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STARS YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD OF

Back in 1937, when Motorola Inc. was perfecting the push-button radio for cars, AT&T was still Ma Bell, and cell-phone giant Craig O. McCaw wasn't even born, Victor J. Andrew started selling antennas to radio stations. Victor who? After six decades, the company Andrew founded is still not a household name, but it's riding the same boom in wireless communications to prosperity as its better-known brethren. In BUSINESS WEEK's new Performance Ranking, Andrew Corp. weighed in at No.18.

Over the years, the Orland Park (Ill.)-based company followed the expansion of radio and then TV, supplying nuts-and-bolts components for both. Now, hot demand for yet another technology is fueling its growth. After moving into antennas, batteries, and hands-free kits for cell phones, Andrew now makes the microwave dishes, towers, and transmission lines that send and receive phone signals around the world. Although it is hardly the only company making such cellular gear, a broad international presence has allowed Andrew to grow faster and more profitably than most. These days, almost half its sales are overseas. That helped drive average annual profits up 49.2% over the past three years. Total return for the period: 272.1%.

OFF THE RADAR. Andrew is not the only obscure winner. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index may represent the most closely studied companies in the world, but tucked away in the nooks and crannies are some first-class performers that don't often appear in the limelight. The rigorous growth and performance measures BUSINESS WEEK applied to the S&P 500 companies unearthed a handful of little-known dynamos.

Who are these unsung performers? Some, such as No.33 ranked HealthSouth Corp., are youngsters with a great new product or strategy yet to be recognized by the world at large. Others, such as Andrew, have a longer history but have recently surged along with demand for what they do. ''It amazes me that with all the talent and time that goes into analyzing companies, those with growing profitability can still fly beneath the radar screen,'' says Dwight Gertz, chief executive of Symmetrix Inc., a management consulting firm.

In virtually every measure of growth BUSINESS WEEK tallied, for example, Illinois Tool Works Inc. surpasses its peers in the S&P 500. That was good enough to earn the Glenview (Ill.) company the No.30 spot in our rankings--but throw the name out at a cocktail party and the likely response is: ''Illinois who?'' The $5 billion company produces low-tech gizmos from adhesives to auto handles for manufacturers around the world.

The secret of Illinois Tool's success? Intense decentralization that gives managers the freedom usually reserved for entrepreneurs. ''Is 365 operations too many? Will we lose contact?'' asks CEO W. James Farrell. ''Our division managers say don't screw around with it.'' Shareholders would probably agree with profits that climbed 25%, to $486 million on sales of $5 billion last year, ITW returned 39.1% to shareholders.

Combine a great idea with the right market conditions, and a new leader can emerge before the rest of the world catches on. That's what happened to HealthSouth, No.33. It has grown so fast that few outside its industry realize it's now the nation's biggest operator of outpatient clinics, with 1,000 in 50 states. Founded 13 years ago by Richard M. Scrushy, a former country singer, the Birmingham (Ala.)-based company saw opportunity in the new world of managed care. Scrushy's idea: Buy up small operators, and run them better. With 11 acquisitions, sales have revved up to an annual average pace of 72.2% over the past three years; profits to 201.8%.

CONVERTS. A lot of the strategies that carried better-known companies to the top are also working for these obscure ones. The same focus that made Intel Corp. the best performing company in the bw 50 works a similar magic for Intel's less famous cousin, EMC Corp. EMC's specialty: computer data storage, a market it dominates. EMC's ascent has astounded investors who only 18 months ago were so skeptical the company's ''intelligent storage'' products could deliver what they promised that the stock sat at 18 for months. Apparently, there are now believers. Recently, EMC's stock was trading at 40, and it has returned shareholders 96% over the past year.

In our new Performance Ranking, having a famous name is obviously no guarantee of success. Companies from Walt Disney Co. to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. failed to make it to the top. But obscurity is also no handicap. Out of the spotlight, these little-known companies have quietly racked up marquee-quality results. Now, they're secrets no more.

By I. Jeanne Dugan in New York, with Greg Burns in Chicago, and bureau reports


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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