6 Companies You Did Not Know Were High-Tech

The best place to invest in high tech for the long term? It’s not where you think.

Different sort of Nike sport shoes in a shop window of a Foot Locker shop.
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How can buy-and-hold investors benefit from breakthroughs like big data, mobile and cloud computing? As tempting as it might be to chase the record profits that pure-play tech can produce, it might be worthwhile to look beyond the volatile industry.

Consider three of the biggest tech names: Apple, Microsoft and Dell. All are struggling with low valuations and unhappy shareholders. Constant upgrade cycles and hyper-competitive markets are not what everyone wants in a long-term investment. A less risky buy-and-hold option might be shares of a company that builds a better brand on the back of breakthrough technologies.

[See: 10 'Digital Utilities' You Use Every Day.]

"Old-economy companies using technology to their advantage can really produce great things using the best of the new and the old," says Michael Pachter, technology research analyst for Wedbush Securities.

Here are six firms you might not think of as technology companies, but that are rewiring themselves to position their venerable brands for future growth:

Nordstrom. How does an old-world, luxury department store chain known for lush fashion displays and personal service survive in a world of one-click ordering? Remarkably well, actually.

"It's surprising that department stores have found themselves in exactly the right spot," says Morningstar analyst Paul Swinand. "Nordstrom is the model for how they can use their stores to display products and the website to display the breadth of what they offer." Nordstrom has invested in a number of innovative online retail companies such as HauteLook and Bonobos, which the company credits with lifting in-store sales as well. Its inventory turns over six times a year, which is about 25 percent greater than the industry average listed by the Retail Owners Institute. Swinand rates Nordstrom as "a good long-term stock to own" because of its tech-savvy operations.

Ford. Can a Detroit carmaker really be considered a technology company? No one would doubt that Tesla, the electric car pioneer from Palo Alto, Calif., is a technology innovator. But Ford might be more of a surprise. The carmaker has a Silicon Valley lab where it uses big data to research car drivers' behavior and other information. Its SYNC car software was created as an open system that allows it to partner with technology providers. In one application, insurer State Farm uses it to collect odometer readings so insurance customers can quality for a really safe driver rate that's verified online.

The automaker is ahead of most rivals when it comes to other advances, like fuel economy improvements and an aggressive push into electric vehicles. "Ford raised the bar in fuel-efficient vehicles – and that is a very critical part of environmental footprint that they addressed," says Rebecca Henson, a senior sustainability analyst at Calvert Investments. She cited the Fiesta and Focus as breakthrough car models at low price points and with high fuel efficiency. Kelley Blue Book lists three Ford cars – Focus Electric, C-Max Energi and the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid – in its top 10 "Green Cars" more than any other global automaker.

[Read: Detroit Auto Rebound: Too Far, Too Fast?]

Henson did not make a forecast on Ford's future financial performance but says by meeting rising global demands for fuel efficiency, it is well-positioned to grow. It's also the only carmaker to avoid a U.S. bailout. She lauded Ford for "the foresight to develop a rainy day fund so it could weather future storms on its own," and also for its fuel-efficient products.

Nike. The Oregon-based global brand has extended its footprint into the high-tech world. Its wearable technology like the FuelBand bracelet lets people measure and track performance. The company's digital designers are looking at how electronic devices will connect people to the Internet so their data can be shared with friends, coaches or trainers.

It also shares code with partners and developers for the FuelBand and other products so they can create applications, such as music, based on Nike's platform. Similarly, the company opens up its planning tools so designers can work collaboratively on shoes and the materials used to make them.