Canam hopes for 2012 recovery and opportunity to build Quebec City arena

MONTREAL – Steel fabrication company Canam Group Inc. hopes to eventually tap into the Quebec government’s northern development plan but will first bid to build Quebec City’s new hockey arena.

Bidding for the structural steel component of the arena is expected to be launched this fall and could result in up to $45 million in revenues.

While that would be helpful, a more significant driver for the Quebec-based company will be a recovery of the North American economy and Canadian National Railway’s (TSX:CNR) $5-billion plan to build and operate an 800-kilometre railway line servicing northern mines.

The project could create rail and bridge building opportunities that are hard to quantify, said CEO Marc Dutil.

“If in the next 10 years they build … maybe $150 million to $200 million worth of bridges, I think that’s maybe on the low side,” he said during a conference call to discuss improved first-quarter results.

Canam (TSX:CAM) beat analyst expectations by slashing its first-quarter loss to $1.3 million as revenues grew 38 per cent to $208.3 million.

The company said Friday it lost three cents per share for the period ended March 31. That compares to a loss of $39.7 million or 88 cents per share in the prior year.

Revenues increased from $150.6 million, mainly due to joist and steel deck sales.

Canam was expected to lose six cents per share on $171 million of revenues, according to analysts polled by Thomson Reuters.

Dutil said Canam could win some of the Plan Nord bridge work on its own and it would help if competitors who are also structural steel fabricators are busy working on some big mine projects.

Those opportunities could be years away. In the meantime, Canam foresees the continuation of a slow recovery.

“We remain cautiously optimistic about future prospects and we’re hoping that 2012 will in fact be much better than last year,” he told analysts.

The seasonally unprofitable winter quarter was marked by some large U.S. institutional projects and improvement in Ontario, the mid-Atlantic and U.S. mid-West regions.

The U.S. joist business was very competitive but there was a 50 per cent improvement in bookings. Joists account for 41 per cent of total revenues, up six per cent from last year.

The bridge business was down 11 per cent in the quarter, but there are no signs of a significant slowing down of the infrastructure market, Dutil said.

Frederic Bastien of Raymond James said Canam had a “decent” quarter, but the second quarter will foreshadow the year.

“We have limited visibility into the strength of the recovery. We had false starts in 2010 and then again in 2011. Maybe third time lucky in 2012,” he said in an email.

Bastien said the Plan Nord work would be significant, the Quebec arena less so since big sports complexes are typically low-margin business.

Canam has built several big U.S. stadiums, but its work on BC Place led to additional costs that prompted a pending lawsuit to be heard starting in October 2013 against a third-party supplier.

Trevor Johnson of National Bank Financial said the quarter marked a good start to the year.

“Although it is difficult to get too excited at this stage given the challenges Canam still faces in its core markets, the first-quarter results and management’s tone all suggest that the company’s environment is slowly improving,” he added.

Canam designs and builds construction products and has more than 25 manufacturing plants and engineering offices in Canada, the United States, Romania, India and China.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Canam’s shares closed at $4.65, up 10 cents or 2.2 per cent in Friday trading.