Saturday, July 2, 2016

Sterling Construction Will Enjoy Higher Margins For Years to Come

Sterling Construction Company (STRL) works on transportation and water infrastructure projects (more of the former, particularly highways). It’s a microcap that few analysts cover. The stock trades at $5/share and I think it could be worth $8.

The company has all sorts of not-so-obvious positives: turnaround play with operating momentum, low margin legacy contracts fading away, big net operating losses (NOLs) to monetize, understated book value due to off-balance sheet asset. On top of all that, management incentives are aligned with shareholders.

The political/economic climate also favors Sterling. Monetary policy is running out of bullets and politicians have to start pulling fiscal levers. Highway construction is one area that enjoys bipartisan support – even Republican candidate Trump talks about using constructions to provide jobs.

The next few paragraphs will give a brief industry background before getting into company specifics.

Cyclical business, But Right Part of the Cycle

Coming out of the Great Recession, federal and state governments tightened their construction budgets. For the past few years, companies competed intensely for limited work and margins fell as a result.

That picture is reversing. At the federal level, Obama signed a $300+bn Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (“FAST Act”) in December 2015, which provides certainty over the next 5 years. At the state and local government level, politicians have also been working to boost construction budgets.

Texas and California are Sterling’s two biggest markets. Texas is already seeing a spike in highway construction budget. Not only that, the recently passed Proposition 7 will provide billions more in funding starting late 2017. California is also in the works - although transportation needs were not addressed in the June budget, it remains high on the agenda. Multiple stakeholders are united in their push for increased funding. Here’s a taste of what's happening from Granite Construction’s latest transcript.
"We are helping lead the charge in California where construction industry and labor leaders are working shoulder to shoulder to build legislative support for a long-term incremental commitment for transportation investment of at least an additional $40 billion over the next 10 years."
In the coming years, I expect even better legislative support for infrastructure projects as politicians turn to fiscal stimulus. With a bigger and more visible budget, competition will be more rational and that should lead to better margins.

Gross Margin Turnaround and Other Good Stuff

In fact, Sterling Construction is already seeing improving margins. Gross margin is by far the largest driver of net income and cash flows, and here’s how that’s looking:

The momentum is clear. Gross margin troughed during 2013-2014 and has been going up since. Also note that margins have plenty of upside before returning to historical norm of 10%+.

Backlog margins are improving as well. Gross margins in the backlog for the past 4 quarters (starting 1Q’15) are 6.0%, 6.5%, 7.0%, 7.7%. Management expects 8.5%-9% by year end.

Part of the margin improvement will come from better mix. Sterling has been held back by legacy low margin projects from 2013, but it is quickly working them down. Here’s what CEO Paul Varello have to say:
“…we have to complete approximately $70 million worth of legacy jobs that will finish over the next couple of quarters and will generate small to zero margins. We believe that we will start to see the higher margin projects generate stronger earnings in Q3 and beyond…In addition, by year-end we anticipate that our overall backlog margin will be in the range of 8.5% to 9%.”
Those higher margins come at a great time as Sterling had accumulated a big NOL. With the cycle turning, it will basically pay no taxes the next few years.

There are more goodies and I will quickly outline them here:
  • Sterling bought $40mm of life insurance policies. The policies are to cover Sterling’s commitment to buy out minority interests upon death of key executives. That commitment is booked as a liability on balance sheet, but the insurance policies are off balance sheet. So book value is understated by a material amount. 
  • The company just did an equity raise to deleverage the balance sheet. 
  • CEO Varello took an $1 salary and restricted stock when he took over last year. 

Put it all together

Backlogs have been increasing and will likely increase over the next five years. Margins have gone up with lots of room to go. But at $5/share the stock is trading like a normal cyclical. It certainly does not reflect the extended growth runway I described above.

2017 P/E is a modest ~9x. The real question is how does 2018+ look? I think the answer is higher revenue, higher margin, and no taxes will translate to explosive free cash flows growth and multiples expansion.

Note: Competitor Primoris was also bullish about Texas in its 1Q’16 call.
“We continue to expect substantial growth in the Texas heavy civil market, especially once Prop 7 money starts to flow. Which should be sometime late next year.”

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