This Rule Breaker Is a Wealth Maker

2 | By Michael A. Robinson

As you’ve likely come to realize over the past few weeks, I’m a rules-based tech investor.

However, there are investments out there that don’t pass the rigorous five-part system found in “Your Tech Wealth Blueprint” – but are still worth taking a look at.

Today’s recommendation develops equipment that probes semiconductors and makes sure those chips work before they enter our smartphones and PCs.

I call these “Special Situations” – or “turnaround plays – and today I want to share one of them with you today.

I’m looking for this $9 stock to soar 50% in less than three years.

Now, not every Special Situation can succeed in its turnaround and produce those kinds of gains. That’s why I also have a set of rules when it comes to determining if these kinds of investments will become lucrative.

In fact, there are three tell-tale catalysts that can help you find these big-profit stocks.

Let’s take a look…

Back in Winning Form

To succeed at turnaround investing, you have to be willing to put your hard-earned money into companies with steep losses. So, the five rules I talk about so much have to go right out the window.

Take the case of FormFactor Inc. (Nasdaq: FORM). This supplier of specialized test equipment to the semiconductor industry has a market cap of $509 million and trades at about $9 a share.

However, the true cost of buying a share of FormFactor is closer to $6.15, because the firm has $164 million cash on hand and no debt. That gives it net cash per share of $2.75, lowering your “true cost” by about 30%. (If the firm were to liquidate, $6.15 is how much per share you’d be entitled to receive.)

Why the discount? The company’s stock sank in late 2009, after the International Trade Commission ruled that two competing firms had not infringed FormFactor’s patents. It then reported losses amid a weak economy.

Now, I’ve been “screening” FormFactor for a while, and after doing this math, I knew now was the time to take a closer look.

I wanted to see if the Livermore, Calif.-based company triggered all four catalysts I use to judge whether a company is a solid turnaround candidate.

It did, indeed, and that’s why I’m recommending it to you today.

Let’s see how that works.

Turnaround Catalyst No. 1: A Solid Recovery Starts at the Top

I never even consider investing in a turnaround until I take a good look at management.

I like to see fresh blood at the top for a simple reason: When companies get into trouble, it often follows from a series of bad decisions by senior management. So, if the company needs to go in a new direction, that requires execs who will bring in new ideas and approaches with them.

I’ve been a turnaround investor ever since the early 1980s. That’s when I met with Lee Iacocca, the CEO behind Chrysler Corp.’s turnaround. And as he explained to me then, if a board of directors isn’t willing to change leaders, it isn’t serious about righting a sinking ship.

To get FormFactor moving forward, the company hired a savvy new CEO back in 2010. Thomas St. Dennis had served two stints at chip industry leader Applied Materials Inc. (Nasdaq: AMAT), where he ran the division that makes machines for semiconductor manufacturing.

He had also held senior positions at a leading maker of silicon wafers and a privately hel d firm that makes semiconductors embedded in cars, jets and medical products.

So, he brought in a bird’s-eye view of the entire global chip industry.

St. Dennis immediately started installing new managers in FormFactor’s executive suites. Of his six top lieutenants, four assumed their jobs since St. Dennis became CEO. In other words, he surrounded himself with proven leaders who share his goals and vision.

And he recently moved one of those new hires into the top slot. Fortunately for FormFactor’s investors, St. Dennis will now serve as chairman of the board, meaning we’ll still have a steady hand at the top.

St. Dennis’s replacement previously served as CEO of MicroProbe Inc., which FormFactor acquired in late 2012.

Mike Slessor, who earned a Ph.D. in aeronautics and physics at Caltech, is a seasoned semiconductor leader. Before joining MicroProbe in 2008, he held management positions at mid-cap semiconductor leader KLA-Tencor Corp. (Nasdaq: KLAC).

Turnaround Catalyst No. 2: It Must Find New Growth

To convince key customers, lenders and investors that it has embarked on a new direction, a once-troubled firm has to offer more than just lip service. It must have something new to deliver. This can include new products, markets or ways of doing business.

In FormFactor’s case, the company did all three at once by pulling off a big merger. In late 2012, it agreed to acquire MicroProbe for $100 million in cash and roughly $16 million in stock.

The merger made FormFactor the semiconductor industry’s largest supplier of probe cards. Basically, these are printed circuit boards like you’d find in any piece of electronics made today. But they’re specially designed to check the quality of circuits contained in the large wafers used to make silicon chips.

Picking up MicroProbe moved FormFactor into the markets for checking the quality of memory systems used in computers and other electronic gear. It also picked up a line of systems-on-a-chip products, which are used for advanced semiconductor testing.

The MicroProbe acquisition also moved FormFactor into the rapidly growing mobile market. Right now, smartphones and tablets are outselling desktops and laptops by a factor of nearly 5-to-1. Mobile devices are on pace to capture more than one-third of the global tech economy.

Fortunately for FormFactor, mobile chips are significantly simpler than the ones that go into PCs. That allows the firm to build less complex and, therefore, cheaper test cards to a growing market.

In other words, we only want to invest in turnarounds that meet Rule No. 4 of my five-part strategy for building wealth through high tech. And that says to “Focus on growth.”

Turnaround Catalyst No. 3: The Company Must Improve Its Financials

In all the years that I’ve analyzed turnaround firms and their stocks, I’ve yet to see one that didn’t need at least some improvement in its balance sheet.

Of course, we like to see lots of new sales. But if the firm can’t improve its cost structure, sooner or later it’s going to end up in financial trouble.

Here, FormFactor is on the right track. It still has plenty of work ahead, but its financials have greatly improved over the last several quarters.

Just take a look at the results of 2014’s fourth quarter. For the period ended Dec. 27, revenue jumped some 47% from the year-ago quarter to $71.3 million.

And earnings improvements were just off the charts. FormFactor reported earnings per share of 11 cents. During the same quarter in the previous year, the company posted losses of 20 cents per share.

In other words, earnings are improving by wider margins than sales, a sign of a true improvement in operations.

During 2013’s fourth quarter, FormFactor had a negative cash flow of ($5.2 million) – a drain. But a year later, it had cash flow of $9.5 million. That’s a nearly $15 million improvement.

Investors are waking up to the great turnaround story at FormFactor. Over the last year, the stock is up 37.1%. But I still see plenty of upside ahead.

As I figure it, the company is on track to double its earnings in just three years. And if the price only tracked half that amount, we’d be looking at gains of 50% over the same period – and 27% or more in the next year.

My five Tech Wealth Rules still hold. But there are exceptions.

And FormFactor is one of them – clearly, it’s making all the right moves.

P.S. I encourage you to “Like” and “Follow” me at Facebook and Twitter. There you’ll find a community of friends, colleagues and readers who are eager to make big money in tech stocks not in some future time… but right now – today.

Editor’s Note: Michael welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions. Post a comment below… we look forward to hearing from you.

2 Responses to This Rule Breaker Is a Wealth Maker

  1. David says:

    I’m concerned that top executives, including St. Dennis, have been cashing out over the past year even though the price of the stock has been appreciating, doubling in the past two years.

    Also, according to Yahoo (not necessarily reliable), St. Dennis, et al, hardly owns any stock in the company. The insiders own less than 1%. If St. Dennis is as good as you state, I would think that he would be on buying frenzy.

    The one argument for buying is Zacks giving it a Strong Buy as well as a number of other analysts. Plus the stock has been trending up since 2013, but so has the rest of the tech industry.

  2. Charles Whitley says:

    Thomas St. Dennis just dumped the majority of his shares in early March. That does not sound like a ringing endorsement. Such a significant event should have at least been mentioned in your analysis.

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