Safety-oriented stocks look favorable

December 29, 1993|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

It's a war that's being lost.

Crime has lately been targeted by the Clinton administration, by Congress and by local governments as an enemy that has spun out of control.

The fear isn't simply an impression forged by carnage depicted on the evening news. In many ways, concern is justified.

More than 14 million serious crimes were reported to the police last year and it's conservatively estimated that criminal activity costs Americans more than $400 billion annually.

FBI findings show the number of juveniles arrested for homicide each year soared 142 percent in the past decade, while violent crime increased from 562 per 100,000 a decade ago to 758 today. Though FBI Director Louis Freeh welcomed some recent percentage declines in arson, burglary and robbery, he characterized the national crisis as "staggering."

With safety a preoccupation of average citizens and U.S. businesses, the industry of providing protection is fast gaining the attention of the investment community.

A prime example of a security-oriented investment is Borg-Warner Security Corp., which provides such services as guards, electronic security systems, automated teller servicing and cash management.

Central Sprinkler Corp., maker of sprinkler-head nozzles used in factories, hotels and homes to fight fires, is yet another.

Both stocks are recommended by John Rogers Jr., who heads Ariel Capital Management, as investments destined to grow based on an international desire for greater protection.

"Crime is getting no better, and acceleration of drugs and weapons on the street at a time when municipal budgets are strained means people demand security more than ever," said Donald Trauscht, chairman and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Borg-Warner. "Everyone these days wants to see someone in a uniform around and also electronic security."

"Our employees provided the first real security at Hurricane Andrew and at the L.A. riots for our corporate clients, and we patrol in unmarked cars for the city of Oceanside, Calif., keeping in close contact with the police," said Trauscht, who says investors in his company's stock can expect a strong 15 percent to 20 percent annual growth rate, but no dividend.

Trauscht, wearing an Atlanta Olympics lapel pin, has been negotiating to provide security at that event in 1996.

While hurt by the construction slump, Central Sprinkler will ultimately benefit from the fact that industrial and hotel sprinkler codes are becoming stricter as insurers and companies seek to cut risk. Residential sprinklers, now 15 percent of the firm's business, will grow as a profit center as more states adopt model fire codes.

"New construction simply won't go forward in the future without a sprinkler system, and the competitor with the best marketing force and lowest cost will benefit," said George Meyer, chief executive officer of Central Sprinkler, based in Lansdale, Pa.

Domestically, Central Sprinkler is known for innovations and device patents. For example, sprinklers capable of reaching a 130-foot area a year ago have been replaced by models covering 400 square feet. Smaller, more efficient ceiling sprinklers for large discount warehouse stores are a recent emphasis. The overseas sprinkler market isn't as strong, varying considerably from nation to nation.

"The market for our product as part of the construction cycle is down 20 percent, but we're growing nonetheless," said Meyer. "When the market comes back, our profit margins will improve significantly, along with our stock price."

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