In my last article, I explained how the combination of a small market cap, a slightly boring industry, and an understandable business aligns the planets in favor of the individual investor. I tossed out two names last week, and this week I'm back with fresh ideas.

But unlike the first two, these companies employ Pac-Man-style acquisition tactics to combat the slow growth inherent in their industries. That may worry some people at first.

Acquisitions, like relationships, don't tend to work when the premise is that of a rescue mission: The stereotypical bad acquisition would begin with a power-hungry CEO expanding into an unrelated industry and gaming on a turnaround to boot. By contrast, the companies below are picky eaters, buying solid brands and staying focused.

As Rich Duprey reported last month, K2 (NYSE:KTO) CEO Richard Heckmann is definitely a Pac-Man when it comes to acquisitions, having pulled off 260 of them at his last job. He's not quite so busy these days, but it's good to know that the experience is there, considering that a purchase of K2's stock is really a bet on the vision and quality of its management: The lumpy growth of acquisition-oriented companies makes numerical analysis difficult.

But it's a bet I'm tempted to make, given that as an avid outdoorsman I have a love affair with many of K2's products. Besides small-but-well-known makers such as Marmot, Ex Officio, and Dana Design, K2's stable includes a wealth of leading brands beyond its own K2-branded stuff. I'll rattle off some names: Volkl/Marker ski products, Ride/Liquid/Morrow/5150 snowboards, Tubbs and Atlas snowshoes, Brass Eagle paintball markers (don't you dare call them guns), Rawlings and Worth team sports equipment, Shakespeare/Ugly Stick fishing poles, and Stearns life jackets.

The idea behind acquiring industry-leading names is simple: Top brands have already done the hard part -- earned the right to precious shelf space. Shelf space, K2 feels, will become an increasingly important denominator of success in the future, at least in the event of further sports retail consolidation via the likes of The Sports Authority (NYSE:TSA), Big 5, Dicks, et al.

Here's how K2's 2003 revenues break down, although future years should see higher Action Sports figures thanks to the 2004 Volkl/Marker ski acquisition.

2003 K2 Revenue

Action Sports 38.6%
Team Sports 16.3%
Marine/Other 45.1%

But what it really comes down to is future earnings and cash flow. Although analyst-expected annualized five-year earnings growth is 15%, the deciding long-term factor will be how fast all these acquisitions accrete, as K2 claims they will, to earnings. But for now, operating cash flow seemed a little less affected by acquisition-related one-timers than earnings, so it might be better to look at:


2003 2002 2001
Operating Cash Flow $32,668,000 $21,264,000 $15,633,000
Operating Cash Flow per share $1.14 $1.18 $0.87
* per-share numbers include shares recently issues for acquisitions

K2 would be quick to tell you that the timing and magnitude of 2003's acquisitions and related share issuances make their per-share numbers poor harbingers of the future. While I agree, the dilemma pretty much sums up the major concern with investing in acquirers: We know the "real" numbers will be better, but by how much and when?

Nobody (not even the crack analysts responsible for our Hidden Gems newsletter) can tell you for sure when that will happen, so the only thing to do is wait and keep the faith that K2's management is on the money with its claims of pending near-term accretion.

Jarden (NYSE:JAH), a lover of unloved businesses, grows by acquisition of dominant brands in smaller (less than $350 million), less-competitive industries. Things such as Ball jars, Diamond matches, and FoodSaver vacuum-pack sealers (which resemble laminating machines for food) all come courtesy of Jarden, whose shtick is buying shelf-space-earning name brands in smaller industries that fly under the radar of bigger companies such as Clorox (NYSE:CLX) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG).

Moreover, through its many acquisitions, Jarden aims to leverage operating and distribution efficiencies. For example, its pending acquisition of the Bicycle/Bee/Aviator/Hoyle playing-card group stands to provide additional entree into the convenience store and European sales channels. Given that 98% of their sales are on this continent, European expansion -- they think their FoodSaver will do especially well there -- is a fantastic wild card.

Though space won't permit listing all my model assumptions, I ran a discounted cash flow analysis on Jarden with some round-number discount rates. I used 10% as my median discount rate and analyst-estimated 13.5% earnings growth over the next five years, tapering down to 4% stable growth (in both earnings and free cash flows to equity). Jarden is currently in the mid-$30s, so according to this particular model, it's almost certainly undervalued.

Jarden DCF Valuation Matrix

Discount Rate 8% 10% 12%
Value per share $80.25 $52.22 $38.32

With stable companies such as Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) as Jarden's biggest purchasers (Wal-Mart is actually K2's biggest purchaser, too), I'm not worried about its business declining. My worries with Jarden relate more to its current valuation. After removing the effects of some big-ticket acquisition-oriented charges, I ran multiples for enterprise value to free cash flow and an earnings yield computed with average daily prices.

Jarden Multiples

TTM 2003 2002 2001
EV/Free Cash Flow 13.2 12.4 7.1 5.5
Earnings/Mkt value equity 7.9% 9.1% 13.4% 1.4%

In spite of my adjustments, it was hard to get meaningful numbers for 2001. Regardless, the trend is clear: The still-good numbers are reflecting more recognized value in the company. But for an improving company such as Jarden, such additional value may be well-deserved. I'd need ROIC figures, which Jarden's acquisition-style growth prevents me from accurately ascertaining, to determine that for sure, though.

You take it from here
Both K2 and Jarden, as well as the stocks I previously highlighted -- corn processor Gruma and home-goods retailer Tuesday Morning -- have things that would be wise to investigate further. Actually, that's the idea behind these picks; companies that are at the same time promising and straightforward, providing ideal starting points for further research. If you're looking to round out your arsenal with stocks you can act upon today, I'd start with Tom Gardner's Hidden Gems newsletter. It can't hurt to take a peek. A trial is free.

Fool contributor James Early doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned in the article, as the Moon has yet to enter the second phase of Venus.