It happens to every company sooner or later: Wall Street sets a mark for quarterly earnings, and the company misses that goal. Sometimes an earnings stumble is a signal to sell, but digging in the dirt is also a good way to find turnaround candidates while they're getting beaten down. Today, we'll see a rusty steelworker, an emperor without cheap clothes, and a programmer facing code revisions. Let's dig in.

Worth a ton of what?
Steel processor Worthington Industries (NYSE:WOR) stands for our first disappointment this week. The company reported Q1 2007 revenues of $779 million and earnings per diluted share of $0.48, below Street estimates on both counts. The average analyst estimate called for $827 million in sales and $0.53 EPS.

The good news is that these numbers show impressive growth over last year, when Worthington reported $0.32 in EPS on $694 million in sales. Operating income doubled from $27.5 million to $54.7 million, and at 15.6%, trailing-12-month gross margins are at a two-year high. So, everything is going great, right? Well, not exactly.

Two of Worthington's three business segments cater to troubled markets, namely commercial construction and car production. With the slowing housing market on top of production cuts at big customers like Ford (NYSE:F) and General Motors (NYSE:GM), management is pessimistic about growth prospects for its two largest segments, counted by revenues or operating income. Like those of many of its competitors, Worthington's shares are trading at an historically low P/E ratio, especially after the nearly 10% plunge the price took on the day after this report.

Steel prices are rising thanks to massive international demand, but with domestic steel customers under the heel of their own pressures, it's hard for an American manufacturer of (primarily) metal to profit from the pricing trend. Companies like Worthington might be worth a look if you want to jump into a cyclical industry at a low point in the cycle, but you'll need nerves of steel and a long-term investment horizon to enjoy that ride.

I don't have the heart, Mark
Let's move on to the next miscreant -- menswear specialist Hartmarx (NYSE:HMX), which produced only $0.01 per share of net earnings on $137.7 million of net sales, while the analyst community had set their hearts on EPS of $0.15 and $160 million of sales. The year-ago period saw $0.18 per share in net profits and revenue of $177 million.

Management is pinning the shortfall on the consolidation and ownership changes in the department store industry, which has disrupted Hartmarx's shipments and sales of the company's bread-and-butter mid-priced menswear products. Rather than complain about unfavorable business conditions, the company is doing something about it. To reduce the reliance on mainstream department store sales, Hartmarx is working on moving up to snazzier, higher-margin luxury brands sold in higher-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

Management is cutting underperforming brands, which hurts revenues and earnings in the near term but should create a stronger market position in the long run. You can tell from the results that there's a real commitment to this strategy, as revenues have dropped 9.5% year over year, at least partly because of the retreat out of department store brands, and SG&A expenses shot up 17.5% over the same period, thanks to restructuring costs associated with production facility closings.

The stock has taken a beating, and Hartmarx is snapping up shares through a generous repurchase program. If the operational improvement plan works out as intended, this stock could be a deep value today. But the fashion industry is notoriously fickle, and there are no guarantees.

A spin on Aspen
It's time to round off this sordid list, and this week, niche-market enterprise software maker Aspen Technology (NASDAQ:AZPN) will do the honors. The average analyst called for earnings of $0.12 per share on revenues of $79.7 million. What they got was income of $0.05 per share on $79.2 million in sales. Still, I'd take these results over the year-ago period's net loss of $0.70 per share any day.

Neither this quarter's earnings nor last year's are uncomplicated figures, however. In 2005, the fourth quarter included $3.3 million, or $0.06 per share, in restructuring charges versus just $265,000 this time around. On the other hand, the latest quarter suffered a $0.03 per-share charge from payroll taxes, thanks to an extensive internal review of stock option granting practices.

That review found inappropriate grant dates stretching back as far as 1995, and resulted in restatements that reduced earnings for the first three quarters of 2006 by $1 million, for fiscal 2005 by $0.5 million, and for 2004 by $7.2 million. In most cases, review results like that will get a few management heads rolling, but nothing of that sort has been reported for Aspen yet.

Maybe that's because this executive team seems to be doing a fine job of getting the business shipshape. Operating expenses dropped by a staggering 33% from last year while revenues grew 17%, all the while competing against companies with much greater resources such as SAP AG (NYSE:SAP) and Electronic Data Systems (NYSE:EDS). Aspen is a tiny fish in a huge pond with plenty of growth prospects ahead of it -- assuming it doesn't let financial foibles distract from the primary objective, which is to make and sell software at a profit. Sometimes you need to let bygones be bygones and just get to work.

Leaving so soon?
Some of these underperformers are victims of larger circumstances, while others might have only themselves to blame. It's up to you to decide which down-on-their-luck companies should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and which really are stuck in the mud. Come back next Monday, and we'll take a look at another batch of mishaps and disappointments. It'll be fun and educational.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in the companies discussed this week. The Fool has a disclosure policy, and you can see his current holdings for yourself.