Nordion Inc. launches review of strategic alternatives, hires Jefferies & Co.

OTTAWA – Shares of Nordion Inc. (TSX:NDN) were given a boost Monday after the medical isotope company launched a review of strategic alternatives and reported better than expected financial results.

Nordion cautioned that there could be no assurance anything would come of the process, but strategic reviews are often seen a prelude to the sale of a company.

Nordion chief executive Steve West said the review, being conducted with the help of investment firm Jefferies and Co., is in its early stages.

“Throughout the process, we plan to remain focused on operating the business and executing our planned business strategy,” West told a conference call with investment analysts.

“Our plan is to work through this process in a measured and responsible manner with a view of enhancing shareholder value and creating new opportunities for the company.”

The company did not provide a timeline to complete the process.

The review comes as Nordion, which keeps its books in U.S. dollars, reported a fourth-quarter loss of US$43.5 million or 70 cents per share. hit by costs related to its legal battle with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and an internal corruption inquiry and investigation of a foreign supplier.

The loss compared with a profit of $6.9 million or 11 cents per share a year ago.

Revenue for the quarter ended Oct. 31 totalled US$74.7 million, up from $74 million.

Excluding one-time items, including $24.1 million in litigation accruals and $35.4 million related to deferred tax assets, the company said it earned $21.4 million or 34 cents per share, up from $18.7 million or 30 cents per share a year ago.

Analysts on average had expected a profit of 34 cents per share, according to data compiled by Thomson Reuters.

“Nordion capped off the fiscal year with solid fourth-quarter operational results, as revenue and gross margins strengthened across the business,” West said.

“While we continue to work through some uncertainty, we made progress during the quarter, completing the organizational realignment, thereby positioning the company for improved execution.”

In its outlook for 2013, the company said it expected revenue and gross margin to decline.

The drop, combined with investments in its TheraSphere liver cancer treatment and an increase in pension costs, are expected to result in a significant drop in segment earnings.

Nordion said it also expects first quarter revenue to be significantly lower than the fourth quarter.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Douglas Miehm rated Nordion an “underperform” with “above average risk.”

“We note low corporate expenses, one time profits from a medical isotopes client and strong margins in sterilization contributed to the outperformance,” Miehm wrote of Nordion’s fourth quarter in a note to clients.

“The 2013 guidance was relatively in line with our forecasts except for higher legal expenditures and lower research and development costs.”

The company lost a long-standing battle with AECL last September when an arbitrator ruled against Nordion in a contract dispute over the Maple nuclear reactors.

The twin reactors were to be a major source of isotopes used in medical imaging, but AECL — a federal Crown corporation — decided to pull the plug on the project, which was over budget and years behind schedule.

Nordion said Monday that it may be responsible for part of AECL’s $46-million legal bill related to the arbitration.

However, Nordion said it is going ahead with a lawsuit against AECL in the Ontario courts in connection with its contract with the company.

Nordion amended the lawsuit earlier this month.

“Taking into consideration the analysis of the decision by the arbitrators, the amended claim no longer includes the Government of Canada,” West said.

The company also reduced the amount being sought by the lawsuit to $243.5 million from $1.6 billion.

A trial is not expected to begin before mid-2014.

Nordion sells medical isotopes that are used in cancer tests and treatment as well as medical imaging.

Shares in the company were up 72 cents at C$7.15 in morning trading Monday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.