Hooker Goes on a Diet

The past year has not been kind to investors in America's furniture industry.

If you own shares of Stanley (Nasdaq: STLY  ) , La-Z-Boy (NYSE: LZB  ) , Furniture Brands (NYSE: FBN  ) , Bassett (Nasdaq: BSET  ) , or Ethan Allen (NYSE: ETH  ) , you've been treated to losses ranging from 40% (for Stanley owners) to the relatively benign 16% disappointment at Ethan Allen.

Investors in foreign furniture have fared even worse. For example, if you own Motley Fool Global Gains pick Natuzzi (NYSE: NTZ  ) , you're nursing a 55% head wound right now.

So far, Hooker Furniture (Nasdaq: HOFT  ) seems to be the sole exception to all this carnage. It's up more than14% over the past 52 weeks, and based on yesterday's earnings report, I suspect it has further to rise.

The news at 7
Granted, you might not think so from the headline number at Hooker. Fiscal 2008 sales declined 10%, as business in general slumped alongside the housing market, the company exited its U.S.-made wood furniture business, and new acquisitions in upholstered furniture failed to make up the difference.

The good news? Exiting its domestic business has done wonders for Hooker's profitability, as it transitions to an "import model," building its furniture on the cheap abroad, importing it back home, and selling it at about a 9.4% operating profit.

The better news is that as good as its income statement is starting to appear (fourth-quarter sales rose 67.8%), Hooker's looking even finer on its cash flow statement. Management continued to deliver on its promise to work down finished-good inventories last year; as a result, end-of-year inventories tumbled 20% in comparison to fiscal year-end 2007.

Unlocking so much cash from where it had lain, tied up in unsold furniture, catapulted Hooker's free cash flow to unheard-of levels last year -- $41.7 million in all.

Foolish takeaway
You know where all this is going, right? This is the point in the column when I point and shout in amazement that Hooker currently sells for less than 7 times free cash flow per share basis, and is a screaming buy, right?

Well, almost. I am impressed with the turnaround -- and the valuation. Hooker led the charge of U.S. furniture makers exiting, well, the business of making furniture in the U.S. It's clearly reaping the benefits of that early exit today. Sure, when I hear CEO Paul Toms asserting that Hooker has succeeded in "right-sizing" its inventories, I do wonder whether we'll see similar free cash flow growth in the future. But for today, Hooker deserves a round of applause.

For further Foolishness on the furniture maker with the funny name, read:


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