NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When you think of General Dynamics (GD) you probably think of a defense contractor known for its combat systems and weaponry sales. It may surprise you that a major driver of the company's earnings and share growth has nothing to do with either.
The Falls Church, Va., company, founded in 1899, knows the boom-and-bust cycles of government defense contract cutbacks. Its Combat Systems group, which offers tracked and wheeled military vehicles, weapons systems, and munitions, has felt the brunt of the latest round of defense budget cuts.
But its hottest division is the one that sells jets to wealthy clients, who often are willing to pay more than the list price for the aircraft they want. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the average waiting time for delivery of a nearly $65 million Gulfstream G650, the most coveted plane of General Dynamic's Gulfstream Aerospace unit, is nearly four years.
From this analyst's vantage point, this phenomenon is one of the reasons shares of GD are up about 16% since the first trading day of 2014 when the shares closed at $94.75. As of Tuesday the stock traded as high as $109.67 and shares are up nearly 15% for the year to date.
At the end of 2013 the company had an order backlog of Gulfstream business jets of nearly $14 billion and I expect it increased by the end of the first quarter of 2014. That should offer an updraft when the company reports its earnings for the quarter during the week of April 21.
The analyst community has modest expectations for earnings per share (EPS) and revenue for the quarter ending March 31. According to Yahoo! Finance, they look for a 1-cent improvement in EPS to $1.63 and a 2.8% decrease in revenue to $7.2 billion. My sense is there's a chance of an upside surprise in both categories, which may goose the price of General Dynamic shares towards the 52-week high of $113.57.
It's no surprise the one-year chart of the stock looks like the takeoff trajectory of a G650 propelled by its powerful Rolls-Royce engines. Notice the momentum of General Dynamic's quarterly revenue per share growth through the end of 2013.
Since 2009 the revenue from the company's combat systems division has decreased by about 37%, while its aerospace revenue has skyrocketed 57%, according to Bloomberg. My own research suggests this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.
As the wealthy and powerful of the world demand the fastest, most comfortable ways of air travel, the demand for bigger corporate jets able to fly nonstop between continents appears to be taking off. It's less than 16 months since the introduction of the G650 jet and it is already something of a corporate status symbol.
If you decide to buy some shares in advance of the upcoming earnings report you'll still be eligible for the dividend because the ex-dividend date is April 9. This means you'll be paid a full quarter's dividend of 62 cents on May 9.
For now, my 12-month price target for GD is $115 and may be revised higher after I see how the company guides for the rest of 2014 and into 2015.
At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.