Archive for Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Motley Fool

September 19, 2004


Name that company

I was born in 1930, when a British soapmaker merged with a Dutch margarine producer. I bought Bestfoods and Ben & Jerry's in 2000. My brands include Knorr soups noodles and meals, Birds Eye foods, Bertolli olive oils, sauces and dressings, Slim-Fast weight-loss aids, Pond's skin cream, Dove and Lux soaps, Lipton teas, and Hellman's mayonnaise. I'm the world's largest ice cream producer, too. I employ nearly a quarter of a million people in some 100 nations. Around the world, someone chooses one of my products 150 million times a day. Who am I?

(Answer: Unilever)

No index fund

I know you recommend index funds over most other mutual funds. But there's no index fund available in my 401(k) plan. What can I do? -- W.R., Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Visit your company's 401(k) administrator and explain that broad-market index funds such as those based on the Standard & Poor's 500 index have outperformed the vast majority of stock funds for many years. Ask for an index fund to be added. Meanwhile, you may want to invest in an index fund on your own, either through your brokerage account or directly via a fund company that offers index funds, as many do.

Is there a way for teens to learn about investing with other teens? -- S.F., New Orleans

Teens can form investment clubs. It's true that minors can't trade stock on their own, but teens banding together can still learn together and can set up a pretend portfolio on their own.

Once they find and research companies they want to own, they can do so individually, with a parent acting as custodian of their account.

Teens and adults can learn more about investment clubs at, or call the National Association of Investors Corp. at (877) 275-6242.

Investment clubs are terrific for adults, too -- whether beginning investors or seasoned pros.

Clubs can help you develop investing discipline, and you can share the workload and insights with club mates.

Dividends and commissions

Back in the late '70s or early '80s, I purchased 25 shares of Texaco for $750. The salesman said the commission was too high for 25 shares. I told him I was not going to sell them tomorrow. Well, it was one of my smartest investments, as I now have 163 shares of ChevronTexaco and each quarter's dividend gives me about 1 1/2 shares more for a total of six more shares a year. That definitely was one of my smartest investments. -- Ned Pitcher, Rome, N.Y.

The Fool Responds: Those shares are worth more than $15,000 today, and after having spent $750 on the shares initially, you're receiving more than $500 per year in dividends. Your broker was right to have you think about the cost of the commission -- it makes little sense to pay, say, $25 to buy $100 worth of stock, as you're immediately down 25 percent. But many brokerages today charge low commissions. By keeping your commission costs to no more than 2 percent of your trade's value, you can minimize their effect.

Hiring a contractor

These are tough times in which to hunt for a good contractor to repair or spiff up your home. Mortgage rates are still low, so homes are still being bought at a good clip. And new homeowners, along with existing homeowners, frequently need or want work done on their abodes.

If you look in the Yellow Pages for a contractor, you might regret it. Good contractors generally don't need to advertise -- their services tend to be in great demand, and they're often overextended. A better way to go about it is to ask around and collect names of recommended contractors. Keep an eye out for neighbors having work done, or houses you pass by that are getting impressive facelifts.

Once you find some contenders, here are a few more tips:

  • Check them out. See whether they have any marks against them with the Better Business Bureau, and check your local courthouse, too, to see whether they've been involved in any lawsuits.
  • Check their references and go look at some jobs they've done. Get some older references, too, so you can learn how well their work held up over time.
  • Check their licenses and insurance. Make sure nothing has expired. The Web site may help you.
  • Get several estimates for your job, and ask that they be detailed and itemized, including materials, so that you can compare them easily. You shouldn't necessarily go with the lowest bid, but the range of prices you get will help you decide.
  • Get your contract in writing, and keep records of everything, in case something goes wrong.

Contractors doing any of the following may want to rip you off, so be careful: soliciting business door-to-door, demanding cash payments only, offering unusually long guarantees, requiring payment in full at the outset, pressuring you to decide on the spot and offering to help you borrow money.

Learn much more about dealing with contractors at and at, which also features tips on buying or refinancing a home.

Chico's retailing steamroller

Women's clothing store chain Chico's FAS (NYSE: CHS) continued its string of eye-popping earnings reports with its recent second-quarter results. Just about all of its numbers are quite impressive.

The company logged a whopping 47 percent gain in net sales over year-ago levels, while sales at locations open a year or more climbed an impressive 14 percent. A distinctive and effective corporate identity and a strong showing from new acquisition The White House/Black Market were cited as prime movers. The White House/Black Market brand also boosted earnings per share, which rose 34 percent. Chico's purchased the unique privately held retailer last year in an attempt to reach younger consumers, and so far, it looks like the strategy is working.

After more than doubling in a year, Chico's shares have leveled off from a high near $50 per share. Recently trading in the high $40s, the stock sported a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio around 30. That still seems a bit pricey relative to the company's projected 15 percent growth rate. However, Chico's superior cash pile, debt position, rapid growth, robust profit margins, and dynamic merchandising and business plan make the shares of this women's clothing and accessory category killer quite appealing. You may at least want to keep an eye on this company.

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