Mini-Conglomerate's Excellent Guidance

Diversified micro-cap Andersons (Nasdaq: ANDE  ) is reporting that "exceptionally strong" grain and rail results, coupled with "better than expected" plant nutrient and retail businesses dealings, have caused the company to greatly increase fourth-quarter and 2005 estimates. The news sent the stock up as much as 16% on Friday, although the stock settled for an 8.2% gain. It's time to give this company a closer look.

Andersons has its roots in agriculture. Its agriculture group, which consists of grain elevators and plant nutrient (fertilizer) distribution, accounts for 71.3% of total sales last quarter (and the same for the last reported fiscal year). Group sales, up 23% from the year-ago quarter, were strong because volume was up 31%. Grain prices were down 1%, though, mainly because last year's record corn crop was being followed by what was expected to be the second-largest crop on record.

Andersons has been actively building its rail business. The company doubled the size of this operation in 2004 by acquiring 6,700 rail cars and 48 locomotives. You'd expect strong results here, since rail giants like Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP  ) and Burlington Northern (NYSE: BNI  ) are enjoying better times, and relatively short supply of railcars prevails. Revenue increased 19.6% (up to 8% of total sales for the last reported quarter, from 4.6% last fiscal year), and while the company's other operations all lost money, rail income increased 20% to $5.8 million.

Investors are excited by the company's apparent attempts to talk down 2005 results. 2004 was a record year, and the company expected a return closer to that of the last three to five years. Throughout last year, the company stuck with a $2.20-to-$2.50-a-share earnings target, down from the $2.55 earned last year. Then, last week, the company surprised everyone -- and probably itself -- when it said 2005's earnings would exceed $3 a share.

Based on those $3 earnings, Andersons' stock is priced at 15.8 times forward earnings. The one analyst that follows the company is expecting the company to grow earnings by 15% a year for the next five years. Based on the company's prospects, the stock is not richly priced.

There are reasons for optimism. Grain prices are low, but international demand is picking up. This may bode well for 2006, but another large crop could hold down earnings from this sector. The company is also dipping its foot in the ethanol business, building two facilities today that will be sited next to its existing grain elevators. The first will open in September 2006.

Andersons' retail operation is a notable concern. Its six Ohio stores, which sell everything from home remodeling items to bread and wine, have been struggling. In the age of big-box retailers like Motley Fool Inside Value pick Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , it's hard to see where a niche player this small fits in. The company's restructured turf business is also worth watching

But at the bottom line, Andersons is a micro-cap conglomerate with big exposure to volatile commodity prices. The company's stock set a new 52-week high last Friday with its excellent earnings guidance. At current prices, and given the relative uncertainty around commodity prices and its retail operation, the stock looks to be what I'd call fully valued.

Home Depot is aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick. For a 30-day free trial subscription with access to more ideas for picking up great stocks on the cheap, click here.

Fool contributorW.D. Crotty own shares in Home Depot.Clickhereto see The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.


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