In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a furious flurry of acquisitions fueled its growth. When the buying bubble burst, the stock lost two-thirds of its value in the 12 months ended in March 2003.
New management arrived. Baxter focused on internal growth for its diverse portfolio of drugs and devices. The strategy worked: The stock is up about 75% since Robert Parkinson, Jr. became CEO in April 2004.
Now the company is talking about acquisitions again. During a Jan. 22 conference call with analysts, Parkinson said it might be time to buy, even though there is "a great opportunity for growth and margin expansion ... in our existing businesses."
Those existing businesses produced another solid quarter. Fourth-quarter earnings of $0.91 a share beat the consensus Wall Street estimate by $0.02. Revenue of $3.13 billion met analysts' forecasts. Baxter's 2009 earnings forecast of $3.70 to $3.78 per share also matched the consensus call of $3.74.
Baxter's "improved financial position" and greater "organizational capabilities" enable it to "be a bit more expansive" in evaluating acquisitions, Parkinson said. "[W]e're looking at it."
Some peers and competitors are doing more than looking. Since December, Abbott Labs
And they want more. Earlier this week, Miles White, Abbott's chairman and CEO, told analysts he is "vigilant" about deal opportunities. J&J's chairman and CEO, William Weldon, said, "We have our list of candidates." And then, of course, there is the possibility of Pfizer
Baxter's Parkinson offered the standard line about not making deals for deals' sake, but he didn't offer details or a timetable.
Until that information is forthcoming, investors will have to be content with a company that gets mostly favorable comments from analysts -- and provides many happy returns.
Fool contributor Robert Steyer doesn't own shares of any companies cited in this story. Pfizer is also an Inside Value pick and a Motley Fool holding. The Fool's disclosure policy fondly remembers the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.