We Fools like to invest in businesses that have a competitive advantage, which I define as a unique position plus the right supporting capabilities. I think Stericycle
Being an entrenched niche player in a highly regulated environment is a good position. The company has to have all of the right permits and know the rules backwards and forwards. If not, it doesn't get paid and could lose its privileges. Fortunately, Stericycle has the right supporting capabilities (people, equipment, and plants) to help healthcare facilities dispose of medical waste properly, and make money along the way.
Stericycle serves over 300,000 customers, including 87,000 with its Steri-safe program and 154 customers with its Biosystems program. Using these programs, Stericycle charges monthly fee depending on the level of service they purchase. For the highest levels of service, Stericycle takes on the customers' compliance risk. Think of it as a long-term service agreement (or an insurance policy), similar to the way GE
From its first-quarter earnings report, released yesterday, we can see that Stericycle continues to serve its customers well and is making money in a very non-glamorous industry. Relative to the last year's first quarter, sales grew 20% while net income only grew 14% due to some contractions in gross margins. In addition, Stericycle also took in about $29 million of free cash flow, a 37% increase from 2004.
That's all good news, but there are things to worry about, too. Waste Management
Although Stericycle continues to perform (the stock was up almost 5.33% midday), the stock is off its 52-week high. Taping together a free cash flow to the firm (versus just the equity holders) by adding interest expense to the familiar formula (operating cash flow minus capital expenditures), we get $30.8 million for the quarter. The company's business isn't really cyclical, so if we conservatively project that same figure for each of the remaining quarters, we get a projected yearly FCF figure of $123.2 million, which gives us a forward EV/FCF ratio just under 18. I would consider it fairly valued near today's price -- not a screaming buy for a value guy like me.