Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dot Hill Hopes for 2013

Dot Hill (HILL) stock has been one of the worst performers in my portfolio lately. It is trading today at $0.88 per share, versus a 52 week high of $1.65 and 52 week low of $0.72. I have been invested in HILL for years, but more so than for most of my portfolio it has been a stock I have traded in, rather than just holding.

Dot Hill is a specialty data storage (SAN) solution equipment manufacturer, with many companies rebranding and selling its products, and HP as its by-far single largest customer. Looking at the past few years, management has continually indicated that prosperity (solid profits) is just around the corner, 2 or 3 quarters out, but the profits never have materialized. Hence credibility is low, and so is the stock price.

But maybe this time for sure. HILL is rolling out new products and has a number of new customers, some announced and some yet to be announced. The recent numbers look bad, however, because each customer requires some customization of the stock product. This increases R&D expense, which can only be recaptured in later years if product sales ramp and if gross and operating margins allow for it.

How could 2013 be different than 2012? Let's use Q3 2012 as a baseline. Revenues were $48.2 million, up 1% sequentially from $47.8 million, and up slightly from $48.1 million in the year-earlier quarter. GAAP net income was negative $3.0 million, improved sequentially from negative $5.0 million, and much improved from negative $12.2 million year-earlier. GAAP EPS (earnings per share) was negative $0.05, up sequentially from negative $0.09, and also up from negative $0.22 year-earlier.

Market capitalization is about $49 million, despite cash holding of $40 million, with just $2 million in debt, at the end of Q3.

Two new storage systems are sampling in Q4, the 4000 series and 5000 series. These newer systems will allow Dot Hill to serve a broader section of the market. Currently Hill's systems are used mainly for small businesses and the value end of the enterprise market.

The AssuredSAN 4000 series works with 8Gb Fibre Channel and 6Gb SAS (serial attached storage), the same as the 3000 series, but has optimized features adding extra speed for video streaming and broadcast, HPC (high performance computing), and post-production work.

The AssuredSAN Pro 5000 series works with 8 Gb Fibre Channel or 10 GbiSCSI and adds automated tiered storage software, thin provisioning, SSD acceleraton and other high-end features.

An important aspect of both new products should be improved margins, coinciding with the mid-market end use. Both build on top of the successful AssuredSAN 3000 series, which is a leader in the low-end market. The new 4000 and 5000 series are meant to be both feature and price competitive, so there is reason to hope for strong sales as 2013 progresses.

While there is a fear of investing in the hard disk drive (HDD) market right now, it is important to note that Dot Hill products are used in corporate datacenters and for cloud computing and big data. The use of smartphones and tablets is causing the need for rapid storage build out for the Internet, and the move to video is creating huge data storage demand.

Can Hill and its partners compete successfully in this market? Based on the past five years of experience, the answer would be just barely. But Hill was a train wreck when it got dumped by its biggest (then) client, Sun Microsystems. It has remained standing while a number of competitors were absorbed into larger companies. While it competes with EMC, it has an alliance with HP and a large number of smaller OEMs and value-added retailers. Dependence on HP has decreased. Autodesk is among the list of important new customers. Feedback on the new products has been very positive.

Right now HILL is more of a bottom-fishing play than anything else. To see the stock back at the $4 to $5 range management will have to deliver both improved revenues and improved margins. The possibility of achieving that makes it is a stock that is worth watching in 2013.

Disclaimer: I am long Dot Hill. I won't make HILL trades for 1 week after publishing this article. I do not have positions in any of the other companies mentioned.

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