Fastenal is Fascinating

(A version of this article appeared in TheStreet)

Actually, that may be a little bit of an over-statement. Fastenal (FAST) is fairly staid, at least on a conceptual level.

In a previous life, one that included legitimate employment, I flew into a New England city on a weekly basis and would pass a Fastenal store on a lonely back road with equal frequency. On the occasional daytime landings I noticed that the parking lot and sidewalks would sometimes be packed, sometimes empty and never thought twice about it, otherwise.

During an economic period when businesses opened with great expectations and closed with great disappointment, that solitary Fastenal store was there for at least the 7 years that I drove past it. Nothing terribly fancy nor ostentatious about its appearance, just a utilitarian building, presumably delivering the literal and figurative goods.

Back then I had no idea what exactly Fastenal did, nor whether it was a publicly traded company. My assumption was that it had something to do with fasteners. “Fasten All. we fasten everything,” I envisioned their ad campaign for people in need of fasteners not knowing where else to go. I’m just smart that way.

Its location certainly couldn’t be associated with high profile consumer items and the word “technology” wasn’t anywhere to be found on the building’s edifice. But at least in the recent aftermath of the dot com bust it still had a building with its name on it. Little did I know that there were many of those buildings in the kind of places or beaten paths that I didn’t frequent very often and that they had lots more than hardware and fasteners.

Years later, when I had devoted myself to full time portfolio management I happened to pass another Fastenal site, this one in rural Delaware. On that particular day the lot was packed. A year later the same lot was empty and a few months later packed again. I may be smart in certain ways, but sometimes a sense of curiosity is helpful, as well. I don’t have much of the latter, but the laws governing osmosis are difficult to avoid.

At some point following all of those sightings I had a reasonable idea of what Fastenal was about and aware that it was about lots more than fasteners. Yet, even with a little bit of knowledge in hand I had never taken the leap and invested in shares. It’s just not one of those companies that you hear discussed very much, but it casts a fairly wide footprint among those people that actually do something tangible with their skill sets, like building and improving things that we may often take for granted.

In a world that takes great pride in and expects pant waists to ride at or above the actual waist, Fastenal was treading in a world where slippage may have been more the norm.

At some point casual observations can lead to intrigue. Certainly the idea of channel checking has some merit, but the occasional glimpse of a single store is probably not the sort of thing that channel checkers would trumpet as validating their work. Additionally, as hard as I might try to find an association or correlation to suggest that Fastenal could serve as a proxy to herald changes in GDP or broad market averages, the thesis was just lacking.

Looking at every potential investment from the perspective of a covered option writer and having started following Fastenal shares, as is my custom when my interest is piqued, for 6 months or more, I finally decided to purchase shares in June 2013 and am currently on my fifth lot of shares in that time.

The average purchase price for those 5 lots was $47.27 with the average strike price of the lots being $47.80. Based on today’s closing price of $46.41, the average price of all shares, including those of previously assigned positions is $47.45. If somehow I could magically close the book on the positions today the cumulative return would be 23.6% when shares themselves are actually trading at a loss compared to the average cost. During that same time frame the S&P 500 has advanced approximately 8.5%.

FAST ChartWhy am I telling you any of this? Sure, boasting is one reason, but despite the lack of a coherent thesis to urge the use of Fastenal as a predictive tool, what now captures my attention with regard to future opportunities is a quick look at Fastenal’s chart over the past 5 weeks.

The banality of variation during that time is exactly what excites a covered option strategist. While a consistent flat line wouldn’t do very much to encourage option buyers to ante up the premiums, the occasional paroxysms of price, up or down, make selling Fastenal call options an appealing complement to an overall strategy of trying to optimize share returns and dividends. More importantly, the setting of a strike price at which options are sold establishes a discipline by creating an exit point and doing what is often left undone – taking profits. While Fastenal may be staid, most of us would consider the idea of profits to be fascinating regardless of how often we would have to be subject to them.


FAST data by YCharts