Looking back, I'm not sure what I expected. A retina scan? Two armed guards turning two separate keys? A certified technician pushing a button or flipping a switch?
That seems reasonable, right?
Seriously, it's not like they were about to light up a dime-store hibachi. There must've been 50 gallons of oil in that drum, if there was an ounce. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been three stories up, cowering like schoolgirls behind triple-paned bulletproof glass.
You can imagine my surprise when some guy in shirtsleeves sauntered across the floor to ignite a 30-foot ball of fire with ... a torch. Talk about old school! Don't worry. You could feel the heat through the glass -- and Bill Mann may have squealed -- but they doused the fire in minutes, and nobody got hurt.
As it turns out, you can put out an oil fire with water. But not just any water -- China Fire & Security
The stock has doubled in a year
Already, iron and steel, petrochemical, and power-generation plants across China rely on the company's patented fire detection and extinguishing systems for protection. Now, China Fire is expanding into subways, tunnels, exhibition halls, sports stadiums, and other commercial markets.
When we first made the company the subject of an Asia Dispatch last summer (read on for how you can get this year's dispatches in real time, free), China Fire was a tiny company listed on the bulletin boards. In a matter of months, the stock moved to the Nasdaq and surged from around $5 to more than $18. Yet, there's still room for growth.
For example, management estimates that 80% of the nation's steel plants still aren't compliant with fire safety regulations, just part of a massive retrofit opportunity for China Fire -- on top of the booming new construction market. China Fire is also pushing into India, which is almost as promising as its home market.
Two secret weapons
The Chinese government is cracking down on noncompliant factories. But who do you think the government tapped to help write the rules that govern fire safety? That's right. China Fire has the green light to recommend national standards that it is in the best position to help industrial companies meet. Sweet deal.
Moreover, while China Fire serves major customers like PetroChina
National Geographic reports that, for every shipping container bringing materials into China's Guangdong Province, "nine go out filled with exports." Amazingly, 72% of the shoes sold in the U.S. are made in China's factories, along with 50% of the kitchen appliances, 85% of the Christmas trees, and 80% of the toys. And that means factories, lots of them.
Another great opportunity
Last year, when Bill Mann and I met with Asia's top investors, China Fire was routinely atop their lists of great opportunities. Bill puts it this way, "In the calculus of small company, huge market opportunity, excellent financials, and high margins, you could hardly ask for a better case than China Fire." I agree.
That explains why almost anything even remotely comparable to China Fire here in the United States was long ago swallowed up by the likes of conglomerates General Electric
In fact, the company in question is walking in the footsteps of a well-known U.S. company that was both a Microsoft startup and one of the Internet's great success stories. The business was so successful, in fact, the legendary Barry Diller paid billions to get the company into his IAC/InterActiveCorp
You may have guessed...
I'm talking about Ctrip.com
Suffice it to say that Ctrip spends more on customer service and research than interior design. (Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about the company's call center -- it was the one condition under which I was allowed in.) I can tell you that senior reps have spent hours testing and massaging a single line of an inbound telemarketer's script.
I can also confirm that upper management has been monitoring the development of China's tier-2 cities closely for years, using some fairly novel and sophisticated metrics. In fact, it was my visit with Ctrip chief financial officer Jane Jie Sun last June that opened my eyes and convinced me that "the Tier 2 story is ready to explode."
But can it double again?
I've been following Ctrip casually for some time time. It's been a massive winner for Motley Fool readers. Value purists argue whether Ctrip can double again and how long it will take. I look at it this way: Expedia has twice the market cap, yet less than one-quarter the potential domestic market.
And like many of our tier-2 plays, it's conservatively managed and has one of the most determined and powerful national governments as a tailwind. It turns out travel is good for morale, and the government supports it. Bottom line: In a country of 1.3 billion upwardly mobile citizens, I'm not sure a proven industry leader can be valued by traditional metrics.
But I'm going back just to be sure. I'd like you to hear what I find. Over the next two weeks, Bill Mann and I are heading back to Asia, with an eye on China's inland cities. We'll meet up with the guys at China Fire in Beijing and ask "the man on the street" what he thinks of Ctrip, like we did last year. More important, we'll comb the countryside for the next China double.
Don't wait for us to get back
If you'd like receive our dispatches from Asia, relaying what we uncover in as close to real time as humanly possible, we'd be happy to send them to you. If it helps, investors who signed up for last year's dispatches enjoyed returns of 40% and more, including a double on China Fire.
Best of all, The Motley Fool is covering the cost. For you, it's free.
All you have to do is enter your email in the box below, click on the button, and tell me where to send our first dispatch. But don't wait, we'll be leaving soon. To be on board, tell us how to reach you.
Fool writer Paul Elliott really will write you from Asia and tell you what he's found, but only if you to ask. Paul doesn't own any stocks mentioned. Microsoft is an Inside Value recommendation. Ctrip is a Hidden Gems selection. China Fire is a Global Gains pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.