When Good Diversity Goes Bad

If you know what Otter Tail (Nasdaq: OTTR  ) does, you're one of a very select handful of people. You probably live in the greater North Dakota area, where Otter Tail is a well-known provider of electric utility services, or you subscribe to our Motley Fool Hidden Gems newsletter, which has recommended the stock since 2005.

Or you may have just stumbled across one of today's biggest losers. Otter Tail is down more than 5% today after a second-quarter report full of ill tidings. Sales improved by 9.5% year over year to $270 million. However, last year's $0.07 net profit per share turned into $0.40 of red ink per share. The bottom-line damage comes from a non-cash writedown on the ShoreMaster shipping service, and from increased manufacturing costs in the company's windtower construction segment. The rest of Otter Tail’s businesses were a mixed bag.

Did I mention that Otter Tail runs a shockingly sprawling business model for such a small company? Power generation is Otter Tail's backbone, much like how Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) was built around insurance premiums, and how General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) built a cross-industry empire around heavy machinery. Fortune Brands (NYSE: FO  ) is another contemporary example -- booze, home security, and golf products. Otter Tail does the same thing on a smaller scale.

Diversity ranging from wind-tower engineering and industrial shipping to dehydrated potato powder and medical scanner services usually helps Otter Tail more than it hurts. It's rare to see the company tanking entirely, because weakness in one field tends to be counterbalanced by unexpected strength somewhere else.

But no system is foolproof, and a single industry certainly did bite Otter Tail hard this time. The long-term prospects of the wind power segment remain "undiminished," according to CEO John Erickson, but the ShoreMaster operation earned no such mitigating statement. Furthermore, guidance was revised down for the year by a whopping 30%-40% because of flat construction activity and sluggishness in the wind business.

To me, Otter Tail remains an intriguing little conglomerate with a very attractive dividend yield of 5.8%. The company is generally profitable, and I believe that the good times will come back eventually, lifting profits and shareholder returns. But I wouldn't buy this stock today, despite the sudden discount.  I think it’s likely that the fallout from this poor quarter could linger for a little while. So hold your horses if you're interested in this dividend champ, and wait for a better price.

You heard it here first.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Berkshire Hathaway and Fortune Brands are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Otter Tail is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems choice. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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