Here's the trick about commodities such as oil and gas, chemicals, or even water -- if you can't move them around where you want and store them when they get there, they're not good for very much. As an integrated firm offering engineering, fabrication, and construction services to the natural resources industry, Chicago Bridge & Iron
Fueled largely by strong demand for liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities, CB&I closed 2004 with a strong quarter. Sales were up 21%, net income climbed 32%, and new business taken in the quarter totaled $1.4 billion (versus $400 million a year ago).
CB&I ended the year with a 47% higher backlog of $2.3 billion in orders and more than $151 million of cash in excess of debt. Better still, the company nearly doubled its free cash flow to more than $115 million.
Although CB&I is well-versed in a wide range of construction projects (including pipelines, terminals, and storage facilities) for industries such as oil/gas, petrochemicals, power, mining, and water, LNG facilities are the growth story at present.
Where natural gas was once burned off as a useless byproduct of oil pumping, it has since become an important fuel source around the world. Given that natural gas can be a pain to store and ship internationally as a gas, LNG is becoming increasingly significant to both gas producers and gas consumers.
Recently only about a quarter of the company's business, LNG projects have expanded to more than 40% of the company's backlog of projects. Although there are certainly able competitors to CB&I, building LNG facilities isn't like building a Quonset hut -- in other words, experience and technical skill matters (and CB&I has both in spades).
Whether or not there is a "bubble" in LNG projects, CB&I should be well-situated for the future. No matter what happens with U.S. energy consumption (oil, LNG, hydrogen, gasified coal), companies and consumers will still need facilities to produce, transfer, and store this stuff. Furthermore, industries such as water, mining, and chemicals will continue to need turnkey construction services as well to stay competitive.
Given that many energy producers are now flush with cash and willing (and able) to add infrastructure, it's not really surprising to see that CB&I trades at a premium to the construction/engineering space. While much of this is deserved (CB&I has strong margins and return on equity relative to its peers), the stock may look too pricey for more value-oriented investors.
Although a 70% run in this stock and a PEG ratio well above 1 will keep me on the sidelines for now, more aggressive investors who want to play a slightly different angle on world energy demand and production should give a closer look to CB&I.
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no ownership interest in any stocks mentioned.