Wolverine: Mighty Mustelid

Sometimes it seems as though a company is somehow unworthy if it's not growing 20% a year. The fact is, as far as I'm concerned, growth at that clip is often more trouble than it's worth. It attracts go-go investors who push your stock up to unreasonable valuations and abandon it in a huff at the first sign of trouble. It's difficult to manage internally and it tends to attract competition.

With that in mind, I don't see anything really wrong with Wolverine Worldwide (NYSE: WWW  ) management's target of steady mid-teens growth, particularly if it manages to achieve that "steady" part. Although stock-price appreciation for this company has come in fits and starts over the years, it seems to me that the company is looking fairly solid.

For the third quarter, revenue rose 7% and operating earnings climbed about 11%. Earnings were helped by improvements in the gross and operating margins, while revenue performance was mixed across the brands. The Hush Puppies, Heritage, and Outdoor units were all positive, while the Wolverine business saw a slight decline in sales.

It appears that management is also continuing to build for future growth. It is expanding its relationship with Federated Department Stores (NYSE: FD  ) for Hush Puppies, continuing to build the Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) and Harley Davidson (NYSE: HDI  ) brands, and will be launching an apparel line tied to its successful Merrell footwear business. In fact, the company will introduce the apparel products to buyers in late 2006, making initial deliveries in mid-2007. It's a risky move outside of the company's core footwear business, but also a potentially lucrative product extension strategy.

In the meantime, the blocking and tackling aspects of the company seem to be in line, as well. Debt remains low, inventories are under control vis-a-vis revenue growth (and most of that inventory growth is in the successful outdoor products), and accounts receivable seem reasonable as well. Top that off with increased guidance, a solid backlog, and positive cash flow generation, and you've got a nice growth story.

No doubt that footwear is a tough business. Wolverine is certainly smaller than Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) , adidas (which is acquiring Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation Reebok (NYSE: RBK  ) ), and Timberland (NYSE: TBL  ) , and it also has a lower return on equity. Nevertheless, if management hits its target of steady double-digit earnings growth, patient investors might find that the shares still make for a comfortable fit.

Take a walk on the wild side:

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).


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