LED lighting shines despite economy: Cree CEO

LOS ANGELES Tue Mar 31, 2009 7:23pm EDT

Halogen inserts for low-energy consumption light bulbs are seen at an Osram factory in Molsheim, eastern France December 11, 2008. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Halogen inserts for low-energy consumption light bulbs are seen at an Osram factory in Molsheim, eastern France December 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent Kessler

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Demand for super-efficient LED lighting will increase in the next year despite a sluggish global economy that has slashed corporate spending plans, the chief executive of lighting maker Cree Inc said on Tuesday.

Boasting lower power consumption and longer life than market-dominant fluorescent or incandescent lights, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are gaining traction with businesses eager to slash their energy costs and save on maintenance, Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda said in an interview.

"When you look at energy efficiency there aren't many things that can have as big an opportunity in the near term as switching to more efficient lighting," Swoboda said.

The time it takes for companies to make the money back that they invest in LED lighting varies, and Swoboda gave examples of specific projects whose paybacks ranged from a little more than year to around 4 years.

And while many companies have stopped large capital expenditures, overall small to medium-sized lighting projects "are continuing on at a relatively reasonable rate," Swoboda said.

"There still is a fair amount of ongoing renovation," he said, pointing to local franchises of fast-food restaurants and small retail chains that continue to upgrade their spaces.

Cree, based in Durham, North Carolina, has been a rare bright spot in an otherwise grim manufacturing market. The company posted a 24 percent rise in revenue and a 62 percent earnings gain in its most recent quarter.

Earnings are expected to dip in the current quarter, the company said in January, though it did forecast a slight increase in revenue, saying strength from commercial customers would partially offset weak consumer and automotive demand.

Swoboda declined to comment on the company's third-quarter forecast on Tuesday, saying it was in a "quiet period."

Cree's competitors include Japan's Toyoda Gosei Co Ltd and privately held Nichia Corp, as well as, Siemens unit Osram.

Cree will be more focused on the residential market once new construction picks up, Swoboda said, but noted that the initial costs of LED bulbs were much higher than standard lighting and estimated it could take up to 10 years for consumers to see their money returned.

Cree's downlight module, which could be installed in ceilings, costs about $100 each.

Cree's stock has also been on a tear, up 48 percent so far this year, compared with a 9.2 percent drop in the Standard & Poor's MidCap 400 Index, of which it is a component.

The stock also commands a lofty valuation, trading at about 39 times 2009 earnings estimates. Only about a dozen or so companies in the MidCap 400 index have higher multiples.

Investor optimism that Cree will benefit from the U.S. government stimulus plan's energy efficiency initiatives has benefited the stock, though Swoboda said it was unclear when those funds would start to materialize into projects.

"We know our customers are working, but in terms of how fast any of those turn into specific projects where the bidding has gone out and they've selected the winner, unfortunately I just don't think we know yet," Swoboda said, adding that LED adoption would pick up in the next year with or without help from the economic stimulus.

But Cree earned only 18 percent of its revenue from the United States last year. And while the company expects U.S. sales to expand, it does not expect that market's overall contribution to revenue to change dramatically due to the opportunities in markets like China, which made up 33 percent of sales last year.

"It's not growing at the rate it was, but it has remained relatively solid," Swoboda said of the China market, which he said has "a bias toward LED lighting."

Cree shares closed at $23.53 Tuesday on the Nasdaq, up 50 cents, or 2.2 percent. It is still below it's 52-week high of $31.80 from April of 2008.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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