Looks like the moat surrounding Compass Minerals
Although we've heard a lot about the warmer-than-average winter across the country this year, that's not exactly the whole picture for a company like Compass. What does it matter to Compass if states that almost never need deicing salt anyway, such as Texas, California, and Georgia, have warmer weather? As long as there's snow and ice in the Upper Midwest, Compass does all right.
Heavier-than-average snow in December made this a good quarter for Compass. Reported sales rose 28%, and product sales climbed nearly 24% (the difference being mostly shipping and handling charges). Deicing salt sales led the quarter with a bit more than half of sales; volume increased more than 27%, and prices were up 9%. General trade salt also did well, as volumes rose nearly 11% and prices climbed more than 6.5%.
Salt may not be the most exciting business, but it's a reliable one with significant barriers to entry. Compass' mines aren't just very large; they're also the lowest-cost mines in their markets. Given salt's commodity status, low-cost mines are a big boost when competing against the likes of Cargill and Rohm & Haas
Compass has sizable debt, but it does produce good cash flow and pays out a generous dividend. Plus, you have the security of two generally snowy quarters every year -- as someone who grew up in Nebraska and Wisconsin and lived in Minnesota, I feel pretty secure about the ongoing need for highway deicing salt when winter rolls around.
My inner trader seems to think that this would be a stock to check out again in the summer as maybe a lack of investor enthusiasm for deicing salt will make the shares a bit cheaper. Still, I wouldn't want to get too cute about this--this is a well-run company with a good yield that is also looking to expand into more higher-value-added markets.
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).
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