It's no secret that we're in the worst economic environment of our lifetimes. Yet amid the gloom, you'll find glimmers of light from a few tenacious companies.

Last week, one of those glowers showed itself, as engineering equipment supplier Robbins & Myers (NYSE:RBN) reported phenomenal earnings growth. Serving the chemical, energy, and pharmaceutical industries, Robbins has analysts expecting solid five-year growth.

What? A company doing well?
In its fiscal 2009 first-quarter earnings report last week, the company announced sales growth of 2.6%, as earnings rose a dime to $0.50 per share. Those results came from strong performance in its fluid management and process solutions businesses.

Yet despite the success, the company wasn't firing on all cylinders. Consider some of the issues affecting Robbins during the quarter:

  • A strengthening dollar led to lower results from foreign operations.
  • Share repurchases reduced cash and equivalents by 40%.
  • Losses at its pharmaceutical subsidiary, combined with corporate reorganization costs, suppressed earnings.

I'm not so worried about the first two of these items. Currency-related hits sting, but exchange rates fluctuate, and time has a way of healing the pain caused by short-term adverse movements. The aggressive share buyback leaves the company with a remaining cash balance of $74 million -- substantially lower than its prior-period level, but long-term contractual obligations consist of only about $50 million in long-term debt and operating leases. As long as management doesn't make a habit of burning through cash like it did last quarter, paying up shouldn't present a problem.

Pharma issues
Weakness in Romaco, its pharmaceutical subsidiary, isn't so easy to shrug off. Its losses before interest and taxes were $1.4 million for the quarter, which can be attributed to weaker demand. But management seems to want to use trial-and-error to see what works at Romaco, which seems foolhardy to me in this market. Management should accelerate its efforts to improve this business, learn what works, and stick with it.

I'm wary of investing in a company that doesn't have all parts in full working order. Industry competitor SPX (NYSE:SPW) serves most of the same markets, and has slightly lower P/E and PEG ratios. Similarly, Weatherford's (NYSE:WFT) valuations are just as attractive as Robbins' but without the pharmaceutical exposure. But should Romaco start producing steady profits, I might seriously consider buying shares of Robbins.

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Chris Jones has neither long nor short positions involving any company mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy teaches ballet to clumsy policies.