Nike (NYSE: NKE ) has been on my radar for quite some time for the real-money, socially responsible Prosocial Portfolio I manage for Fool.com, since it brings an interesting and important strategy to the game. This massive athletic gear maker represents a ubiquitous brand, but behind the scenes, it brings far more to the world than its trademark Swoosh.
For investors who aren't interested in factors that do double duty in boosting business and being more positive in the world, Nike still sports a lot to like. The giant's $65 billion market cap certainly shows it's no upstart. However, large, established companies can indicate a certain degree of stability as long as they remain strong and innovative.
Nike brings many factors into the investment thesis. We already know Nike through its athletic shoes, an expansive array of athletic gear, and high-profile athlete endorsements. Let's also consider the ways Nike is spreading sustainability -- and focusing on how to reduce costs in the future.
Comfortable shoes for portfolios
Nike is one of those companies that is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, when it comes to athletic footwear, clothing, and equipment, it is, in fact, No. 1.
Subsidiaries' brands include Converse, Chuck Taylor, and Hurley. Its products are sold in nearly all countries in the world, its wares are distributed in more than 750 retail stores, and it provides jobs to about 48,000 people .
Maybe Nike's stock doesn't feel like a dazzling "new shoes" pick, unlike small and scrappy rival Under Armour, which, of course, is a pricier stock but a high-growth business that is a competitive threat. However, sometimes we would all like the more comfortable shoes, as long as the toes aren't popping through.
Nike's financial growth isn't slack, and it's been ticking along in its growth over the years. In the last 12-month period ended in February, it had generated top-line growth of $27 billion, an 8.9% increase. Earnings per share increased 17% to $2.96 per share, and growth has been consistently ticking upward over the years. Its gross margin in that time frame was 44.3%.
Here's another thing I love to see in a company: a strong balance sheet. In the last 12 months, Nike's debt-to-capital ratio was a mere 10.7%. In addition, Nike generates copious free cash flow. Last but not least, Nike's a dividend payer.
Innovator and disruptor
I look for as many socially responsible factors as I can, and while I sometimes recommend some smaller, riskier companies, I like to also think about the diversification of larger companies. Given larger companies' scale, they can move the needle in the world around them. When they choose to do that for the good, that's a wonderful and defensive combination.
For the pure business side of things, Nike's management isn't lying down on the will to continue to be an innovator as times change. In 2013, Nike made No. 1 on Fast Company's annual list of most innovative companies. This year, Nike dropped a few notches to No. 7. However, for a company that's been kicking out the kicks since 1964, that is a crazy accomplishment.
President and CEO Mark Parker has no plans to let Nike throw the race and rest on its own laurels. Fast Company interviewed him in 2012, and his comments show he has been involved in an evolutionary plan of attack for years now.
Parker doesn't want to rely on celeb endorsements and existing brand. In his own words: "At a big company, often size turns into constipation, it fogs the lens about what's really happening. Sometimes with size and success comes the notion that since we've done things to be successful, we have the formula and can institutionalize it. That can be death."
The Prosocial part
According to Ceres, a nonprofit organization that brings together corporations, investors, NGOs, and other stakeholders into the sustainability conversation, Nike is one of the corporate leaders going aggressively into the area. Such industry leaders are, so far, too few and far between.
One way Nike is showing leadership and innovation: sustainability. Its Flyknit running shoe material not only generates two-thirds less waste than other shoe options, it also saves Nike production costs. Flyknit has evolved into a material used in a football boot since its invention after serving for running and basketball shoes.
On a larger, global level, in 2013, Nike catapulted the MAKING app out into the world. Designers can consult the simple mobile app when brainstorming sustainable design decisions.
The app uses Nike's Materials Sustainability Index, which was created after some of its employees tracked and rated about 75,000 different materials over time to track and rate environmental ramifications and sustainability. .
Nike's recent corporate sustainability report does what many companies still don't want to do. It outlines the business risks and opportunities at hand, examining its supply chain, and the negative impacts it can have, based on production components.
The company says it's paying attention to meta-trends in the sustainability area, strong signals of the challenges, risks, and opportunities that it needs to address in its business. These meta-trends include issues such as water scarcity, materials cost inflation, climate change, and rising labor costs, as well as increased transparency and heightened levels of collaboration.
Nike also sees the opportunities in tackling these challenges. In text from its CSR discussion:
- We develop and use more recycled and more sustainable materials, and leaner manufacturing processes.
- To decrease our exposure to labor cost inflation and capacity constraints, we increase the efficiency of our supply chain.
- We have developed superior materials such as water-based adhesives through green chemistry, which also delivers health and safety benefits to workers.
These types of innovations have already delivered substantial benefits to our business, and we expect them to increase in the coming years.
The truth is, Nike has outlined a mind-boggling amount of data on risks and opportunities, and these are the types of factors that many companies will face.
More than a Swoosh
The selection of products carrying the Nike name and logo is expansive; we can see that impressive power just going out into the world and seeing folks who are taking the advice to "just do it" on the road to better health.
However, the research and attention it's been giving to areas in sustainability is impressively expansive, too. Whether the athletic giant is shoring up its own business for a time of resource scarcity, saving money by conserving or recycling materials, or reducing energy costs, it's good for business. Even more amazing, its MAKING app and MSI show that it's not even trying to hoard its sustainability secrets to itself.
Buying Nike gives investors an array of positive factors to add into their portfolios; we haven't even addressed the growing American trend of health and exercise, which involves a heck of a lot of people who will want to get gear for their increasingly sports-oriented lifestyles. That's a core part of the case for Nike too, but a more obvious one.
Nike's got more than the Swoosh -- it's got the future of sustainable business well in hand as well.
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