Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Business

Parent of Homeowners Choice Insurance is Tampa Bay's top local stock — again

It's tough enough for a company to repeat among the hottest stocks in the Tampa Bay area, let alone rank as the top-performing local stock for two years in a row.

HCI, the parent of Homeowners Choice Inc., pulled off the rare feat in 2013. The Tampa-based conglomerate rebranded itself as HCI this past year to show investors it has morphed beyond its core business of selling homeowners insurance to other venues like real estate and information technology. Its latest venture: offering flood insurance to its Florida policyholders, capitalizing on the spike in some rates under the National Flood Insurance Program.

Diversity, a growing customer base and another hurricane-free year paid off. HCI's stock rose nearly 170 percent this year on top of a 116 percent gain the year before.

In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, HCI chief executive Paresh Patel said the stock surge is encouraging, but insisted he isn't trying to appease investors looking for a quick payoff.

"Our goal is to have a company that is bigger, stronger, better five years from now," he said, "not five days from now."

On the reverse side, the deep-ocean treasure salvagers from Odyssey Marine Exploration sunk to the worst-performing stock of the year, down 32 percent. The Tampa company was pummeled by a lost legal battle with Spain over rights to a $600 million haul of sunken treasure, escalating losses and a high-profile short seller pumping up concerns over Odyssey's ability to stay afloat.

Zacks Equity Research noted last month that 20 percent of investors were selling Odyssey's stock short, indicating a high level of bearishness.

Greg Stemm, Odyssey's chief executive officer, said the firm remains in strong shape, having expanded its business from a sole focus on historic shipwreck recovery projects to include both modern commodity shipwrecks and mineral exploration.

"At the end of 2013, we were the target of a 'short and distort' attack by financial speculators intent on driving our share price down," Stemm said in a statement. "This has unfortunately hurt our many shareholders. However, our core business, our financials and our prospects have not been impacted and have never been better."

2013 was a year of sharp reversals for several bay area companies.

Quality Distribution, the biggest loser of 2012, bounced back to more than double its stock price and emerge in the top five.

Walter Investment Management, which oversees a large portfolio of subprime mortgages, went in the opposite direction. It went from second-best to second-worst this year, down 18 percent.

Jabil Circuit, one of the most valuable public companies in the region, was a winner until the waning weeks of the year. After giving a disappointing earnings report and forecast, shares in the electronics manufacturer tumbled more than 20 percent in one day and subsequently have only partially recovered.

Not surprisingly in a year when the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both rocketed to new highs, the winners among local stocks outnumbered the losers by a 4-1 ratio. In fact, out of 26 public companies tracked by the Times, only five wound up with lower stock prices by year-end.

The list of five best and five worst stocks does not include those that began or ended the year trading at less than $1. That means small behavioral health firm Comprehensive Care Corp. didn't make the cut despite its drop. As a result, Cott Corp. squeaked onto the bottom-five list even though it ended the year with its stock in the black.

To be included, a company also had to maintain a base of operations in the region and be publicly traded the full year. That allowed Bloomin' Brands, the corporate parent of Outback Steakhouse, to join the list after debuting in August 2012. It also means well-known doormaker Masonite International, which began trading on NYSE in September, will have to wait until next year.

Regardless of the additions, the landscape of local stocks continued to dwindle.

First Community Bank of Southwest Florida was seized by regulators and then bought by C1 Bank in August. And Cleveland-based TransDigm Group Inc. secured a controlling interest in Clearwater-based aircraft parts supplier Aerosonic Corp. in June.

It's a familiar pattern.

In 2012, two more public companies, home oxygen services firm Lincare Holdings and medical sterilization services firm SRI/Surgical Express, were both snapped up by European buyers. In recent years, other bay area public companies have been sold (i.e., Flanders Corp.), filed for bankruptcy (i.e., GeoPharma) and moved their headquarters out of the region (i.e., Walter Energy).

Look for the list to be whittled even further next year. Nicholas Financial, an auto finance firm with headquarters in Clearwater, reached a deal in December to sell itself to Prospect Capital Corp. for about $326 million. The deal is expected to close in April.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.

Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include United Insurance Holdings Corp.

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