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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By James Brumley, Contributing Writer
| April 12, 2018
Investors love being involved in innovative companies. The market’s love affair with Apple (AAPL) and Amazon.com (AMZN) serve as evidence to that end. Few things are more thrilling than seeing a company bring a new and highly-marketable product to the market, and seeing it turn into a reward for shareholders with the foresight to take a shot.
But there’s a scenario that investors love just as much as (if not more than) buying an innovator. That’s buying into a turnaround story.
Redemption is a powerful aphrodisiac, and for good reason. General Motors (GM), Delta Air Lines (DAL) and even the aforementioned Apple were once on the brink of total collapse, but each managed to regroup and reward investors for their faithfulness.
There’s a fresh crop of turnaround stories – and in some cases even step into – on the market’s horizon. A fair warning: None of these overhaul efforts are guaranteed to take hold. But some of them could be lucrative opportunities for the aggressive, and all of them should be fun to watch unfold.
Data is as of April 12, 2018. Click on ticker-symbol links in each slide for current share prices and more.
BlackBerry (BB, $10.54) – the company that invented smartphones only to be completely squeezed out of that market – never really went away. But it’s barely in the smartphone-manufacturing business anymore; it merely licenses the name. Instead, it is focused on offering software that makes smartphones more secure, and ultimately more powerful to business users.
So far, it seems to be the right move.
BlackBerry is finding far more success as a software outfit than it ever could be as a device maker that must compete with the likes of Apple or Samsung (SSNLF). Its fourth-quarter software and services revenue was up 18.6% year-over-year, and its technology solutions (the arm that’s addressing the growing internet-of-things market) revenue grew 31.4%.
The job isn’t completely finished, but by and large the repair work for this once-iconic company is over. As CEO John Chen recently put it, “We’re done with the turnaround, so to speak,” suggesting the company is ready to take its overhauled company and turn up the heat on its revenue effort. The opportunity certainly is in place, with more than 20 billion “connected” devices forecast to be in place by 2020, and with mobile devices increasingly becoming the centerpiece of our work and personal lives.
It’s safe to say that the 3D printing industry failed to live up to the hype it managed to create back in 2013. Observers predicted a future where consumer-priced 3D printers would be as common as ordinary inkjet printers, while major manufacturers would be upended by enterprising entrepreneurs operating 3D printers in their garages.
It just never happened. Indeed, it’s been so long since 3D printer mania, many investors have forgotten about the movement.
Big mistake. Costs are shrinking, and the market is better educated about what these printers can do. The old dream may finally be realized. Keith Kmetz, program vice president at International Data Corporation, explained of the 3D printing business earlier this year, “There’s a lot of exciting potential that’s been talked about for years. We’re getting closer to fruition.” Recent outlooks for the 3D printing industry suggest the market will be worth $32.8 billion by 2023, growing at an annualized pace of nearly 26% en route.
That gives 3D Systems (DDD, $11.99), which makes 3D printers and all the tools that go with them, a fighting chance to turn its business – and its struggling stock – around. DDD already is showing modest hints of that improvement: Fourth-quarter revenue was up nearly 7% year-over-year, and analysts expect similar progress through 2019.
The retail apocalypse has reached far and wide, making life difficult for stores of any ilk. Department store chain Nordstrom (JWN, $48.37) hasn’t been immune. In fact, the old – and largely family-owned – outfit was looking to go private last year as a way of buying time, raising some money and regrouping without too much investor interference.
An offer to that end was ultimately rejected by the company’s board of directors last month. But one has to wonder: Maybe the attrition of so many other stores in the meantime has left Nordstrom in a position where it can attract a large crowd of shoppers again.
John Burke, CEO of New Jersey-based investment management outfit Burke Financial Strategies, thinks that is what is in the cards. He says, “The key will be which companies can give customers a reason to visit the store because they are not going to do well versus Amazon. Nordstrom is in better shape, for example, because they have done a great job of being at the high-end malls and also at offering help to customers.”
Burke adds, “Nordstrom is still growing revenues and is very profitable,” even if the stock doesn’t fully reflect that success.
All food companies have been struggling with higher commodity costs of late. Not all of them have handled the matter very well, though. Some have been unable to meaningfully cull costs on other fronts.
Dean Foods (DF, $8.82) has been a compelling exception to that norm, at least of late.
Dean ran into a headwind late last year. Fiscal second-quarter income fell 45% year-over-year despite a 4% increase in revenue. Investors clearly assumed the underlying problems were beyond resolution, as they sent DF shares down more than 50% over the past 12 months.
Management appears to know what to do, though. CEO Ralph Scozzafava explained in early May, “We expect to consolidate our supply chain by a meaningful amount over the next 18 to 24 months while also making sure that we deliver the same great quality, value and service that our customers have come to expect from us. For this important reason, we’ll implement our supply chain changes in phases with targeted completion in 2019.”
Dean Foods has been diversifying into ice cream, cottage cheese, sour cream and juice markets, aiming to add new revenue streams at the same time it improves the distribution of its existing product lines. Investors may be underestimating the company’s future.
Ford (F, $11.31) isn’t in any trouble that it actually has to fight to escape. The company may be hitting a cyclical headwind, but last year’s revenues were up 3% year-over-year, helped by 7% growth in Q4. Operating profits still are near record highs.
Clearly investors still aren’t impressed. Ford stock is down more than 35% from its 2014 high and currently sits at multiyear lows.
The problem is largely one of optics. While Ford as a company is doing well, investors have struggled to believe in the company’s direction and future. Ford also has been conspicuously missing the self-driving and “mobility” discussion, even though it’s is addressing both.
To the extent that lackluster messaging is the problem, however, the company is changing things for the better. In March, Ford’s Vice President of Product Development Hau Thai-Tang fleshed out some of the broad brushstrokes of the six-pronged “turnaround” plan unveiled late last year. Those details were enough to spur an upgrade from Morgan Stanley equity analyst Adam Jonas, who wrote, “Our revised target (of $15) gives Ford credit for adjusting its global portfolio to emphasize its strong position in U.S. pickup trucks, where the company has outsized exposure.”
Just for the record, a stake in Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX, $16.63) isn’t for the faint of heart. The biopharma company is fighting a tough battle on multiple fronts, headlined by a mountain of debt and a severely damaged reputation.
Still, there’s just enough hope here to keep things interesting.
You know Valeant, even if you think you don’t. This was the company that outfit activist investor and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman used to aggregate the purchase of several specialty drugs, leaving it with $30 billion in debt just as consumers and the government started to push back against rampant price increases in these specialty drugs. The movement quelled the pricing power of Valeant’s portfolio, but not its debt burden.
Relatively new CEO Joseph Papa is walking that fine line reasonably well, shedding divisions that can fetch a fair price, restoring goodwill with customers and smartly developing or buying new drugs that can actually pay for themselves. It just might work. While it was a big self-serving of Papa to describe Valeant Pharmaceuticals as “a turnaround opportunity of a lifetime” earlier this year, analysts do project modest sales and earnings growth for 2019.
It’s a start.
Courtesy Taubman Centers
Generally speaking, activist investors get a bad rap from mainstream Wall Streeters and investors. Although they often operate in the name of “unlocking value,” all too often that value seems to be self-serving and grounded in the short-term.
Not all activism is bad, though. Sometimes, simply shaking the cage a little with the mere threat of more active involvements from shareholders is enough to get an organization back on track.
Enter Taubman Centers (TCO, $56.93), a real estate investment trust (REIT) that operates 27 malls and shopping centers across America and parts of China. It has not done poorly of late, considering the headwind that brick-and-mortar retail has run into. But it has not done well enough to escape the interest of not one but two activist shareholders. Paul Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management, now has a large stake in TCO, as does Jonathan Litt’s fund Land & Buildings Investment Management.
Singer has kept his peace so far, but not Litt. He recently penned a public letter to Taubman’s chiefs, arguing that “A true shareholder representative with a deep knowledge of REITs and regional shopping malls needs to be added to the Board of Taubman.” He added, “If you remain unwilling to engage, we will look forward to once again taking our case to the shareholders.”
It’s not exactly clear what that meant, but one way or another it looks like changes for the better may be in the cards.
FireEye (FEYE, $18.75) isn’t exactly a household name, but most people understand the importance of what FireEye does. The financial damage done by hacking and cybercrime is expected to reach an annualized pace of $6 trillion by 2021, spurring the investment of $1 trillion in cyberdefense technologies between now and then. FireEye brings a suite of cybersecurity tools to the table.
It hasn’t always been clear whether FireEye would survive long enough to enjoy the opportunity. The company went on an acquisition spree, and for years the bigger its top line got, the bigger the losses it booked. Its bottom line finally made a turn for the better in 2017, though. Now, the pros expect a 2017 loss of 16 cents per share to swing to a 2-cent profit this year, then a 16-cent profit in 2019.
Shares already are perking up in anticipation of what’s to come. FEYE has gained more than 40% over the past 12 months, though they’re still down more than 60% from their 2015 peak. That leaves plenty of room for more upside for investors willing to take the risk.
Oil and gas giant BP (BP, $43.06) has, to put it bluntly, been brutalized for years now. Just when it looked like the reputational and financial impact of its Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was finally winding down, an implosion of oil prices in 2014 further hammered the beleaguered company.
Nevertheless, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
That’s how Michael Windle, financial advisor with Michigan-based C. Curtis Financial Group, sees it anyway. He says, “BP has been paying damages to the Gulf region and has been operating at a loss for the last eight years. However, beginning his year, BP expects to be back in the black. Surprisingly, they made it through the worst oil spill in U.S. history and are now looking to get back on track.
“This isn’t necessarily a ‘feel good’ story, but none the less a very compelling look at how they survived this tragedy and have been able to recover.”
He has a point. Indeed, BP may be stronger for it, since it has been forced to get better at … essentially everything. Analysts expect its revenue to grow 8% this year only to slump 6% next year. But those same pros are calling for nearly a 50% improvement in per-share profits in 2018, followed by at least a little more profit growth in 2019.
Courtesy Mike Kalasnik via Wikimedia Commons
JCPenney (JCP, $3.21) is yet another retailer that appears to be picking itself up by its bootstraps.
For a time, it wasn’t clear a turnaround was even possible. The Ron-Johnson-as-CEO era, from 2011 to 2013, made a bad problem worse – at the worst possible time. The former Apple executive tried to treat the value-oriented retailer like an Apple Store right at the point when the retail apocalypse was picking up steam. Customers who were already getting quite comfortable with online shopping were further alienated by an unfamiliar look and feel of the company’s stores.
Plenty of hurdles still lie ahead. The retailer doesn’t have much of an online presence, and the waning interest in apparel (and waning interest in shopping as entertainment) means there still are too many stores fighting for too little foot traffic. However, JCP’s fourth-quarter same-store sales grew 2.6% year-over-year, backed by a solid swing to a 57-cent profits. This is a turnaround effort you have to applaud.
Courtesy Proshob via Wikimedia Commons
There’s no denying things just haven’t been the same for Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG, $325.08) since it was determined to be the epicenter of an E. coli outbreak in late 2015. While consumers are reasonably quick to forgive and forget things that are tough (though not impossible) to control, the Tex-Mex eatery has limped along for more than two years now thanks to the gaffe.
But if you take a closer look, you’ll see a ray of sunshine peeking through.
Chipotle’s fourth-quarter revenue was up 7.3%, largely thanks to new store openings, but same-store sales were up 0.9% year-over-year. At least the proverbial bleeding has been stopped, and the organization is still profitable. It’s something to build on.
Perhaps more telling than anything about the stock’s future is the fact that investors are starting to believe. While still down more than 50% from its August high, Chipotle shares are testing the waters of higher highs in a way nobody has seen in a couple of years. It’s the market’s way of saying it’s willing to give the new CEO – Brian Niccol, Taco Bell’s former chief – a chance at fully redeeming the restaurant chain.
Not long ago, Twitter (TWTR, $29.00) wasn’t exactly guaranteed a long and fruitful future. Its number of monthly users actually fell quarter-over-quarter in early 2016, and during the first quarter of 2017 its revenue fell for the first time ever. Never even mind the habitual losses Twitter had been booking since its inception.
A funny thing happened in its most recently reported quarter, though. In step with decent revenue growth, Twitter swung to a profit.
Granted, cost-cutting was responsible for most of the move out of the red and into the black. Twitter spent $70 million less on sales and marketing, for instance, and culled R&D spending by about the same amount. The cost-cutting clearly didn’t turn out to be a problem, however. The organization still has enough employees, enough users, and enough paying customers to make it viable.
Sure, Twitter has been lumped in with the likes of Facebook (FB), Alphabet (GOOGL) and other big-tech names with the recent privacy debacle, and rightfully so – Twitter collects a fair amount of information about its users too. JPMorgan analyst Doug Anmuth doesn’t think Twitter faces the same degree of risk its peers are, though, saying late last month, “We recognize that broader industry headlines around use of data and potential regulation may be around for some time, but we believe the pullback in Twitter shares on Data Licensing concerns is overdone and we would take advantage of recent weakness.”
Anmuth added, “TWTR’s execution is improving across both products and advertising, which we expect to drive 11 percent DAU growth in 2018 and accelerating revenue growth of 14%.”
When investors think of telco companies, CenturyLink (CTL, $17.25) isn’t usually one that comes to mind. The days of localized and regional telephone and cable (and now, broadband) companies are mostly in the past.
CenturyLink is something of a relic.
The reality has taken a toll on CTL’s overall results. Bigger rivals are slowly but surely chipping away at the smallish organization’s share. Something’s got to change, and the foray into data centers a few years ago wasn’t it. And, the acquisition of Level 3 Communications has proven to be a headache, as the Department of Justice required the sale of some assets that came with Level 3. The stock’s down a little more than 30% for the past year, as investors have been nagged by too many questions about the company’s future.
The dust is beginning to settle, though, and as it turns out, the company isn’t in quite as much trouble as many have presumed. More than anything, though, former Level 3 CEO Jeff Storey will take over as CenturyLink’s chief in May 2018. It may well be just the tweak needed to get this almost-great company over the proverbial hump. Besides, Storey already led the turnaround from Level 3 Communications, embracing modern technologies like cloud computing and cybersecurity.
Outgoing CEO Glen Post is well-respected, but Storey may be better suited at the helm at this time.
Twenty-two. That’s how many consecutive quarters International Business Machines (IBM, $158.07) saw its revenue fall on a year-over-year basis. The 23rd quarter that ended in December, however, ended the losing streak.
It was a “just barely” improvement, mind you, with the top line up only 1% on a constant-currency basis versus Q4 2016’s total. Investors still are concerned about lagging profits, too. But all big trends start out as small ones, and the pros are modeling slow and steady sales as well as profit-growth for this year and next.
It also wasn’t just a “wait it out” effort, either. Indeed, IBM couldn’t have waited anything out, as its once-iconic products such as mainframes are simply going to be used less and less, replaced by far more flexible cloud-based platforms. Artificial intelligence and IoT are part of the inevitable tech future as well. IBM had to build such products from the ground up, which is what it has being doing for the past several years.
These so-called “Strategic Imperatives” bring IBM into 2018, and they’ll soon account for more than half of the company’s revenue. In Q4, these imperatives made up 46% of IBM’s sales.
Courtesy Mike Mozart via Flickr
Last but not least, if you want to turn a company around, why not call in a turnaround specialist? That’s exactly what Best Buy (BBY, $71.30) did back in 2012, naming Hubert Joly as CEO to prevent the electronics and appliance retailer from ceding any more ground to Amazon.com.
Prior to taking the helm at Best Buy, Joly had proven several times he can save a deteriorating business. He rekindled France’s arm of technology firm EDS, restructured Vivendi’s video game business in a way that ultimately led to a union of it and Activision (ATVI), and he made Carlson Wagonlit Travel relevant again at a time when online travel agent startups were becoming the new normal.
The foundation for the Best Buy turnaround was a specific, detailed plan called “Renew Blue.” It’s working. The company’s Q4 same-store sales improved by a whopping 9% year-over-year, and Best Buy is en route to a fifth consecutive year of per-share profit growth.
The best may be yet to come, with Joly saying last month, “We have turned around the business,” and “it’s about where we go from here.” The forward-looking expansion plan called “Best Buy 2020” is just as tangible as Renew Blue was, offering clear, tangible direction to employees – something so often missing in other turnaround plans that are often little more than a mere list of wishes.