Getting All Dolled Up

Carson Products is looking beyond hair care to grow its profits

After a horrendous first quarter, Carson Inc. (NYSE: CIC) now figures it’s going to take more than a hairdo to woo investors. For Carson, which went public a year ago, the first three months of 1997 proved to be too much of a good thing. While product lines such as Dark & Lovely have helped the Savannah, Georgia, company corner the market for African American hair care products, they left Carson vulnerable when the markets seemed saturated. That was the scenario at the beginning of the year when the company told Wall Street that, due to falling sales in the entire ethnic hair care market, domestic hair care sales dropped 10%-15% from a year earlier. And with Carson’s mainstays falling short of expectations, the company’s stock shed almost $10 from its high of $17 to $7.25 a share in March.

To bounce back, Carson has set out both at home and overseas. Domestically, in April, the company bought the full Cutex product line of nail polish, polish removers and lipsticks. Also that month, Carson completed the acquisition of the Let’s Jam product line, including an array of shampoos, creams and gels, for $5.6 million. A month later, the company launched into cosmetics by introducing foundations, eye shadows and blushes under its Dark & Lovely line.
Still, to get sales and earnings growth back on an upward trajectory, Carson realized it needed more than a host of new products. Increasingly, the company has pushed its wares into new markets in nations with large numbers of citizens of African descent–with Carson’s primary thrust in Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. With that aim in mind, Carson doubled its manufacturing capacity in South Africa and secured tax breaks with several west African countries.

In Wall Street’s view, Carson also scored something of a publicity coup by luring Robert Pierce to be its new chief financial officer. Pierce, a former CFO of cosmetics industry giant Maybelline Inc., was seen as a key addition–an executive who could help to better communicate Carson’s growth strategy to the investment community.

Williams Capital Group analyst H. Ted Hu, who lowered his first-quarter earnings estimate to 4 cents a share from 14 cents on the news of Carson’s shortfall, expects the company to bounce back. Indeed, company shares have already risen to the $10 range since touching bottom in April. In Hu’s eyes, international sales growth should hit 35% a year, led by 50% increases in Africa. By comparison, U.S. sales should rise at a more modest 8%-9% annually. Nevertheless, Hu says 1997 earnings should hit 67 cents a share this year, compared with 45 cents in 1996, and his estimate for 1998 is $1.04. With growth like that in store, Carson shares are a bargain, Hu says, given their price-to-earnings ratio of 13, compared with 20 for the S&P 500. Hu currently has a 12-month price target of about $20 on Carson.








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