Nobody said investing was easy. You might imagine tool maker Stanley Black & Decker (NYSE:SWK) would be one of the easiest companies to analyze. However, thanks to a bewildering range of cost headwinds in the last few years it hasn't always been easy to see the underlying picture. Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's even more confusing. So let's try to sift through the weeds and outline why the stock deserves a close look for long-term investors.

External cost headwinds

The first place to start is with the $1 billion worth of external cost headwinds that the company suffered over the 2018-2020 period. To be fair, all companies are prone to suffering some sort of cost headwind in any given year, but a combination of unfavorable exchange rate movements, tariff costs, and raw material costs hit the company in a big way over a three-year period.

A man working on a DIY project.

Image source: Getty Images.

The chart below shows how cost of goods rose in the period, and even though revenue increased it wasn't enough to offset the pressure on margin from rising costs. Consequently, gross margin fell as revenue moved up through 2018-2020.

SWK Cost of Goods Sold (TTM) Chart

Data by YCharts

Bearing in mind that these issues (exchange rates, tariff costs, and raw material cost increases) are unlikely to come together to this sort of magnitude in the near future. As such, it's likely that the company has a significant  opportunity to improve margin in the future. 

What happened in 2020

Matters get even more confusing when looking at 2020. No one needs reminding that the pandemic spread out of China in March, and Stanley's sales got hit along with most other businesses in March and April. However, the stay-at-home measures produced a surge of interest in DIY and home improvement.

According to CEO Jim Loree on the recent earnings call, Stanley "enjoyed a surge in North American retail of a magnitude never before experienced" from the end of April through the summer months. That trend extended into Europe, and Stanley found itself having to expand capacity to keep up with demand. The chart below shows how quarterly sales progressed through 2020.

SWK Revenue (Quarterly) Chart

Data by YCharts

Again, this highly unusual trend in sales leads to questions around what kind of growth rate to expect in the future. For example, Stanley's sales increased by 16% on an organic basis in the fourth quarter led by a whopping 25% increase in its tools and storage segment sales during the quarter.

What's happening in 2021 and beyond

Turning to management's planning assumptions for 2021, it's clear that it will be a tale of two halves. The impressive momentum of the fourth quarter is seen as carrying through into the first quarter, and then the company comes into an easy comparison with the second quarter of 2020. After that, the comparison gets very difficult, and management is actually expecting a year-over-year sales decline in the second half. 

Management Assumptions

First Quarter

First Half

Second Half

Full Year

YOY organic sales growth

21%-26%

27%-32%

(12%)-(7%)

4%-8%

Data source: Stanley Black & Decker. YOY = year over year. 

Putting all of this together, on a superficial level it's easy for investors to be negative on the stock. After all, Stanley has had gross margin pressure in the last few years (see first chart above) and according to management's guidance, the company will see sales declining in the back half of 2021. 

3 Reasons why the doubters are wrong

First, as noted above, Many of the pressures on gross margins are likely to prove temporary.

Second, the sales decline in the second half is simply because of a tough comparison with 2020. Thinking longer-term, Loree sees the explosion of interest in DIY as creating a "secular shift" in demand, and said: "I think the home center CEOs would agree with that. I've heard them talk about that as well. So that's a big deal."

A group of people in business suits having a meeting at a construction site.

Stanley Black & Decker is a major beneficiary of the surge in interest in home improvement. Image source: Getty Images.

Third, the company has plenty of growth opportunities through its ongoing consolidation of the tools industry and investment in lawn and garden product manufacturer MTD. 

All told, Stanley isn't a company with inherent margin pressures and declining revenue at all, it's actually a growth stock positioned for margin expansion. 

Compelling valuation 

Management's 2021 forecast calls for full-year EPS of $9.70-$10.30 and free cash flow (FCF) equivalent to net income. Let's, conservatively, assume its organic sales are thereafter likely to grow in the 4%-6% range laid out in its investor day in 2019.

Based on these estimates, Wall Street analysts are forecasting $10 in EPS and $1.5 billion in FCF for 2021, putting Stanley on 19 times FCF and 18 times earnings. That's a good valuation for a company with mid-single-digit revenue growth prospects. Throw in some acquisition-led growth opportunities and Stanley is an attractive stock for long-term investors. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.