Barcode scanning and data management expert Zebra Technologies (ZBRA 1.79%) was swept up in Wall Street's retreat from high-flying growth stocks in 2022. The stock was down 38% year to date on May 4, far below the S&P 500 market index's 12% decline. At the same time, the company kept posting solid business results.
But the board of directors didn't cry about the unfair market trends. Instead, Zebra trotted up to Wall Street's buying window and made a record investment in buying back its own shares.
This chart says it all
Here's how Zebra's stock buybacks have looked over the last three years:
The company canceled $305 million worth of stock in the first quarter. Before that, the all-time record was a $200 million splurge in the spring of 2020. At no other point in the 30 years of data at my disposal has Zebra invested more than $75 million in buybacks in a single quarter.
In fact, the highest number I found for a full year of repurchased stock was $247 million in mid-2020. Zebra's buybacks of the first quarter in 2022 put that full-year record to shame.
The buyback by the numbers
Zebra generated $836 million of free cash flows over the last four quarters. Thirty-six percent of that cash profit was funneled into this quarter's buybacks. If you also include the smaller stock repurchases in the spring and fall of last year, the buyback ratio rises to 43% of free cash flows for the same rolling period.
From a different angle, you can also say that Zebra bought back approximately 1.5% of its total market value. That's a pretty significant investment that put a lot of Zebra's cash profits directly in the hands of shareholders. The other commonly used method for sending cash returns to shareholders is by paying a dividend, which Zebra doesn't do. In other words, the company is pushing lots of cash directly to its shareholders.
One more thing
There's yet another way to look at this massive buyback. The company could have stuffed that $305 million cash pile in its bank accounts, using it for day-to-day expenses or long-term investments or hiring more developers and engineers to support its core business -- but Zebra's board found buybacks to be a more effective use of this large sum.
"We bought back over $300 million worth of shares in Q1 and we are buying back shares at the moment," Zebra CEO Anders Gustafsson said in a post-earnings phone interview with The Fool. "We are trying to take advantage of this and we are being quite aggressive with this fantastic opportunity for us to create value for our shareholders."
Quite frankly, that's music to my ears. Every investor loves to hear that management is doing its best to reward shareholders, and that's exactly what Zebra is doing here. It's not a single-minded ambition that undermines the quality of the business operation, either.
Zebra is certainly pursuing other opportunities such as the pending $875 million buyout of machine vision veteran Matrox Imaging. Zebra's employee payroll has grown 40% longer in five years. The company is also paying down its debt balances while its bank accounts are bulging with more and more cash.
So Zebra is pulling every available lever to improve its business, and still has plenty of cash left over to take advantage of lower share prices in this risk-averse market. Smart investors should consider following Zebra's lead here.