Energy and biotechnology stocks dominate the list of best-performing stocks over the last decade. Despite the bear market in stocks, the top five each returned more than 1400%. BusinessWeek magazine compiled the list and restricted it to stocks in the S&P 500 with a beta of less than 1.0. Performance was tracked from May 1, 1999 to May 1, 2009.

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Southwestern Energy
(NYSE:SWN)
This exploration and production company is at the top of the list - up an astounding 3662% in the last 10 years. It made its mark by developing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.

The "discovery" of the shale was officially announced in mid-2004, but the company had been quietly accumulating acreage for years, giving Southwestern a cost basis of $40 per acre in those early days. The company now has 71% of its reserves in the shale, and it produced 134.5 Bcfe (billion cubic feet equivalent) from the Fayetteville in 2008.

Celgene (Nasdaq:CELG)
This biotechnology company has the second-best return the last 10 years, moving up 2607%. It started with a focus on drugs to treat cancer and immunological diseases. Ten years ago, its only commercially available drug for sale was Thalomid. An investor looking at Celgne at the end of 1999 would have seen a company with only $26 million in revenues, and GAAP losses for the previous five years. (Learn how to find a healthy pharmaceutical investment in a market full of weak drugs; see Measuring The Medicine Makers.)

XTO Energy (NYSE:XTO)
Another exploration and production company, XTO is up 2088%. It is an acquisitive company, to put it mildly, and has spent the last 10 years buying properties from just about anyone. Sellers included the integrated oil majors who didn't want to bother with North America, other independent energy companies who wanted to concentrate on core areas, and wealthy families who were retiring and wanted to sell privately held assets. Once it closed on the properties, XTO got to work boosting production and proving up reserves. The company ended 2008 with 13.86 Tcfe of proved reserves.

Stericycle (Nasdaq:SRCL)
Investors who were either lucky enough or smart enough to buy this company, which came alive by disposing medical waste, saw a return of 1503%. The company has since added other services. Its revenues have grown from $132.8 million in 1990 to the $ 1.1 billion reported in 2008. (You can't just look at sales, check out Measuring Company Efficiency.)

Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq:GILD)
Another biotechnology stock, Gilead rounds out the list of the top five, up "only" 1491% in the last 10 years. Gilead was a little better off than Celgene 10 years ago, with five approved drugs at the end of 1999. The company also had a five-year streak of GAAP losses.

Stock Picking Is Everything
The list of the top-performing stocks in the last 10 years proves the old point that stock picking is everything, and investors who were able to see past the losses and volatility that some of these companies had in the beginning were amply rewarded.

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