Nature's Sunshine Could Be the Next Big Thing: Opinion

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( MagicDiligence.com) -- Nature's Sunshine ( NATR) is a direct selling, multi-level marketing firm. Herbal products account for about half of sales, including remedies for better circulation (Cardio Assurance), blood pressure (Blood Pressurex), and immune system function (Liquid Chlorophyll). Vitamins, minerals and supplements comprise another 43% of sales, catering to a wide variety of both general and targeted outcomes. Personal care, including skin and hair products, round out the portfolio. Nature's Sunshine is an international firm, with 45% of sales originating outside of the United States.

Multi-level marketing companies are nothing new to Magic Formula® Investing, or MFI. The direct marketing model involves individuals (known as distributors) recruiting additional distributors to buy and market products, and to recruit further distributors to build out a network. Essentially, this is a low-cost way to build both an advertising and distribution network, leading to high returns on capital.

The downside is that turnover is very high (over 55% of NATR's distributors do not renew), government regulations can be restrictive and both the general public and investing community have a less-than-positive view of the business model. Let's face it, being hounded to buy (and then sell) stuff by a relative or friend is a real pain in the posterior.

That said, the track record of these companies in MFI is pretty stellar. USANA Health Sciences ( USNA), probably Nature's Sunshine's closest analog, is up 40% since it appeared in the screen last fall. Herbalife ( HLF), Nu Skin ( NUS) and Pre-Paid Legal ( PPD) all more than doubled after appearing in MFI. Can Nature's Sunshine be the next success story?

I believe it can. Since new management came on board in 2010, the firm has dramatically improved its cost structure, cutting poorly designed promotional programs, eliminating unnecessary overhead and terminating an unprofitable collaboration with NutriPlus LLC. Since then, operating margins have climbed to more than 10%, from prior hideous levels under 4%.

Its main public competitors (USNA, NUS and HLF) carry operating margins around 13%, so there are probably a few points of improvement still possible here. This is the first step of the turnaround, and it is well under way.

The second step will be to re-ignite revenue growth. Sales growth here has been lukewarm, to say the least. Sales remain about the same as 2007 levels. Europe and Asia/Pacific have been growing at 15% rates, while the Americas remain flat, a trend that will probably continue. While Nature's has operations in 51 countries, there remains room to grow.

China remains untapped, a market behind much of Herbalife's success. India is also virgin territory. I see some additional large markets in Europe that could be entered, including France and Belgium. Over the long run, there are plenty of possibilities for growth here. It will be a matter of execution.

Failure to execute on the growth and margin opportunities is the biggest risk here, and it is a big one, as the industry is crowded with larger and more well-known companies and brands. Nature's Sunshine has historically been a second-rate player. This leaves the company vulnerable to competitors poaching its top distributors and their networks. I believe that, over the long run, NATR will need to raise its volume incentive payouts to more than 40% of sales (from about 36% today), closer to what the competition pays.

Also, cash flows have been spotty. Over the past five years, the firm has converted an alarmingly low 17.4% of reported operating earnings to free cash flow, far below the 75%-80% average for the industry. This is something to keep a close eye on, as it often signals irregularities in accounting, inventory management, or tax accrual payments.

Assuming modest growth, the firm reaching a 12% operating margin, and a slightly below-industry earnings multiple, I see Nature's Sunshine being worth $26 a share, about 52% above the current price of $17. The stock is on a good run right now and there should be continued upside going forward, but it is too similar to current pick USANA Health Sciences to add to the Top Buys list.

Steve owns no position in any stocks discussed in this article.

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