9 One-Time Penny Stocks Didn't Stay That Way

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street showed the world the risk of penny stocks.

Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying Jordan Belfort, spoke with confidence about what he called some of the best business opportunities he’s ever seen, urging the working and upper class to pour their money into these companies.

In reality, he had no idea what these companies do and wooed investors into them for a huge commission payout.

These “pink sheet” stocks require no regular financial reporting or audits, making verification of their claims difficult or almost impossible. As DiCaprio is pursued by the SEC and FBI for securities fraud, he makes millions as his brokers push illegitimate investments.

Fortunately, FINRA and SEC regulations have made it much harder for brokers to swindle people into these companies. However, questionable promotions and pump and dumps are still commonplace.

See also: A Look At Some 'Legit' OTC Stocks

For example, many “promoters” are given shares of a penny stock as payment to advertise it as an investment. When shares rise, the so-called expert can liquidate his position and is left with a fat profit. The key difference between this kind of activity and that in the Wolf of Wall Street is that the promoter does not act as a broker.

See also: Best Brokers for Penny Stocks

Despite the frauds and scam artists, there are legitimate penny stocks. Because of the risk associated with less regulated securities, they are often underfunded and -- every once in a while -- a penny stock really does rise several thousand percent.

The following list is a series of success stories from companies you have probably heard of. It includes a former penny stock scam that miraculously turned into a successful apparel company, formerly successful businesses that collapsed only to be resurrected, and tiny companies whose "big idea" hit the jackpot.

Concur Technologies CNQR

This is a stock with a colorful history. Based in Redmond, Washington, Concur is a global provider of on-demand employee spending management. The company's software allows its customers to integrate, track, and analyze travel and expense data across the enterprise.

The company celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013 and 4,000 more companies chose Concur to manage its expenses. The company has a long term revenue growth rate of 25 percent and is nearing one billion a year in revenue. The company's business, however, was not always so successful.

Although shares soared as high as $48.50 during the height of the tech bubble in 1999, they subsequently crashed along with the Nasdaq. On March 30, 2001, CNQR traded as low as $0.31 on the Nasdaq. Today, those same shares are worth around $107, notching a gain of roughly 34,400 percent from the all-time lows.

General Growth Properties GGP

This real estate investment trust (REIT) was a casualty of the financial crisis. However, notorious hedge fund manager Bill Ackman bet the company would recover, leading to what some call the best trade of all time.

Over the years, General Growth had built a massive portfolio of mall-based real estate that it leased out to tenants. Throughout the 1990s and the better part of the 2000s, GGP was a great investment, hitting an all-time high above $64.00 in March 2007.

During the good times, however, the company made the mistake of loading up on debt to acquire more malls. When credit markets seized up in 2008, General Growth was unable to refinance its maturing debt.

The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2009, but he stock was not worthless because the company's underlying real-estate holdings were still extremely valuable. If General Growth could work things out with its creditors during the bankruptcy process and re-emerge in better financial condition, the stock would still have value. In fact, GGP shares actually rose during the process.

By understanding the intricacies of bankruptcy, Ackman’s Pershing Square fund made a fortune. On February 27, 2009, General Growth shares hit an all-time low of $0.59. Today, GGP is trading at around $20.50, a gain of around 3,375 percent from the lows.

True Religion TRLG

According to penny stock short-seller Timothy Sykes, True Religion is "a pure Vancouver spam-fraud turned 'real' company," (many stock fraud schemes originate out of Vancouver, Canada). In fact, TRLG may be the only example of a penny stock scheme-turned successful company in the history of the stock market.

The catalyst for the company's rise was that its designer "True Religion" jeans actually caught on and became extremely popular.

True Religion announced in July that it would be acquired by private equity firm TowerBrook Capital Partners for $835 million. It’s a pretty amazing story, and even more amazing is the fact that all of this has happened over the course of nine short years. On July 30, 2004, True Religion shares traded as low as $0.67. TowerBrook bought the company for $32 per share.

This supposed scam actually rewarded investors with an incredible windfall: shares rose 4,676 percent from the low.

Pier 1 Imports PIR

This is another example of a once-successful company that was driven to the absolute brink during the financial crisis. Pier 1 Imports sells a range of decorative accessories, furniture, candles, housewares, gifts and seasonal products in its well-known stores.

Although the stock was volatile through the late-1990s and mid-2000s, the company was a success and shares hit a high above $25.00 in November 2003.

In the subsequent years, PIR fell sharply from these levels as business began to struggle. The near coup de grace, however, was the financial crisis and the implosion of the housing market. Given that Pier 1 sells furniture and housewares, the mortgage meltdown devastated its business almost to the point of no return. On March 13, 2009, PIR hit a low of $0.11.

Miraculously, the company never did declare bankruptcy. An improving economy and a rising stock market has subsequently sent the stock back near its old highs. Shares currently trade at $20.64, yielding an 18,500 percent return from the low.

American Axle & Manufacturing AXL

Not only did the housing market collapse in 2008, but the subsequent recession nearly wiped out the American auto industry. The bankruptcies of General Motors GM, Chrysler FIATY, and the near-bankruptcy of Ford F devastated American Axle & Manufacturing.

The company manufactures driveline and drivetrain systems and related components and chassis modules for the automotive industry. It’s not hard to imagine what happened to AXL shares at the height of the financial crisis when some of its biggest customers were declaring bankruptcy.

On March 6, 2009, American Axle shares closed at $0.40. The company was fortunate to avoid the same fate as many of its customers, and managed to stave off a bankruptcy filing. The company has rocketed higher since that point, recording third quarter revenue of 820.8 million in November (up 16.8 percent year over year).

Investors who took a chance and caught the falling knife in 2009 have subsequently been rewarded as the stock trades above $20 today, nearly 5000 percent growth.

BJ's Restaurants BJRI

The story of how BJ's Restaurants went from a penny stock to a company with a market capitalization of over $1 billion is one of perseverance and time.

As of October 2013, the company owned and operated 143 restaurants with plans to open three more by the end of the year. The casual dining establishments are under the names BJ's Restaurant & Brewery, BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, BJ's Pizza & Grill and BJ's Grill.

On April 30, 1997. the little known stock closed at just $1.00. Today, BJRI is trading near $30.00 (but down from roughly $35 at the start of 2012). Investors who took a flier on BJRI at $1.00 and held on, have been richly rewarded as the price has gone up around 28,000 percent during that time.

Quality Systems QSII

This company has seen its share price explode in the 2000s after spending nearly two decades as a penny stock. From the time that QSII went public in 1982 until 2001, the shares rarely traded over $1.00. Over the last decade, however, the company's healthcare information systems and solutions have caught on in the medical field.

The company in 2013 won two gold Stevies, one for company of the year in the computer services category, and the other for CEO of the year in the same category.

Today, Quality Systems has a market cap over $1 billion and the stock is trading near $19. In 2011, shares hit an all-time high above $48.00 and as recently as April 2012, the stock was trading above $40.00 per share.

Since the company’s low of $0.11 in 1988, shares are up more than 17,000 percent.

Monster Beverage MNST

This is probably the most well-known stock on this list as Monster Beverage has become a household name. The company, which was formerly known as Hansen Natural, has been around since 1935, although its business has evolved significantly. The company makes energy drinks, natural soft drinks and fruit drinks.

Real M&A named the company a desirable takeover target, with Coca-Cola KO as a possible candidate. Subsequently, shares made a new 52-week high at $70.49 and are currently trading just below that level with an 11.55 billion market cap.

Believe it or not, it wasn't that long ago that the shares traded below $1.00. On December 29, 1995, Monster shares (then known as Hansen Natural) closed at $0.69 and are now up almost 10,000 percent. As the energy drink market exploded in the last decade, so has Monster Beverage, and this former penny stock became a Wall Street high-flier.

Sirona Dental Systems SIRO

This company has been growing consistently over the last decade and currently sports a market cap of almost four billion. Sirona is a manufacturer of dental equipment that operates on a global basis through an international network of distributors. The stock, which is sitting near all-time highs at $68.67, has produced incredible returns.

On December 29, 2000, the stock closed at $0.27, more than 25,000 percent lower than its current price. Sirona is a perfect example of the potential rewards that can come with investing in penny stocks, even if they are rare.

Posted In: Small Cap AnalysisTopicsSuccess StoriesSmall BusinessTrading IdeasGeneralJordan BelfortLeonardo DicaprioPenny StocksWolf of Wall Street