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This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios Series.
I like big trucks and I cannot lie. OK, that's pretty weak, I know. But trucks are cool. And who would have thought that I could go from playing with trucks as a kid to actually investing in them as an adult? That's the opportunity that presents itself today with Heartland Express (Nasdaq: HTLD ) .
A family affair
In 1978 chairman, CEO and founder Russell Gerdin set out to build a best-in-class trucking company with a reputation for excellent service. Equipped with only four people and 16 trucks, Gerdin certainly had his work cut out for him. Today, Heartland is a nationally recognized trucking company, leading the way in short-to-medium hauls. With 12 strategically located facilities, Heartland provides regional dry van truckload services and transport freight for major shippers across the country.
Three for the road
Focus: With short-to-medium hauls as their priority, Heartland doesn't focus on intermodal services like Hub Group (Nasdaq: HUBG ) and J.B. Hunt Transport Services (Nasdaq: JBHT ) . Intermodal (truck-to-train-to-truck-to-destination) is an attractive option for longer range shipments, but at 500 miles and under, some find it not economically beneficial. This gives Heartland a singular focus in being the best in their particular market. And their high trailer-to-tractor ratio allows the company to strategically position trailers at customer locations, thereby maximizing efficiency.
Growth: The trucking industry has been in a slump due to weak economic activity. However the industry is forecasting growth to start in the latter half of this year. Net orders of commercial trailers rose 7% in December 2010 over a strong November showing; the surge in trailer orders has been broad-based with a 417% increase in the dry van segment (the largest trailer market and Heartland's main focus); and December factory shipments were up 12% from November and 69% versus December 2009. In fact recently, American Trucking Association's Chief Economist Bob Costello told a gathering of trucking executives in Phoenix that the industry is "on the cusp of some of the best years in trucking's history."
Best-in-class: Heartland is still run by its founder, Russell Gerdin, who owns approximately 34% of the shares outstanding. While Mr. Gerdin has taken a leave of absence due to health concerns, the company is in good hands with his son Michael who has worked for the company for almost 20 years. Management focuses on creating an environment where employees want to work, and the company is consistently recognized in the industry for their outstanding service.
Hit the brakes!
Of course it's not all sunshine and lollipops for Heartland and there are plenty of things to look out for:
It's the economy, Fool: The economy is still recovering and Heartland is very susceptible to cyclical conditions. I'll be watching margins for excess capacity (too many trucks, not enough stuff) forcing prices down.
Fuel for the fire: For the most part Heartland is able to pass fuel costs along to customers in the form of surcharge agreements. But this doesn't eliminate the risk, and if fuel prices get out of control, look out.
Customer concentration: In 2009, the company's top 25 customers accounted for about 72% of revenue and the top two accounted for about 24%. I'll be keeping an eye on customer relationships.
Risky regulation: Trucking is a highly regulated industry as it is. Proposals like the one from the U.S. Department of Transportation to require onboard electronic devices to monitor driving time can eat away at profits.
Heartland has grown revenue better than 6% annually over the last decade and I look for this to improve over the next decade as the company expands its presence. Couple that with operating margins trending up over time and I can see shares being worth anywhere between $18-$20 today -- not much of a margin of safety, but the stock rarely looks cheap. If the economy continues to recover nicely, revenue growth should accelerate and shares could see 10%-12% annualized returns over the next five years. Ultimately I see this as a wonderful long-term addition to the portfolio and today's price is a fair one to own shares in an excellent company.
My Foolish bottom line
I like the trucking industry and I think there's plenty of open road ahead for companies like Heartland. So much so that I wouldn't be surprised to see another play on the industry in my portfolio, so be on the lookout. I'm dropping 3% of my initial capital on Heartland Express. When you get a chance, swing on by my discussion board and let's talk about it. You can also follow me on Twitter, and add Heartland Express to My Watchlist.