Smith & Nephew Becomes Pharma Family Factor

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Any decent management team will tell you that turning around a struggling business is never easy. If that company happens to be in the realm of medical device technology, case studies are rampant.

Companies like Boston Scientific (BSX), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Stryker (SYK) have gone through several years of "reconstructive surgery" to nurse their businesses back to health. And the Street has been anything but patient or forgiving during that span. To that end, it's a little surprising the degree to which the benefit of the doubt is being granted to Smith & Nephew (SNN).

Over the past couple of years, Smith & Nephew's growth has underperformed industry peers like Zimmer (ZMH) and Stryker. The company has steadily lost market share to (among others) Johnson & Johnson in areas like orthopedic implants for hips and knees. And this occurred as management dealt with problems related to the recalls of R3 Acetabular system linked to bone and muscle complications in patients.

Smith & Nephew has not been alone in product recalls. Johnson & Johnson, Stryker and St. Jude Medical (STJ) have dealt with similar issues. Smith & Nephew has not. Today, Smith & Nephew is regarded as one of the best medical device companies on the market.

I haven't heard anyone say this, but there's a lot of evidence pointing to management's deal for Healthpoint Biotherapeutics two years ago as the cause for this turnaround.

The $782 million all-cash deal drew a lot of criticism. Some analysts didn't believe Healthpoint, which was projected to produce $190 million in revenue, was worth the price Smith & Nephew was paying. This is even though Healthpoint was (then) growing revenue at 25% year-over-year. I disagreed.


The key in the deal was the $190 million projected revenue, roughly 90% of that was going to come from the U.S. This essentially doubled Smith & Nephew's U.S. market in areas like wound care (while growing that business globally to more than 20%). When you factor in Healthpoint's Collagenase Santyl ointment that came with the deal, an argument can be made that Smith & Nephew actually underpaid.

Collagenase Santyl ointment is used to treat dermal ulcers and burns and it made up almost 75% Healthpoint's revenue. Today, Smith & Nephew stock is above $70, gaining more than 132% in the past three years. So for all of the talk about execution issues, management deserves credit for the extent to which they have changed both the reality of the business and how it is now perceived by analysts.

Thursday, the company will report fourth-quarter and full-year earnings results. The Street will be looking for $1.11 in earnings-per-share on revenue of $1.16 billion, which would represent 8% year-over-year revenue growth. In that regard, although Smith & Nephew still trails its larger rivals in trauma products and hip implants, this company is no longer a standout laggard in terms of reported growth.

On the operating side, Smith & Nephew has also held its own in terms of double-digit operating and profit margins. (Management has steadily outperformed Stryker in that department.) And I don't expect anything will change this quarter .

The only real question that remains in this story is the orthopedics segment. This is where Stryker, Zimmer and Johnson & Johnson remain kingpins. Any positive signs of growth should be encouraging. It seems counterintuitive, but the only drawback that I see with this story is that Smith & Nephew can no longer play the role of the underdog.

In other words, management has done its job too well and now it must work even harder to maintain that status. For now, with both cash flow and margins growing at a decent pace, along with synergies from recent acquisition, investors should make room for Smith & Nephew in their family of high-return stocks.

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.

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