Back to the Drawing Board for Autodesk

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Since reaching a high of $41.42 on March 20, shares of CAD/CAM software company Autodesk ( ADSK) have plummeted by 11%. Until that point, however, the stock had been on an incredible run, gaining close to 20% on the year. When it comes to Autodesk, which has had a long-standing struggle with revenue growth, investors can never seem to make up their minds.

On the one hand, I have to credit management for how well they have navigated a tough IT spending environment. The manner in which Autodesk has maintained margins and executed some tough cost-control initiatives has been impressive. But here's the thing - for a tech company that is trading at a price-to-earnings ratio of 38, which is almost 4 times that of rival Cadence Design ( CDNS), Autodesk, which posted 1% revenue decline this quarter, has been unable to justify investors' optimism.

Accordingly, the stock, which has received (among others) a "strong sell" recommendation, has shed another 5.5% since second-quarter earnings were released. It's been a recurring theme - one that has now gone on for far too long. With management issuing uninspiring guidance, which incited an aura of "fiscal uncertainty", it's anyone's guess when Autodesk will be able to "draw up" a growth plan that investors can feel good about. Until then, owning this stock may unveil an unwanted blueprint to further losses.

By contrast, take, for instance, Adobe ( ADBE), which has had its own issues with growth. But Adobe never assumed that growth was going to magically appear just because it had a sizable lead in its end-market. Unlike Autodesk, which seems to have rested on its laurels, Adobe went entirely in the opposite direction. The company completely changing its business structure from selling traditional software that is sold in a box to a cloud-based subscription model - effectively changing its fortunes overnight as the company continues to exceed subscription estimates.

Autodesk, on the other hand, reported an 8% drop in license revenue. There was a point when Autodesk's profitability allowed me to shrug my shoulders and look the other way. Essentially, even though the top line was weak, the company was still raking in the cash. Today, with gross margin dropping by more than 1%, as operating income declined by 5%, the company has lost the benefit of the doubt. And I believe - in the manner of Adobe - Autodesk now needs to go back to the drawing board to reassess the direction of the business.

I don't believe management can continue to remain seemingly undecided about whether Autodesk will operate as a growth company, which is what the stock presumes, while delivering "mature-level" results. That is to say, the company seems content with slower growth, while choosing to focus on efficiency. I don't have a problem with that. But, certainly, investors are unprepared to make this transition.

In any case, I believe management should do a better job of disclosing not only what Autodesk's next strategic move will be, but the phase of growth that the company is in. As it stands, the performance of the company and the expectations of investors are out of order. Autodesk investors might disagree with this. In fact, I expect that they will. But at $36.75 per share, there's no way to justify paying 3 times the multiple of Microsoft ( MSFT) - not when Microsoft is the better value by every measurable standard.

Some will say that I've beaten Autodesk too much. Perhaps I have. But if the stock was not trading at such an inflated P/E ratio, I probably wouldn't have cared as much. I'm not suggesting that Autodesk is going to surprise us with an untimely death next week. Truth be told, the company's fundamentals are strong. But I've seen too many tech investors get burnt on unrealistic expectations.

To that end, I would feel much better if management showed that it had a better understanding of the company's business. I suppose, in time, the lights may suddenly flash. But for investors that wish to still bet big on this company, it may be too late. Until then, I don't have enough faith in management to believe that Autodesk can grow into its current price.

At the time of publication, the author held no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Richard Saintvilus is a co-founder of where he serves as CEO and editor-in-chief. After 20 years in the IT industry, including 5 years as a high school computer teacher, Saintvilus decided his second act would be as a stock analyst - bringing logic from an investor's point of view. His goal is to remove the complicated aspect of investing and present it to readers in a way that makes sense.

His background in engineering has provided him with strong analytical skills. That, along with 15 years of trading and investing, has given him the tools needed to assess equities and appraise value. Richard is a Warren Buffett disciple who bases investment decisions on the quality of a company's management, growth aspects, return on equity, and price-to-earnings ratio.

His work has been featured on CNBC, Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money, Forbes, Motley Fool and numerous other outlets.