What springs to your mind when someone talks about ‘defensive’ stocks? Is it the healthcare sector? Healthcare companies do have many attractive characteristics – but many of them carry a lot of debt and are vulnerable to changes in regulation.

Here are three highly defensive – albeit boring – businesses that investors can probably count on, year-in and year-out.

Servcorp Limited (ASX: SRV)

Servcorp operates around 5,400 serviced offices across 53 cities in 22 countries worldwide. Servcorp’s business is geographically diversified, with 32% of its ‘floors’ (on which the offices are located) in the ANZ + South-East Asia region, 24% in North-East Asia, 28% in Europe, Middle-East, and Africa, 15% in the USA, and a gentlemanly 0.1% in India.

Despite an impressive footprint, the company carries no debt and focuses on expanding organically – which is partly why its dividend is so small. Occupancy regularly sits around 75%, leaving room for upside, and as companies increasingly lighten their capital intensiveness, demand for serviced offices should increase. Although shares have risen strongly in recent times, Servcorp remains priced at around 20 times earnings, while its diversification provides an important buffer against a downturn in any given region.

Washington H. Soul Pattinson and Co. Ltd (ASX: SOL)

‘Soul Patts’, as it’s colloquially known, is attractive for a couple of reasons. First, it’s been around for over 100 years. Second, it’s never not paid a dividend. Third, it’s an investment company that employs the kind of long-term thinking that most investors only think they use. It carries a little debt, but has net assets of $3.75 billion, slightly below its total market capitalisation of $3.8 billion (so it’s trading around fair value).

It owns a variety of businesses including property assets, but most of its assets are in listed companies. Soul Patts’ largest holdings are TPG Telecom Ltd (ASX: TPM) (45%), Brickworks Limited (ASX: BKW) (16%), New Hope Corporation Limited (ASX: NHC) (13%)  Australian Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd (ASX: API) (4%) and several others. Figures in brackets are these companies’ percentage of Soul Patts’ Net Asset Value.

So at a stroke, investors get capable management with a long-term time frame, as well as reliable distributions and a broad basket of listed and unlisted investment options.

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Motley Fool contributor Sean O'Neill has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.