Helping Companies Tighten Their Belts

10/20/2009 12:00 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Benjamin Shepherd

Analyst, Breakthrough Tech Profits, Global Income Edge and Personal Finance

Benjamin Shepherd, associate editor of Personal Finance, finds two growing consulting firms that help companies large and small become more efficient.

As uplifting as second-quarter earnings season was, revenues have suffered in this down cycle. Many companies have pulled in their horns, instituting aggressive cost-cutting measures to build up cash. [That has] left Corporate America with huge reserves—an estimated $1.2 trillion of cash on balance sheets.

Under normal circumstances, excess cash would be put to work re-staffing after a prolonged recession, but this time around companies [have] little incentive to hire. Companies are likely to put these savings to work investing in productivity enhancement; upgrading information technology infrastructure and their physical plant; bringing in consultants to help streamline businesses, and outsourcing routine office functions.

Accenture (NYSE: ACN), a global management consulting and technology services company with operations in 49 countries, is one of the highest-profile efficiency consultants in the game.

Third-quarter revenue declined 16% year over year; about 12% of the decline was attributable to currency fluctuations. But revenue from the company’s consulting business suffered because smaller clients put off larger projects. Accenture did enjoy strong growth in services to state and local governments, as its public services division recorded 8% revenue growth. Outsourcing revenue ticked up a modest 3%.

Currently trading at just 14.3x earnings, Accenture is at a slight [premium] to expected growth over the next three years. [Since] growth in bookings has held up much better than expected—Accenture locked in $6.6 billion of new business in its third quarter—the future looks brighter.

Corporate spending on consulting services has actually been on the rise in recent months, [and] outsourcing also has been [getting more popular] as a cost-control measure. Maintaining solid operating margins of better than 14% and with the wind at its back, Accenture is a buy up to $40. (It traded around $38.50 Monday—Editor.)

Improving efficiency is imperative for the financial services sector, particularly small and mid-sized banks. Fiserv (Nasdaq: FISV) sits squarely in that market, offering processing services for smaller banks, insurers, and benefit managers.

Fiserv has had great success retaining clients even during the market turmoil. And its low-cost solutions and track record of success are attracting a steady stream of new clients.

That all adds up to Fiserv holding more than a third of the market for small and mid-sized banks. Fiserv acquired CheckFreein 2007, which left it with significant debt on its balance sheet, [but] the acquisition made Fiserv the leader in electronic bill payment.

Fiserv’s revenue has remained relatively flat over the past few quarters, largely because of declines in the processing of home equity loans. Earnings growth has remained steady, however, as management has continued to squeeze more efficiency from its own operations.

Growth prospects look solid, because many smaller insurance and benefit management outfits are outsourcing their processing functions. Fiserv is well-positioned to pick up a significant portion of that business. Buy Fiserv up to $52. (It traded near $49 Monday—Editor.)

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