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An Extraordinary Investor

Steven Goldberg

An investor discusses how he achieves remarkable returns -- and lessons he's learned.



The cover story for the August issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance is about ordinary investors who have achieved extraordinary results. A key secret to investment success I learned from working on the story: Pick an investment style that matches your personality.

If you're a subscriber to our magazine, you should be receiving your August issue any day now, if you haven't already. Or look for the issue on newsstands next Tuesday.

The cover article features Jim Geist, who hit a home run trading Internet stocks, then had the sense (or was it luck?) to bail at just the right time. It also features Vince Tranchita, who buys and holds blue-chip stocks, confident that they'll eventually rise. Had Geist tried Tranchita's investing methods, he would have died of boredom. Likewise, I'll bet that Tranchita would have failed trading stocks at a breakneck pace.

The article also features an index fund investor and one who picks small-cap value stocks. At the risk of repeating, they shared one trait: They were all comfortable with their style of investing -- so much so that they enjoy investing.

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My favorite investor, Bob Willis, didn't make it into the magazine solely because he turned down a free trip to New York City to be in the photo shoot. He, likewise, had a method of picking stocks that suits his personality. Willis, 45, calls his style "investing by walking around." He's a smart guy; he has lessons worth learning.

When Willis joined the Air Force after college as an engineer, "The other lieutenants and I had money for the first time, and it become cool to talk about investing. I started reading a lot, and I thought, 'This is even more fun than what we're doing at work.'" At the time, he was working targeting cruise missiles -- hardly boring work.

Later Willis had an IRA to manage, and he grew even more intrigued with investing. "I realized this stuff was important for my family, so I'd read magazines, annual reports and books." His favorites: Warren Buffett's annual reports, Robert Hagstrom's books on Buffett and books by the late Sylvia Porter.

He tried and abandoned technical trading systems and several other methods. Soon he settled on his walk-around approach. For instance, working at a gas compression manufacturer, he got to know the trucking industry. "We lived and died by truckers. So I learned which ones were well run: Did they show up on time? Were their trucks in good shape? Did the driver know what he was doing and where he was going? I'd talk to the driver, and I'd ask, 'How do you like working for this company?'" Consequently, he developed a fondness for FedEx (symbol FDX) and UPS (UPS) and invested in both companies.

Willis is now starting up an alternative-energy firm that will concentrate on solar power. As a result of that work, he recently bought stock in Evergreen Solar (ESLR). "I like what they're doing," says Willis. Solar energy, he says, is no longer a shot in the dark: "There are going to be one million solar rooftops in California alone in the next several years."

Not that he buys stocks solely based on impressions. He looks for stocks with low price-earnings ratios, as well as low price-earnings-ratios-to-growth rates (P/E divided by analysts' estimated long-term earnings growth). He also likes stocks that don't yet have much coverage by analysts or institutional ownership -- a strong sign that they haven't yet been discovered. "If the business looks good, and the stock looks like good value, I'll buy some of it," he says.

His mistakes, he says, almost invariably are the result of following tips from friends or from buying stocks in industries he doesn't understand. As an engineer, he's comfortable buying tech stocks. But he, like many others, got caught up in the Internet mania of the late '90s and invested in an Internet mutual fund. It was a poor decision.

But the good picks far outweigh the mistakes. Currently, Willis likes Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (RMCF), based in Durango, Colo. "I visited one of their stores in Dallas, and I liked the chocolate. They've found this neat little niche for premium chocolate, selling individual chocolates and chocolate by the box."

Similarly, he researched voice recognition software, hoping to start a business. He gave up, but later stumbled across Intervoice (INTV). "They had figured out what I failed at. I knew immediately they had the right technology."

Willis has been investing for 23 years now. "I'm just a guy. I'm just a husband and a dad. The investing thing is fun for me." Indeed it is. His annualized return over the past 20 years: 16%.

Now imagine what would have happened to Willis had he stuck with technical investing. My hunch: You wouldn't be reading about him here.

Steven T. Goldberg is a freelance journalist and money manager.




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