Special Report

America's Best Run Companies

Alexander

1. Southwest Airlines Co.
> Industry: Airlines
> Revenue (last 12 months): $18.4 billion
> 1-year share price change: 118.8%

Southwest Airlines had an incredibly strong year in 2014. The airline reaped the benefits of a commitment to domestic flights and of a revenue strategy that did not depend on baggage fees. Although it is a now-common industry practice, Southwest believed baggage fees would undermine its ability to appeal to consumers. Also, Southwest was able to add major routes from its home airport, Dallas Love Field, after the repeal of the Wright Amendment, which limited flights from its hub to just nine states.

Some of Southwest’s strong performances can be attributed to overall positive industry trends: fuel costs have declined; the U.S. economy has improved; industry consolidation has allowed airlines to pack planes more efficiently; and passengers flew more last year than they did in 2013. Moreover, Southwest has outperformed where it matters most — profitability. On a trailing 12 month basis, the airline’s operating margins were better than those of the three national legacy carriers: American Airlines, United Continental, and Delta Air Lines.

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2. Edwards Lifesciences
> Industry: Healthcare equipment
> Revenue (last 12 months): $2.2 billion
> 1-year share price change: 103.2%

For heart valve maker Edwards Lifesciences, 2014 was a banner year, as its share price more-than doubled. The company received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in June to release its newest device, Sapien XT, a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) device. For many high-risk patients, the less invasive TAVR procedure is more suitable than open heart surgery. In the first nine months of 2014, Edwards’ sales of transcatheter heart valves rose by 29%, driven by the launch of the Sapien XT in the U.S. and Japan, as well as by the release of the newer Sapien 3 in Europe.

According to J.P. Morgan, “Over the last half dozen years, Edwards has led the development of the transcatheter valve market – first in Europe, then the US, and now in Japan.” A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that the Sapien XT was more likely to be successfully implanted compared to a rival product from Medtronic.

3. Marriott International
> Industry: Hotels, resorts, and cruise lines
> Revenue (last 12 months): $13.5 billion
> 1-year share price change: 62.9%

Marriott International shares rose substantially in 2014 on the back of an extremely strong year for the company. In the third quarter of 2014, Marriott’s occupancy rate and average daily rate per room were both well above the prior year’s figures. This led to a 9.4% year-over-year increase in revenue per available room (RevPAR), extending a multi-year growth trend following a massive decline in RevPAR during the Great Recession. Higher revenues have also driven up profits. Through September, diluted earnings per share were up more than 23% in 2014 from the year before.

According to a recent report from Barclay’s, Marriott is among the leading hotel chains in adding new units. Barclay’s also noted that both franchisees and lenders prefer Marriott to most other hotel franchisors. The majority of hotels operating under one of Marriott’s brands are franchised.