There are dozens of ways to evaluate and measure the success of a company -- from customer service to employee satisfaction to profits, payouts, peer rankings, and more.
From an investor's perspective, however, the measures that traditionally receive the most acclaim are rapid earnings growth and a rising stock price.
Too bad this approach to analysis is severely flawed.
Had you based your investing decisions on rapid earnings growth and rising share prices, there would have been no question that Countrywide fit the bill to a T. The nation's largest mortgage lender certainly delighted its shareholders with huge profits from 2003 to 2006. Alas, the company drove itself into bankruptcy by mistreating its employees, homeowners, and mortgage investors -- three key stakeholders in its core business.
On a more mundane level, anyone who's ever had to deal with a surly checkout clerk can tell you that failing to look after employees and customers can result in lost future business for a retailer.
Of, For, and By the People
A lot of people are involved in a company's success -- or failure. As professor Ed Freeman of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia puts it, "Business is about how customers, suppliers, employees, financiers, communities, and managers interact and create value." Several studies suggest that companies that focus on multiple stakeholders tend to achieve better financial performance over the long term.
So which companies have got the mix right? Which ones are able to benefit all stakeholders?
The Best Company in America Is ... What?
For the past several months The Motley Fool has been compiling data and analyzing more than 1,700 public companies to discover the 25 best public companies in America, measured by their success in serving investors, customers, employees, and the world at large.
Some of the names will be familiar to you. Costco earns a spot, as does Aflac, Intel, Whole Foods, Coach, and Starbucks. But there are many you may not have heard of -- and as an investor, that's a shame.
Here are the five that rose to the top of the list. You can get more details on how we made the rankings, and link out to the entire top 25 list from the last slide in our gallery.
The 5 Best Companies in America
The 5 Best Companies in America: You Won't Know Most of Them
The company that came away with the top spot isn't a household name, but chances are that this independent engine manufacturer has contributed to your quality of life.
Since 1919 Cummins (CMI) has been a leader in the design and manufacture of world-class, high-performance engines used in long-haul trucks, buses, light-duty vehicles, and heavy equipment for construction, agriculture, and mining. It also produces power-generation equipment like diesel generators, emissions solutions, and fuel systems. Cummins' products are renowned for their fuel efficiency and reliability. J.D. Power and Associates has measured customer satisfaction for heavy-duty engines for over 15 years, and Cummins routinely ranks first or second.
This consistent level of quality and satisfaction has granted Cummins a brand power that allows it to charge a premium for its engines, supporting a return on equity over 30 percent recently. While Cummins' shares have stumbled over the past two years, the company's been a winner over the long term, returning 170 percent to shareholders over the past five years.
Cummins tops our list not only because of its success delivering positive results to customers and shareholders; employees laud the company's integrity, work-life balance, and culture of development. And, notably, Cummins also has aggressively cut its own greenhouse gas emissions and invests significantly in education and philanthropy efforts across the globe. As more countries adopt progressively stricter efficiency and emissions standards, Cummins' technological edge should prove an enduring advantage.
The bottom line: Cummins' work contributes greatly to a safer, greener world, and its commitment to environmental leadership and workforce development is admirable. Over the long term, shareholders have been richly rewarded, as well.
In 1986, Fortune named Teradata's (TDC) signature technology "Product of the Year." Since then, from the confines of Dayton, Ohio, Teradata has fended off Silicon Valley rivals to become one of the world's most respected names when it comes to handling, synthesizing, and analyzing information.
Teradata is best known for helping Walmart (WMT) analyze its business on a mass scale by deploying the world's first 1-terabyte "data warehouse" in 1992. Today, not only is Walmart still a client, but 25 organizations including Apple (AAPL), Dell (DELL), and Verizon (VZ) now trust more than a petabyte -- 1 million gigabytes -- of sensitive corporate data to Teradata systems.
Combining traditional data warehousing with advanced tools for analysis has kicked up growth and returns on capital in recent years. Employees laud Teradata's friendly and helpful teammates, excellent work-life balance, and professional growth opportunities. The company has implemented a variety of energy-saving techniques that have allowed it to dramatically reduce its energy and emissions intensity.
The bottom line: Teradata's combination of strong positioning, proven business performance, employee satisfaction, and enduring commitment to the wider world affirm Teradata as one of America's best businesses.
Assuming you brush your teeth on a regular basis, Colgate-Palmolive (CL) probably needs no introduction. Although best known for its namesake Colgate brand of oral hygiene products, the company's stable of brand names is an all-star cast of everything from Irish Spring soap to Speed Stick deodorant to Science Diet pet foods. All told, Colgate owns more than 40 brands, which reach consumers in more than 200 countries around the world.
A full quarter of Colgate-Palmolive's approximately 40,000 employees have been with the company for more than 20 years. That remarkable loyalty is a product of the company's values -- caring, global teamwork, and continuous improvement -- as well as its commitment to generous benefits and a healthy work-life balance. In 2010, the company donated $18 million in cash and $21 million in in-kind donations to support various communities around the world.
Colgate also generates incredible returns on capital. It has paid uninterrupted dividends since 1895, and has hiked its dividend for 49 straight years. In 2011, it reported $17 billion in total revenue and $2.4 billion in earnings.
The bottom line: Colgate may appear to operate in a sleepy industry, but it's an extraordinarily profitable company with broad employee satisfaction and a strong commitment to philanthropy.
Google's (GOOG) search engine is so popular that its name has become a verb. It also offers the most popular email (Gmail), mobile operating system (Android), and video website (YouTube) in the world, and its labs are hard at work on the bleeding edge of technology, from wearable computing to self-driving cars. Google's mission, in its own words, is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Key to achieving its ambitious mission is unleashing its employees' passion. Aside from its generous perks, Google strives to create a "family" work atmosphere that emphasizes freedom and transparency. It's the most-desired employer in the world, according to LinkedIn data.
Google holds remarkably firmly to its corporate motto: "Don't be evil" (tax avoidance aside). Its panoply of services brings perhaps more information to more people than at any time in history. In the most recent year, Google provided more than $100 million in grants to nonprofits and educational causes around the world.
The bottom line: Few companies have wrought such a profound change on the world in such a short time as Google, which has done so while managing to substantially grow its bottom line, expand its business in exciting new directions, and do better by its employees than nearly any other company in the world.
Skyworks Solutions' (SWKS) chips refine and amplify real-world data (such as radio waves) to then pass along a cleaner, stronger signal to the next step in the processing chain. The company's biggest seller is its radio chips for use in Apple's iPhones and iPads. But Skyworks doesn't live and die by Cupertino alone.
Besides selling chips to a wide variety of mobile device makers, Skyworks also counts carmakers, medical device designers, and military suppliers among its top customers. Skyworks notes that only 5 percent of today's cars ship with digital communications built in, but expects all cars to be built with this feature within three to five years.
There's no shortage of rivals in the analog processing space, but Skyworks sets itself apart with a laser-like focus on product quality and a unique control over bleeding-edge manufacturing processes. It boasts an enviable customer list, serving companies like Nokia, Cisco Systems (CSCO), General Electric (GE), Philips, and Northrop Grumman (NOC).
Employees like its innovative environment, supportive co-workers, and benefits. In recent years, Skyworks has dramatically cut its water use and hazardous waste production, while also boosting the energy efficiency of its plants.
The bottom line: There's a lot to love about Skyworks, from unstoppable growth to flawless customer lists and top-notch sustainability efforts. Its CEO has run this show for 13 years, and has a solid plan for the next stage of his company's evolution, when smartphones become tired commodities.
The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Cisco Systems, Cummins, and Teradata. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Cummins, General Electric Company, and Northrop Grumman. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.