Monday 18 December 2017

Share watch: Smiths took off when it lost its interest in speed

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John Lynch

Smiths was very familiar to drivers of British cars (when Britain had a huge car industry) because it was written where it could not be missed - right in the middle of the speedometer.

Smiths was the standard speedometer for pretty much all UK motors and such was the power of the logo that for some of us, the name, along with the sleekness of Jaguar styling and the peerless luxury of the Rolls-Royce, are the things we miss since the British motor industry no longer holds sway.

Smiths, the corporation, hasn't faded away. It just got out of the speedometer business. It is still a sprawling UK conglomerate, now making seals for oil pipelines, medical syringes and electronic equipment and detection scanners.

It has direct operations in 50 countries, markets its products in 180 countries, employs 23,000 people globally and is valued by the market at £5.3bn.

The company delivers its services through five divisions: John Crane, Medical, Detection, Interconnect and Flex-Tek.

However, it is the Crane and its medical division that are the key to profitability. These offshoots account for over 70pc of the group's operating profits.

The Crane arm manufactures a range of products like mechanical seals, couplings and bearings, so essential in the mining and oil industries.

Unfortunately, Crane - Smiths' largest division - suffered as crude oil prices tumbled. Its sales of £900m are down 4pc on the previous year but the operating profit of £225m is resilient, helped by its after-sales services which now account for 56pc of Crane's revenue.

The company's medical business, its second largest, produces infusion systems, needles and specialty medical products. The US is its largest market with almost half of its sales. Last year the medical unit accounted for almost one-third of the group's operational profit and its sales of £840m were the division's highest in the last ten years.

The name Smiths is not one well known to the public, yet millions of travellers around the world are protected by its detection equipment.

These include scanners that identify explosives, drugs, weapons and chemicals, used in airports, ports and border control. While its turnover is £660m, the group expects to gain traction from the harrowing terrorist threats.

In addition, its recent acquisition of the Californian-based Morpho Detection should boost future sales and profits.

The remaining divisions are Smiths Interconnect and Flex-Tek, both having modest profits of £50m each. Its Interconnect unit produces electronic equipment critical for the telecom, aerospace, rail and data centre markets. The group's smallest division is Flex-Tek, which produces engineering components for the aerospace, medical and air conditioning markets.

North America accounts for half of the group's total revenue of £3.3bn, which is down 2pc on the year; Europe trails with 17pc. Interestingly, the UK accounts for only 4pc.

Despite this, the company is still quoted on the London Stock Exchange - but then it has been a member since 1914. In the last few years, the group's shares have been unloved and were relegated from the FTSE 100. Up to recently, investors have been concerned with Smiths' pension problems. Fortunately, they were sorted out late last year. The company has also recovered from the Brexit brouhaha.

Two days after the elections the shares tumbled 10pc to £10.60. Investors who got on board at that price are happy, as they are now trading at £13.50, near its 10-year high.

Some investors have been seeking a break-up of the group following the rejection of a £2.5bn bid for its medical business five years ago. At the time, analysts were of the opinion the group was worth up to £8bn or £20 per share.

However, with the acquisition of Morpho, management believes the conglomerate is unlikely be broken up.

With dollar earnings and low exposure to the UK market, Smiths shares are worth a punt.

Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.

Irish Independent

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