St. Anthony: Smaller firms had a comeback year

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Winmark Corp. has been one of Minnesota’s best stocks to own under John Morgan. But the company’s stock has fallen from $93 last December to about $67 in recent weeks.

Photo: DAVID BREWSTER • dbrewster@startribune.com,

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Minnesota’s smaller public companies turned in a spirited performance last year that beat their large-company brethren.

The “Bottom 50” — the companies that dominate the bottom half of the Star Tribune 100 — swung to profitability last year as sales jumped 13.5 percent. That compared with flat growth for the Star Tribune 100. And the overall market value for the Bottom 50 rose 23 percent to $8.6 billion, compared with a 15.5 percent rise for the ST100.

The largest of the Bottom 50, including Clearfield, Famous Dave’s, Cardiovascular Systems and Proto Labs, saw their shareholder value rise in double to triple digits. And that helped push the entire group up in value.

Martha Pomerantz, a partner at Evercore Wealth Management in Minneapolis, said the winners reflect a national shift that continues this year from hot technology stocks to smaller “value stocks” that have consistent growth prospects. The group also includes an assortment of rebounders that stumbled, but have turned themselves around and been noticed by investors.

“There has been a rotation into more stable companies with lower valuations and consistent growth prospects,” Pomerantz said in an interview last week. “Large-cap value stocks, for example, have increased his year. And mid-cap value stocks are up 5.7 percent. This rotation is typical at this point in the cycle.’’

Pomerantz said at Evercore, “We sold our small-cap stock position a month or so ago believing valuations had become too stretched. We are feeling constructive about the overall market longer-term, but are using this as an opportunity to rebalance back to our equity targets for each account.”

Generally, late in an economic recovery, money tends to go disproportionately toward larger value stocks over small-cap stocks. But there was solid growth in the Bottom 50 companies. Employment, for example, rose 10.6 percent to 20,387 jobs in 2013.

Yet everything seemed to work in 2013, the fourth and best year of the market rally since the Great Recession lows.

Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, noted that small-cap stocks as a group underwent a 10 percent correction this year.

“I think the small caps are a lot better value now,” Paulsen said. “They were extended last year. But I think a lot of the correction has been made and there are some reasonable values now, compared to the end of last year. This might not be a bad entry point after the correction in small-cap stocks. Large caps still haven’t corrected.”

Interesting developments over the past year include:

Proto Labs, Minnesota’s most successful public stock offering since the Great Recession, is an Internet-order-driven manufacturer of molds and precision short-order parts. The expanding west-suburban company hopped from 60th to 57th place as sales and profits rose by double-digit amounts in 2013. Market value rose to $1.6 billion, the highest among Bottom 50 companies.

Silver Bay Realty Trust, formed in 2012 and managed by Minnetonka-based Pine River Capital, debuts at No. 73 on the Star Tribune 100 thanks to a 1,200 percent rise in revenue in 2013, its first full year of operation. However, its market value has fallen in recent months amid investor concerns about the direction of interest rates and questions over its business plan of buying and fixing up residential properties in key markets, renting and then selling them as the housing market improves.

Winmark, the franchisor of used sports equipment and other used-goods retailers and business services, moved up four spots to No. 70. This has been one of Minnesota’s best stocks to own since veteran Twin Cities businessman John Morgan took control of the company about 15 years ago. But the stock, which ran from $7 per share in 2000 to more than $93 last December, has slipped to about $67 in recent weeks.

Clearfield, the designer and manufacturer of fiber-optic management products that enable broadband connectivity, had a great 2013, jumping from No. 80 to No. 67. Sales rose 53 percent to $59 million and the company’s market value rose 181 percent to more than $200 million. The price has dropped about $2 to around $16.70 per share amid the small-cap sell-off so far in 2014.

 

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • neal.st.anthony@startribune.com

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