Akamai: Still Surfing

The first article I ever wrote for The Motley Fool, back in December 2003, covered one of my favorite companies, Akamai Technologies (Nasdaq: AKAM  ) . Back then, Akamai, which brings content and applications delivered over the Web closer to users, was coming off a 400% gain in its stock price over the previous 12 months but was also still seeking positive cash flow and was in the midst of settling long-standing legal disputes. Whether this dot-com-era refugee would ever settle down and get a paying gig was an open question. That's why I wasn't yet a shareholder.

Fast-forward 15 months. We now know that Akamai is likely to be around for a while, and I've also become an owner. But the euphoria has passed, and Akamai's resurgence may have crested. The stock has certainly crashed, having dropped by 29% over the past year. And short sellers are still expecting lower lows: Yahoo! Finance shows more than 11% of Akamai's shares sold short. Could the downer crowd be right? I had to ask. So I stopped by the firm's Cambridge, Mass., headquarters in February to do just that. What I found left me wanting to wax my board and hit the waves. That's right, dudes: The surf's still up. Here's why:

Catch a wave, hang 20
Like the rest of the analysts at the Fool, I'm a business-focused investor. I love businesses that show consistent fundamental improvement, especially when the gains come both sequentially and year-over-year.

When I invested, I figured this was exactly the kind of business Akamai could be. Its network of roughly 15,000 global servers was all but completed. That meant the company needed only to create and deploy new software to add services. Costs to gain more revenue would be incremental, leading to higher margins. More than a year later, that's pretty much what happened. Have a look:

2004
Qtr.
Gross
Mgn.
Seq.
Chg.
Y-O-Y
Chg.
Oper.
Mgn.
Seq.
Chg.
Y-O-Y
Chg.
Q4 81% +3% +10% 25.3% 0% +15.5%
Q3 78% 0% +12% 25.3% +0.4% +25.3%
Q2 78% +6% +20% 24.9% +7.7% +24.9%
Q1 72% +1% +32% 17.2% +7.4% +17.2%


Imagine the surfer who catches a wave and hangs 20, milking the curl for all it's worth. That, in a nutshell, is Akamai.

Banzai!
I've heard it said that Hawaii's "Banzai Pipeline" provides some of the most spectacular, and dangerous, surfing in the world. The same could be said for the surging content-delivery market. A recent report from AccuStream Research suggests that demand for streamed audio and video, led by the runaway success of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes music store, created a $320 million market in 2004. That number is expected to grow at least 40% this year to between $450 million and $600 million.

The good news is that Akamai remains the dominant player in the market with a 66% share. But as I said, this is also a market fraught with peril and driven mostly by rapidly falling prices. AccuStream says the cost to transfer 1 GB of bandwidth fell by 19% in 2004. That's bad news because networkers like Akamai typically charge by the gigabyte. Falling prices could lead to lower profits in the long term.

Keep the board waxed
So far, the falling prices haven't had an impact on Akamai. That's probably for two reasons. First, the company every quarter gets what it calls "bursting revenue." That's higher-priced network service provided in the event of a major Internet problem. For example, if a virus attack required Akamai customer Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) to distribute patches to millions of PCs, it would pay a fee for any service above and beyond its contracted bandwidth.

Second, Akamai is successfully selling services beyond mere bandwidth. Consider a recent deal with Macromedia (Nasdaq: MACR  ) , for example. The agreement creates an on-demand application that customers can use to distribute any sort of streamed audio or video without requiring a download of the Flash media player. Similarly, Akamai is making moves to organize its sales and marketing around vertical markets, hoping to obtain better prices by demonstrating expertise others may not posses.

This so-called "platform strategy" isn't unlike what Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) has been doing, and it appears to be having an effect. Akamai's fourth-quarter results, announced in February, showed sales rising by 27% over last year and 8% sequentially. Net income swung to a profit from a loss a year ago and improved 19% sequentially. Moreover, the company was able to sign more than 50 new customers to recurring contracts, to bring its total to 1,310. That's 4% better than last quarter, and 16% higher than a year ago. Existing clients also spent more. Total revenue per customer rose to $14,900 per month, up 5% from the third quarter. As a whole, the numbers depict a firm that's prepared itself for better times -- kind of like a surfer who's waxed his board before shredding some very ripe waves.

Sharks in the water
Akamai isn't without risk, of course. For one, year-over-year growth in accounts receivable was 46%, vs. 27% growth in sales. This probably reflects the company's somewhat troubling practice of not collecting much upfront for its services. But the numbers appear to be improving. Accounts receivable grew only 6% from Q3 to Q4, while sales rose by 8%.

Customer churn hasn't abated, either. Roughly 5% of customers turned over in Q4. That's just about in line with its recent averages, but it hurt Akamai's ability to generate sustainable, predictable profit. Analysts estimate that reducing churn by even 1% could save the firm at least $0.02 in profit annually.

Yet shareholder dilution and debt still present the biggest threats. The latest balance sheet shows $108 million in cash and investments vs. $257 million in convertible debt. Whether Akamai can cover this obligation is no longer a question because the firm has been generating more than enough cash to do so. But $200 million of its notes offer a conversion price of $15.45, and all of them could be immediately redeemed for shares at any time after the stock's per-stub price reaches $18.54.

Unless the business goes really bad, this conversion seems inevitable, and it would introduce 12.9 million new shares into the market. Akamai's diluted share count now includes the convertible, which has led many on the Street to reduce their per-share targets for 2005 and beyond. No wonder the stock price has been in free fall since the beginning of the year.

Grab your board, dude
Still, taken as a whole, Akamai has every appearance of a strong business that's getting stronger. Look, for example, at how owner earnings have improved over the past year:

Quarter Owner Earnings
(In Millions)
OE Margin
Q4 2004 $11.156 19.3%
Q3 2004 $11.006 20.7%
Q2 2004 $10.861 21.0%
Q1 2004 $8.393 17.4%
Total 2004 $41.236

19.6%



Akamai generated more than $41 million in cash in 2004 for retiring debt and improving operations. In terms of valuation, that means the stock trades for 38 times last year's owner earnings. That's important when we consider how that number could improve. Akamai management predicts at least 20% revenue growth for 2005. So, let's run two scenarios -- one showing growth in line with projections, or 20%, and the other with some upside, or 25%. I think we can safely estimate out to 2007:

Fiscal Year 20% Growth
(Millions)
25% Growth
(Millions)
2005 $252 $263
2006 $302 $328
2007 $363 $410


Pretty impressive, eh? Now what happens if we apply an owner-earnings margin against these totals? Let's find out. The table below shows Akamai's projected owner earnings if the company becomes inefficient (an 18% margin), stays the same (a 20% margin), or improves (a 22% margin). Have a look using 20% revenue growth:

OE Margin

2005
(Millions)

2006
(Millions)
2007
(Millions)
18% $45 $54 $65
20% $50 $60 $73
22% $55 $67 $80


Here's the outlook based on 25% revenue growth:

OE Margin

2005
(Millions)

2006
(Millions)
2007
(Millions)
18% $47 $59 $74
20% $53 $66 $82
22% $58 $72 $90


I know I've hit you with a ton of math, but it's really not all that difficult. Stay with me, OK?

Using the tables above, we ought to expect 2007 owner earnings to come in between $65 million, using the most pessimistic growth rate and margin, and $90 million, using the most optimistic figures. Investing demands a conservative eye, so let's err toward the pessimistic. Let's take 20%, the average margin, and stick with 20% growth to 2007, an approach that assumes none of the "at least" upside for 2005 that management alluded to. That brings us to $73 million in owner earnings in three years -- 78% growth in total and 21% annualized. As strong as that is, the numbers get better. Remember, Akamai today trades for 38 times owner earnings. Apply that same multiple to our 2007 projections, and we arrive at a total enterprise value of $2.8 billion. That's a 76% gain from today's stock price.

Am I estimating aggressively? I don't think so. Akamai is the dominant player in a market that's estimated to be growing by at least 40%. Our projected growth rate is half that. Naturally, we could be wrong: All investing requires some degree of arm-waving, especially Rule Breaker investing. I think Akamai's market position, well-known brand name, strong leadership, and demonstrated ability to transform its business over time is worth far more than the market today is willing to pay. And I find myself bolstered by the knowledge that these same characteristics are what drew Motley Fool Rule Breakers chief David Gardner to Marvel Entertainment (NYSE: MVL  ) , Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) , and other multibaggers in his investing. To wrap up: Yes, I could be wrong, but I'm getting well-compensated for the risk. And that's what counts.

So, dude, what are you waiting for? Grab your board and get in. The waves look ripe.

Fool contributorTim Beyersowns shares in Akamai. And, yep, more than a year later, he still TOTALLY digs Crush the sea turtle from Pixar's Finding Nemo. It may even be his favorite movie for kids. Unfortunately for Tim, his children are jonesing for DreamWorks' Shark Tales. Bummer, dude. What's your favorite flick? Share your picks with other Fools at theGreat Moviesdiscussion board. To see what other stocks are in Tim's portfolio, check out his Foolprofile. The Motley Fool isinvestors writing for investorsand has adisclosure policy.


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