Watsco Continues to Expand

13 Feb

Watsco, Inc. (WSO) continued to roll on its growth path this past year, growing earning per share by 17% while expanding operating margins and gross profit margins year-over-year.

This is a boring business, but a profitable one. Watsco distributes air conditioning, heating, and refrigeration equipment and related parts and supplies. The company is still small and operates in an industry where demographic trends are favorable for continued growth as the industry consolidates. The market is highly fragmented, with over 1,300 companies in the space. The company’s goal is to build out a national network and broaden its product offerings. In this industry, larger players will benefit from economies of scale in purchasing from a concentrated group of manufacturers, and the ability to spread higher revenues over a large fixed cost base – in distribution and store location infrastructure. Watsco is the largest player in the industry, yet commanded only 7.4% of the $26 billion U.S. HVAC market at the end of 2006.

Watsco is controlled by its CEO, Al Nahmad, so while interests of existing shareholders are not aligned directly with shareholders, you can believe he’s looking out for the company’s interest given the amount of net worth he’s got tied up. From a management perspective, I like that they don’t need to worry about dissident shareholders trying to take this thing over. Private equity loves highly profitable companies operating in niche markets with very little debt. All things considered, I’d say the control issue is a good thing for outside shareholders at the moment, because this business is protected from takeovers that should allow it to continue on its growth path.

The risks here relate to the economic cycle. Its products are durables that will be effected by a downturn in economic activity. However, 75% of the company’s revenues are derived from the service and replacement market, which is less cyclical. People still want their homes cool when they don’t have a job.

At current prices, Watsco appears fairly priced, trading at about 17 times forward earnings with a 1.8% dividend yield. For a projected growth rate of around 20% for the next several years, this doesn’t seem overvalued, either. If the stock pulls back to the mid-40s, as it did this past summer and again in late December, I’d think seriously about adding to positions.

Full disclosure: Clients own shares in WSO.

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