OKLAHOMA CITY -- Force Protection (FRPT) is enjoying a last-minute victory lap.Shares rose 5% Monday after the Ladson, S.C., company scored a $70 million Marine Corps contract for 125 mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles. The order, while smaller than past contracts won by Force Protection and its rivals, allows the company to end MRAP I on a high note -- despite its inability to monopolize the program as planned -- before gearing up for even fiercer competition under the larger MRAP II program. Force Protection's stock bounced 84 cents to $16.39 on the news but remains near the bottom of this summer's wide trading range. The shares peaked around $31 in late May before losing roughly half their value as big-name competitors like BAE and Navistar emerged as dominant MRAP players themselves. To date, at least, most Force Protection analysts -- who embrace the company as a Wall Street darling -- have shared none of the market's escalating concerns. Indeed, C.E. Unterberg Towbin analyst James McIlree last week reiterated his buy rating on Force Protection shares even before the company landed its final MRAP I deal. "The shares have been weak on concerns of dwindling MRAP I market share," McIlree admitted on Friday. But "in our opinion, this misses the central issue, which is the battlefield has shifted to MRAP II, where
Still, experts fully expect Force Protection to aggressively defend its hard-won turf. McIlree, in particular, believes that Force Protection will continue to partner with General Dynamics for big Cougar orders while simultaneously pursuing Cheetah contracts on its own. Force Protection sells Category I and heavier Category II MRAP vehicles alike. "The Cheetah is a 7-ton vehicle, about half the weight of current MRAP I Category I vehicles and significantly easier to transport," McIlree notes. "It's also more utile and more viable as a Humvee replacement -- so, on paper, (it is) more likely to win a bigger share of MRAP II Cat I" orders. But meanwhile, McIlree concedes, "both Armor Holdings
now owned by BAE and General Dynamics have received large Cat II orders, diluting Force Protection's share in what we view as its sweet spot." Still, going forward, McIlree expects Force Protection to savor some tasty victories under MRAP II. Notably, under that program, the U.S. military is seeking vehicles that can survive not only improvised explosive devices -- which Cougars effectively withstand -- but also more sophisticated explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) as well.
So far, rival Ceradyne ( CRDN) claims that its technology alone has survived EFP hits during official tests at Aberdeen, Md. Ceradyne, which sat out of the original MRAP competition entirely, is therefore considered a favorite for early awards handed out under MRAP II. But McIlree, for one, feels confident that Force Protection will field a healthy share of MRAP II orders down the road. "FRPT has already been through -- and, they maintain, passed -- EFP tests at Aberdeen," he says. "And though there has been a lot of noise from an increasing number of competitors on this bid, rather than opening up the field, we regard MRAP II as potentially restricting the field, and positive for the company, since they again lead the pack." Meanwhile, McIlree views Force Protection's stock as cheap regardless of the earnings projections used to value the company. He personally has a $32 price target on the shares. His firm has investment banking ties to the company.