If you compete against a publicly traded company, don't overlook the opportunity you have to gain insight into your competitor's operation, financing, and strategy. All it costs is the price of a share of the competitor's stock.

Last spring, Jim Pierson bought some shares in a publicly traded competitor that had begun showing up in markets served by his company, J.W. Pierson Co., an East Orange, N.J., wholesaler and retailer of petroleum products. "I wanted to keep track of what he was doing," says Pierson, "and the best way was to read his shareholder reports."

The investment has paid off, he says. "I can actually see where he gets his money, and I now have a good idea about his cost structure and acquisition plans." Not that the information has forced Pierson to alter his own plans. "Mostly it's broadened my perspective and given me new clues to work with. Based on my reading of his costs, for example, I don't think he's in a position to cut his prices. And that's just fine with me."