Ryan Fuhrmann, CFA
February 15, 2007
Bar-code design and print firm Zebra Technologies (Nasdaq: ZBRA) has a solid reputation as a conservative yet profitable and growing technology company. And while earnings just fell 33% for 2006, Zebra hasn’t yet changed its stripes. However, the company may need some help to keep running at the head of the herd.
The 2006 results deserve some further explanation. On the top line, total sales improved a respectable 8.2. Particularly strong sectors included the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region, up 12.9%, and Latin America, up 14.4%. Overall, international sales made up half of Zebra’s total and grew nicely; North America makes up the other half, but advanced only 4.9%.
That seems straightforward so far, but during the fourth quarter, Zebra recorded a hefty charge to reserve for an insurance receivable. In September, it took an even heftier $63.8 million charge as it settled a patent dispute with rival Paxar (NYSE: PXR). Both can be considered one-time items, but they collectively caused earnings to drop roughly one-third to $1 per diluted share.
2007 should be better, as analysts on average expect $1.75 in earnings, and Zebra continues to throw off significant free cash flow, even though it also fell year over year. It also avoids long-term debt and has decent international growth prospects, with an overall compelling business model that consists primarily of selling bar code printers and supplies that must be purchased year after year.
I keep an eye on Zebra, because it has grown steadily over the years and generates solid cash flow. But right now, growth is slowing, and cash flow trends have been uneven as of late. The wild card is the company’s exposure to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, with the much-touted potential to tag and track nearly any product, from clothing to cosmetics to beverages.
Retail behemoth Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) has embraced RFID as a way to track its goods, as have Zebra competitors Avery Dennison (NYSE: AVY), 3M (NYSE: MMM), and Motorola (NYSE: MOT), with its recent Symbol Technologies acquisition. RFID has definite potential, and sales are trickling in, but it’s not yet certain how the technology will develop, nor whether firms can make much money creating related products.
Zebra already makes and markets a number of RFID-related printers and coders, and the technology fits well with its core bar-code business. But until the burgeoning market helps inject some more growth into the company, I find Zebra shares a bit pricey at current levels. That said, I could change my stripes on any pullback.
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Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann is long shares of Motorola but has no financial interest in other company other mentioned. Feel free to track him via the latest RFID technology, or email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy