A Promising Stock Investment With a Boring Name

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If you haven't heard of Alexander & Baldwin ( ALEX), you're probably not alone.

Although this name might sound like a staid law or accounting firm, that's not the case. In fact, this Honolulu-based company was involved in one of the most interesting under-the-radar deals this year, one that closed in late June.

As a value investor, I look for situations like this: A fairly obscure name that owns a potentially valuable array of assets.

Prior to officially separating into two publicly traded stocks, Alexander & Baldwin and Matson ( MATX), the company was a curious combination of businesses: real estate and shipping.

I was originally attracted to the company primarily due to the real estate. As of year-end 2011, the company owned 87,695 acres in Hawaii, the equivalent of 137 square miles, or an area that is 11.7 by 11.7 miles. That is a considerable amount of land, twice the size of Washington D.C., and, due to its location, there's considerable value there.

While three-quarters of this land is located in Maui, much of it -- nearly 58,000 acres -- is currently used for agriculture, primarily sugarcane. Another 29,000 acres are for watershed/conservation, so not all of this land is available for development.

There's also an additional 471 acres in eight other states, and a substantial portfolio of commercial real estate that at year's end included 18 properties in Hawaii (1.4 million square feet), and 24 properties on the mainland (6.5 million square feet).

All in all, this is a formidable portfolio of real estate, and it's the primary reason I took a position in the stock several years ago.

The other business, Matson Navigation, provides freight transportation services between the Pacific coast and Hawaii, Guam and China. The company owned 10 containerships, and 34,000 containers at year end. This business generated the bulk of the combined company's 2011 revenue of $1.464 billion, or nearly 85% of total revenue.

The combined entity traded under the radar for years, known primarily by value investors interested in the real estate -- until Bill Ackman of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management took a 9% stake in the company in March, 2011.

Just eight months later, the company announced intentions to split into two entities. Shareholders received an equal number of shares in both Alexander & Baldwin and Matson, and the transaction has already created value.

Two days prior to the start of trading as two separate companies, shares traded just below $50. Monday, ALEX closed at $32.04, while Matson closed at $25.37, a 15% jump. Interestingly, MATX shares traded as high as $36.43 per share on Friday, before falling back to earth.

Now the wait begins to see what kind of results each entity can deliver. There's also the matter of the dividend -- the combined company paid a $.315 quarterly dividend that provided a fairly solid yield to investors.

At least initially, ALEX will not be paying a dividend; while MATX has initiated a $.15 quarterly dividend. That equates to an indicated yield of 2.3%, which should help put some level of stability into the stock price.

While I initially purchased shares in the combined entity primarily due to the perceived value of real estate, I will not be dumping my Matson Navigation shares. This is a solid niche business that pays a decent dividend, and I'm along for the ride.

Welcome to the sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating world of value investing. A world where it sometimes takes a transaction, such as the Alexander & Baldwin/Matson Navigation separation, to realize value.

At the time of publication, Heller was long shares of Alexander & Baldwin and Matson.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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