Sunday, January 4, 2004

LCA-Vision, Humana see boom in '03


Local stock leaders

By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Shares of LCA-Vision Inc., the Sycamore Township provider of corrective laser eye surgery, skyrocketed 828.5 percent to lead the Enquirer 80 stocks last year as an improving economy increased demand for its elective vision surgery.

After losing money each year since 1999, LCA-Vision, which operates 39 LasikPlus laser surgery centers, is expected to post of a 2003 profit of 52 to 57 cents a share. The company lost 57 cents a share last year.

"Laser eye surgery has really gained credibility and wider acceptance over the last couple years," said Pete Sorrentino, director of equity research for Bartlett & Co. in Cincinnati.

"What's really helped their credibility is their improved business model," he said.

To spur demand for its expensive procedure, LCA has offered different financing options to customers, stepped up its marketing and introduced new technology which costs about $500 per eye.

That's translated into improved earnings and revenues each quarter which has made its stock more attractive, Sorrentino said.

Humana jumps

Louisville-based Humana Inc., one of the largest health insurance providers, finished second on the Enquirer 80, up 128.5 percent.

The managed health care industry could be in for another strong year in 2004, according to the Corporate Research Group, which forecasts industry profits up 16 percent.

The August power failure in the Northeast lit a fire under shares of General Cable Corp., which closed up 114.5 percent for 2003.

Analyst Jeffery Beach said at the start of the year he was concerned the Highland Heights cable maker wouldn't be able to complete debt refinancing.

But the power failure has spurred interest in General Cable and other cable manufacturers.

That boosted General Cable's shares and allowed it to complete a $670 million public stock and debt financing

Cable stocks have also been helped by speculation that the industry is ripe for consolidation, Beach said.

Another restructured company, Alderwoods Group Inc., the Canadian-based funeral home and cemetery operator whose U.S. offices are in downtown Cincinnati, finished 2003 up 98.7 percent..

After emerging from bankruptcy reorganization in 2002, the former the Loewen Group Inc., cut debt and sold some operations.

The lower debt-financing costs means improved cash flow, says William Burns, who follows the funeral industry for the investment firm Johnson Rice & Co..

In an increasingly insecure world, companies selling security products and services have been popular.

Armor Holdings gets boost

Eisenhardt, was no exception, gaining 91.1 percent.

The Fairfield plant, headquarters for the company's global vehicle armoring business, has benefited from the military's increased demand for armored Humvees for places such as Iraq.

Armor's shares also benefited from the sale of its money-losing security services business and its acquisition of Simula Inc., a supplier of protective equipment.

Chiquita Brands International Inc. emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002, and started last year intent on proving it could consolidate around its core banana business and cut costs.

Investors rewarded the company for doing just that, sending Chiquita shares up 69.9 percent for the year.

The company shaved $40 million in costs, sold its low-growth vegetable-canning business, and sold an unprofitable Panama operation to workers there.

It also showed a glimpse of the growth strategy it hopes will entice investors in 2004, unveiling a line of fresh-cut fruit in Midwestern stores

Also among the big winners last year were:

• Omnicare Inc., the Covington-based provider of pharmacy services to long-term health care providers, whose shares rose 69.5 percent.

It is now the largest provider of pharmaceutical services to nursing homes and elder care institutions, and has started expanding into the home pharmacy market as well as specialty drug markets for seniors.

•  Federated Department Stores Inc., the parent of Lazarus-Macy's, gained 63.9 percent as investors were apparently encouraged that an improving economy would benefit the retailer.

Another big restructuring story was Covington's Ashland Inc., which closed the year up 54.4 percent.

Under new chairman James O'Brien the specialty chemical and automotive products company is cutting costs and focusing on improving returns.

Fourth-quarter profit nearly tripled as gains from the sale of a chemical business and its refining operations offset a loss in its road construction business.

Investors may also be bidding up the stock because Marathon Oil has an option to buyout Ashland's 38 percent stake in their Marathon Ashland Petroleum refining and marketing joint venture in 2005. That could generate an estimated $2.5 billion windfall for Ashland and push its shares above $50, analysts say.

Other winners

Sorrentino said the best-performing stocks last year tended to be the small and medium-sized companies. In an improving economy, investors are increasingly willing to move money into smaller stock in hopes of getting bigger returns

For example, Multi-Color Corp., the long-time consumer label printer, which has repositioned itself as a one-stop source for corporate packaging, saw its shares gain 52.8 percent as investors noticed. Multi-Color's stock performance was helped by a 3-for-2 stock split in November.

Another health-care winner, Meridian Bioscience Inc., the Newtown medical test manufacturer, got some national spotlight for coming out with a simple flu test, while sales of its E. coli test also continued to do well. The company also introduced a new test for stomach ulcers. Its shares closed the year up 51.7 percent.

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Staff writers James Pilcher and Cliff Peale contributed to this report. E-mail mboyer@enquirer.com




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