WW Grainger: Investing in Nuts and Bolts

| About: W.W. Grainger, (GWW)

The futures market was so bad last Friday, it triggered the "limit down" rule - when futures trading is frozen. With no end in sight to the string of negative headlines, investors worldwide are calculating the impacts of a sustained global recession.

But since there's no way anyone can accurately call the bottom, all we can do now is continue to uncover sound prospects for your long-term money... whether you decide to buy today, next month or a year from now.

Here's one in particular that's well placed to weather any storm, including last Friday's...

Investing in Nuts and Bolts

When the average weekend warrior wants nuts, bolts and other hardware for a project, it usually involves a trip down to the local Home Depot (NYSE: HD) or Lowe's (NYSE: LOW). Both are great sources for run-of-the-mill hardware - many builders and home remodeling pros use them exclusively.

However, if you're running a manufacturing business or institution, like a school or hospital - and you need to keep it running - your needs are going to be much more immediate and diverse than what the big box stores can deliver.

But without wasting a lot of time running to a plumbing, electrical or other specialty store to get something specific, what other choices are there? Let's say you need a new winch, or steel drums, or a conveyor belt, along with items from the plumbing and electrical stores.

In that case, your choice becomes a very simple one. It's the same one that 1.8 million other businesses rely on worldwide. Yet you've probably never heard of this $6 billion Fortune 500 company.

I'm talking about WW Grainger, Inc. (NYSE: GWW), a global industrial service business powerhouse. Grainger provides the nuts and bolts  - and just about everything else - from one of its more than 600 branches to over 115,000 customers every day.

And there's no waiting: Customers can go directly to the branch to pick up their order or have it shipped directly to them.

Customers for its 870,000 products include a wide, diverse group:

  • All levels of government, including offices, prisons, military installations and all U.S. postal facilities.
  • Heavy manufacturers: lumber, textile, metal, chemical and rubber companies.
  • Light manufacturing: pharmaceutical and biotech, food and beverage, and most of the electronics industry.
  • Retail: gas stations, restaurants, grocery and most other stores and malls.
  • Commercial contractors: maintenance and construction on many kinds of commercial buildings and installations.
  • Commercial customers: theaters, hotel, motels, hospitals and nursing care facilities.

Although Grainger has its roots in Philadelphia, where it started as a motor repair shop back in 1927, it has morphed into a global industrial supply powerhouse. In addition to its 438 branches in the United States, Grainger has 15 branches and a distribution center in Mexico. Canada is well served, too, with 153 branches and five distribution centers.

China is Grainger's newest venture, and its 128,000 square-foot distribution center supports six branches located in and around Shanghai. Clearly the potential here is enormous, and Grainger currently has over 53,000 items described in Chinese in its online catalog.

And Grainger's business is doing great, in spite of the economic malaise sweeping down upon us. The reason? Things break, wear out or need updating, and that requires many of the products that Grainger sells.

The company recently completed its third quarter, and sales were up 11%. EPS of $1.79 handily beating analysts' estimates of $1.53 a share. The company attributed its better-than-expected results to an expansion of its product line and greater market share.

And in spite of the slowing global economy, Grainger raised its earnings outlook for the remainder of 2008.

Grainger CEO James T. Ryan had this to say:

Our third-quarter and year-to-date results are a testimony to Grainger's winning strategy and our employees' ability to execute. Going forward, the credit crisis and its effect on the economy create uncertainty. However, our national scale and local inventory availability help customers be more efficient as they maintain their facilities during these challenging times.

So how is Grainger able to be so successful in such a challenging economic environment?

There are three things that contribute to Grainger's continued success:

  1. Immediate product availability
  2. Flawless execution
  3. Standout customer service

The company has a long-term goal to average 7% to 10% annual sales growth through a given economic cycle. This sounds impossible at best, but the company consistently grows its top line revenue at a rate much faster than the growth in GDP.

In summary, the maintenance, repair and operations markets are estimated to be around $540 billion worldwide.

Clearly Grainger has plenty of room to grow its business for the foreseeable future, and it represents a great way to add a healthy infrastructure service business to your recession-resistant portfolio.

Disclosure: none