get kicked out immediately if they do.

Mr. Smith Goes to New York (Times)       
Today, Goldman Sachs (NYS: GS) executive Greg Smith made waves by insulting the brotherly cabal and publicly resigning in an op-ed published in The New York Times. He cited a breakdown of integrity at that financial firm. Smith's major contention is an important one: Not only is the client no longer first, the client is now last or even utterly insignificant, basically there for the bilking.

This isn't the first time the public might ponder whether financial firms have transformed into massive marketing machines and profit-pursuing paper-pushers, rather than remain stewards and protectors of their customers' financial interests. The idea that short-term profiteering has taken precedence over the actual long-term well-being of Wall Street's customers (and the general public) isn't a new concept since the financial crisis, either. Smith's scathing rebuke underlines what many of us probably suspected: These firms still haven't learned any lessons or acknowledged the need to evolve.

This is stagnant, self-preserving behavior. It goes far beyond preserving executives' own paychecks and short-term profits that satisfy today-oriented traders. On a larger level, this reflects the kind of insular, arrogant, self-preserving corporate cultures that forget who customers are, what they want, how they want to be treated, and even why they matter. This behavior can eventually reduce once-great companies to dust.

Predatory preservationists
We can't just fault Wall Street and its top brass for this self-preserving, myopic behavior, though. Many companies and industries forget customers are their life's blood, and instead focus on their own quarter-by-quarter protection of weak or outmoded business models.  

History's full of industries that indulged in the self-preservation of anachronistic business models and trying to save their own short-term interests, rather than truly serving their customers.

Broken record: When digital music first hit the scene, the recording industry went on the attack instead of simply recognizing that customers' musical buying habits were evolving and if the industry properly evolved alongside, there might be opportunities there. The Recording Industry Association of America went on a massive offensive against its own potential customers, suing old ladies, children, and even a few deceased people for piracy. Apple (NAS: AAPL) proved that maybe "modern convenience" was just as important as "free," since many people were willing to pay for music using iTunes.

Yesterday's news: Over the years, the newspaper industry has composed many sad headlines about trying to save its own tired newsprint, relying upon unsustainable moneymakers like classified ads instead of really getting the scoop on what evolved, digitally connected media consumers desired. Granted, evolving with the times is tiring work for an elderly industry, but shareholders can only hope that New York Times (NYS: NYT) , Washington Post (NYS: WPO) , and other old-school media companies can stay ahead of the headlines as the industry continues to change rapidly.

Cue closing credits: Blockbuster is another example. Its customer-unfriendly behavior, including onerous late fees, assumed customer loyalty regardless of treatment. Blockbuster's self-preserving, and ultimately self-defeating, behavior opened the door for Netflix (NAS: NFLX) to run roughshod over its inconvenient brick-and-mortar business model. Fast-forward to today, and Netflix has its own evolutionary battle going down.

You can find plenty of "self-preservers" shelling out millions on lobbying expenditures, too. My Foolish colleague Dan Newman recently penned a piece on fixing capitalism by examining the destructive flow of political spending. Some may defend lobbying as a necessary evil to protect against undue government intrusion, but it can also be viewed as a way for companies to desperately protect their tired old turf through political influence.

True preservation begins with customers' trust
A marketplace consists of transactions: products, services, and customers. A healthy marketplace relies on creating great products, finding and retaining buyers, establishing and honoring trust, and constantly finding ways to give the consumers what they want or need, often even foreseeing it.

Corporate self-preservation of tired, negative methods and arrogant, customer-abusing behavior doesn't work in that equation. Make sure the companies in your portfolio are capable of the humility to walk in their customers' shoes and do right by them, or those stocks will likely sink your portfolio sooner or later.

Some companies take out the backward-looking "self-preservers." For a good example, check out our special report, "Discover the Next Rule-Breaking Multibagger," absolutely free.

Check back atFool.comevery Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

At the time this article was published Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Goldman Sachs, Netflix, and Apple, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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