I pride myself on finding strange stories or weird situations in the investing world. I've owned a company that baked dirt, a company that contracted with witch doctors to develop new drugs, and a company whose primary attraction was huge acreage in Argentina.
Yet I still manage to find SunOpta
SunOpta is a Canadian company that combines a fast-growing -- yet still low-margin -- food business with a big ownership stake in an industrial abrasives company, plus technology that could be highly relevant to the emerging ethanol market. See, I told you this was weird.
Fourth-quarter results were pretty good -- reported revenue grew 48%, earnings per share tripled (though from $0.01 to $0.03), and all units of the business delivered growth. Though a lot of the revenue growth came from acquisitions, and internal growth was about 18%, operating margins did improve a bit.
But food isn't really the sizzle here. Sure, there are definitely solid prospects for the company's oat fiber, soy products, and fruit businesses, and SunOpta counts companies like Hain Celestial
But what's likely to really fire the imagination is the company's steam explosion technology -- in particular, its potential application to the ethanol industry. See, present-day ethanol production isn't quite as efficient as it could be (or needs to be). Most of a corn or wheat plant's biomass is cellulose, and that really can't be used with current technologies.
Because of this, many companies are scrambling to develop chemical, mechanical, or biochemical methods that would allow this material to be made into ethanol. In the case of SunOpta, it is supplying its technology and equipment (which uses high heat and pressure to break down the cellulose into something more useful) to a cellulosic ethanol plant under construction in Spain, as well as a pilot technology facility in Nebraska.
So you can see the appeal -- a little company (only about $400 million in market cap) that could perhaps supply key technology to big ethanol players (or potential players) like ADM
It's a big gamble, though. Sure, the company has a profitable and growing food business, but if the momentum crowd really gets a hold of this story, who knows what will happen. I find it a little strange that the company lists no R&D spending on its income statement, but if this company's cellulosic ethanol technology is the real deal, that could really put gas in this tank.
For more corny Foolishness:
- It's Sweeteners, It's Ethanol, It's ADM
- Will Corn Products Ever Make Sweet Music?
- Good News for Ethanol
Unilever is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation..
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).