Cooper (NYSE:COO) isn't exactly a household name, but this maker of specialized contact lenses deserves a close look. The stock doubled in the past year and is trading near its 52-week high, but expanding markets both in the U.S. and abroad should drive growth for the next several years.

Earnings grew a hefty 29% over five years, nearly triple that of rival Bausch & Lomb (NYSE:BOL), maker of more conventional lenses. A 31% jump in 2003 sales and 36% rise in earnings, announced late last week, show the company is firing on all cylinders.

As the world's biggest maker of so-called toric contact lenses for astigmatism, Cooper dominates the fastest-growing segment of the specialty lens market. Annual sales growth of 54% for its disposable toric lenses, which account for 60% of its high-margin toric sales, is nine times faster than the overall contact lens market.

Undoubtedly, growth will slow as giants Bausch & Lomb,Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), and Ciba Vision, a unit of Novartis AG (NYSE:NVS) scope out Cooper's turf. But so far, Cooper has been able to defend its title as the worldwide toric leader and keep a grip on its 34% share of the $330 million global toric market.

Moving into overseas markets is driving growth. The 2002 purchase of competitor Biocompatibles International PLC planted Cooper's footprint in Europe and that year the company also extended into Japan, which after the U.S. ranks as the second-largest toric market. European sales grew 19% this year while Asia-Pacific revenue surged 89%, with 35% growth targeted next year.

Topline growth has been rapid and almost twice the three-year industry average of 13%. Earnings have also moved at a fast 54% clip, compared to the industry's 19%. Management's 2004 targets -- 13% to 16% growth in revenue and 15% to 18% in earnings -- suggest this aggressive growth mode will soon shift into lower gear. But with the stock trading at 18 times next year's earnings, there still is room to move. Investors should definitely keep an eye on Cooper.

Carla Pasternak welcomes your feedback at cpasternak@mtroyal.ab.ca