Paul Mueller Company's Ongoing Recovery - MUEL

A while back I wrote a post on Paul Mueller Company in which I highlighted the company's promising improvements in profits and margins but expressed reservations about the company's high financial leverage and large pension deficit. Ultimately, I decided the balance sheet issues were troubling enough to keep me watching from the sideline. Eighteen months later, the results are in. Anyone who had disagreed with my assessment and bought shares is sitting on a whopping gain. From the end of April 2013 to the present, Paul Mueller shares rose 190% from $18.00 to $52.25.

The big move in Paul Mueller Company's stock is due to the combination of vastly improved earnings and a de-risked balance sheet. At the time of my original post, I had pegged Paul Mueller's adjusted 2012 operating income at $5.9 million. Since then the company has made great strides, growing trailing twelve month revenues by 7.5% to $193 million and nearly tripling operating income to $15.4 million. No need for adjustments either, as the severance expenses that depressed the company's 2012 EBIT are in the rear-view mirror.

Improved profits aside, the company's leverage has declined meaningfully. Total debt has been slashed by a third, falling from $34.2 million at the end of 2012 to $22.9 million as of June 30, 2014. The reduction was funded entirely through free cash flow, but not by sweating the company's assets; capital expenditures have tracked with depreciation. The company's pension deficit remains material, though it has also declined 40% since 2012. The decline is mainly due to strong appreciation in the pension plan's equity investments. The expected return on the plan assets was held steady at 7.25% from 2012 to the present, though the discount rate on plan obligations was increased from 4.48% to 5.34%. (Increasing a pension plan's discount rate results in lower present value of future payouts. Changing a discount rate is a totally legitimate response to changing long-term interest rates, but aggressive companies have been known to choose a higher discount rate in order to minimize reported pension deficits.)

Back, for a moment, to Paul Mueller's greatly improved results. Recently installed CEO David Moore has made several comments about focusing on bringing each business segment into the black and making the heads of individual business lines responsible for results for the first time. The company has also implemented "open book management," a concept designed to increase transparency, improve management/employee relations and help employees see how their individual contributions result in increased profits and their own rewards. In the 2013 annual report, Moore specifically mentioned the head of each business segment and credits strong performers. Results for the first half of 2014 are up substantially over the same period in 2013, with revenues up 13.5% and operating income up 23.3%. The company's backlog is $70.4 million compared to $55.1 million one year ago, strongly suggesting continued improvement in trailing twelve months' results.

Despite the run-up, Paul Mueller Company remains very reasonably priced. Including the reported pension deficit in the company's enterprise value shows an EV/EBITDA figure of 5.0 and EV/EBIT of 7.0.

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These ratios are likely to fall if the company's higher backlog results in increased earnings and as the company continues to apply its free cash flow to reducing debt.

Paul Mueller's large pension deficit remains a risk, particularly now that equity securities comprise over 60% of pension assets. A weak stock market could undo much of the progress the company has made in reducing the size of its pension deficit. However, the vastly increased earnings and cash flow combined with significantly reduced debt make the pension much less of a concern than it was a year and a half ago. Paul Mueller Company's ongoing debt reduction and improving earnings have shifted the risk-reward balance very favorably since I originally wrote about the company, and I no longer see compelling reasons to avoid the shares.

Alluvial Capital Management, LLC holds shares of Paul Mueller Company for client accounts.

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