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Company of the Year: The Other Contenders

The Exchange

While there are dozens of measures an investor can use to judge a company's worth, we recently set out to examine whether a single corporation could be the stock market's equivalent of baseball's MVP of the past year.

Our ultimate choice was Gap (GPS), but it almost wasn't (read our full case for it here). Here's a guide to how we went about it, along with a few possibilities that didn't quite fit the bill for us.

The goal was to have a handful of finalists determined by using an array of fairly simple criteria. We started with a broad universe of more than 20,000 publicly traded securities but felt that the S&P 1,500 – the combined S&P 500, MidCap 400 and SmallCap 600 – was a fair place to go to get our winner.

We wanted to see a few things in particular: Significant share price appreciation, dividend payments – especially a raised dividend – earnings and revenue growth and positive guidance in 2012. We also studied executive pay, leaning toward compensation that wasn't excessive for the job of CEO. Corporate governance factored in, as did the treatment of employees and the company's perception as a positive force in the world. In short, what we wanted was a company that was doing right by its shareholders, its workers and its customers, regardless of industry.

A Strong Showing in Many Categories

Being No. 1 in multiple categories, or even a single category, wasn't required. What was necessary was a strong showing in as many categories as possible. For instance, if a company didn't raise its dividend or doesn't even pay a dividend, that wasn't a dealbreaker, but it would have to make up for that deficiency in other areas. With this outline, we aimed to present the choice in an understandable, accessible way, relying on a mix of these quantitative and qualitative measures that an individual investor could think about without having to hold a Ph.D. in finance.

Share-price improvement alone wasn't going to be enough for this survey, as we hoped for a wider view that included a few intangibles. Gap, for example, was up 70%, but that wasn't even close to being the strongest U.S. performer percentage-wise. We weren't interested, however, in merely choosing a stock that went from 2 cents to 42 cents.

A very strong case was made for online auction site eBay (EBAY), and you can see the detailed rationale for that stock here.  We could have gone with building-products company Headwaters (HW), up 240%, or biopharma name Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (REGN), with a surge of 233% and positive cancer-drug news. If you're a shareholder of either one, you're plenty happy with those gains, and they're probably your personal company of the year. Understood, if you say, "I'll take the gains, and you can keep the rest."

Disney (DIS) was another name that came up for consideration, with a year for the entertainment giant that included the acquisition of LucasFilm, a price increase of roughly 30% and a late-November dividend hike. Maybe DaVita (DVA), a health care stock favored by none other than Warren Buffett, would work for you. It's safe to say the leader of Berkshire Hathaway does due diligence on the stocks in his portfolio, and you won't have to be embarrassed by doing as the Oracle does. The stock has gained nearly 40% this year.

The Corporate Governance Group

If corporate citizenship or governance is where you start, and end, you might have felt good about Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), which, according to Corporate Responsibility magazine, was the corporate citizen of the year. However, you probably wouldn't be happy with the stock, which is down 5% in 2012. IR Global Ratings went with fertilizer producer Potash (POT) as the best for corporate governance practices in North America, so you might have enjoyed investing in a company that takes board matters seriously. Unfortunately, your stock is down 6% since January.

Clearly, any of these are debatable. We've planted a few seeds and given you a sense of what went into our thinking. Picking your own company of the year is what matters for you, and obviously, you've got plenty of options – and many, many names beyond those we've mentioned. And now, what matters even more is getting your 2013 plans in order.