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VF Sleeps Easy

Perhaps it's fitting that the apparel maker VF (NYSE: VFC  ) hired the former CEO of a pillow maker just as its takeover target, Vans (Nasdaq: VANS  ) , settled a class action lawsuit over the merger. Now its investors can sleep easier while the company continues to look for bargains.

Like sporting goods retailer K2's (NYSE: KTO  ) recent shopping spree, VF is another company that's pursuing a growth-by-acquisition strategy. It has spent more than $1 billion since 2000 buying up other brands, but it's focusing those acquisitions in its three core areas: outdoor apparel, jeans, and intimate wear.

With tight margins and revenue growth in its core jeans segment showing all the life of bankrupt Pillowtex (from where it got its new customer management vice president), VF has little choice but to buy growth. Even its Vans purchase won't be accretive to earnings until sometime in 2005, and then only marginally. But the company keeps about $500 million cash in the bank in the event opportunities like Vans emerge, and its debt load -- admittedly a rather hefty $950 million -- has remained fairly constant this year.

VF is the world's largest apparel company and includes among its brands such well-known names as Lee, Wrangler, Riders, Rustler, Vanity Fair, Lily of France, Nautica, JanSport, Eastpak, and The North Face. On the strength of a few of those brands, VF anticipates earnings growth that is 10% higher than its prior guidance in March.

Vans is a maker of skateboarder shoes and other "lifestyle" apparel and brings to the table improving gross margins and sales growth of 7% that falls in line with VF's own expectations for the year. Same-store sales have improved by more than 9% year over year for the past year.

It was this improving quality of the business that led to the shareholder lawsuits charging that the $396 million price tag for Vans was unfair. They also charged that the company had inflated revenues between 1998 and 2001 and that the board had approved of the merger to insulate itself from the suits, as they would become moot if the merger went through. Details of the settlement weren't released other than that the termination fee payable to Vans would be reduced from $10.9 million to $8 million.

With the lawsuits behind it, VF is now free to roll the footwear company into its fold as it continues to fend off its largest competitor, Sara Lee (NYSE: SLE  ) , a provider of numerous intimate apparel brands.

And VF investors can curl up and get a good night's sleep.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey writes Takes while sitting in intimate apparel. He does not own any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

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