Overview of Fortinet IPO

Proffering advice on whether others ought to buy into a company on its first day of public trading always is a tricky business. At any given moment, one has only limited visibility into the company’s prospects, the industry to which it belongs, and the health of the overall market. Things change — often with alarming speed.

It goes without saying that plenty of caveats, provisions, and reservations attend any recommendation. Still, I feel good about the immediate prospects of Fortinet, the unified threat management (ATM) security-appliance vendor that begins trading today under the “FTNT” symbol.

I don’t know whether the company will be successful in the longer-term against larger competitors such as Cisco, Juniper, and now HP (through its 3Com acquisition) as it attempts to take a bigger share of the high-end enterprise and service-provider market segments, but in the near term, it seems like an investment that can deliver some pop.

Fortinet makes appliances that integrate several security capabilities into a single box. Any customer that buys from Fortinet gets a security appliance that providse anti-spam, antivirus, firewall, VPN, IPS, and web filtering all in a single system. For the Fortinet customer, the value proposition is that a single appliance can deliver the security functionality of multiple point products, leading to savings in product-related security costs and in the ongoing management of devices and vendor relationships.

That said, the strength of a UTM appliance also is its weakness. I would not say that Fortinet is a jack of all trades and a master of none, but I would contend that many large enterprises might be inclined to select a best-of-breed application-security appliance over a broad-based UTM box.

As of now, according to information provided in the Fortinet prospectus, the company’s product sales are evenly divided between its low-end, midrange, and high-end models, with each product class accounting for about a third of sales. A perception lingers that UTM solutions sell mainly to small and midrange companies, and not to larger enterprises, and Fortinet cites that perception as a risk in its prospectus, particularly in light of its desire to get more business from high-end enterprise, government, and service-provider customers.

Unlike Cisco, Fortinent doesn’t have much in the way of a direct sales force. Its sales are made through its channel partners, comprising distributors, resellers, and some specialized integrators. That strategy covers a lot of ground and helps defray cost of sales, but it can also be a weakness in some large accounts.

Another potential weakness for Fortint is its reliance of open-source software for various facets of its security functionality. Fortinet argues that its “secret sauce,” if you will, is its FortiASIC hardware, which is optimized for accelerated processing of security and networking tasks. It also has its underlying FortiOS, an operating system that provides a foundation for application-security functionality.

Above those two technological cornerstones, however, one will find open-source software that Fortinet has licensed to provide disparate security functionality. With such code in play, there always is a danger, as Fortinet’s history attests, of patent-related litigation. Fortinet has been down that litigious road before, and it readily concedes that further courtroom drama could ensue.

Fortinet has has a lot of R&D in China, as well as in Canada (Vancouver), and in the USA. The China-based R&D will provide it with cost advantages over many competitors.

In the second quarter of 2009, market-researcher IDC said Fortinet had about 15.4 percent of the worldwide UTM market. According to IDC projections, the market will grow from $1.3 billion in 2007 to $3.5 billion in 2012, representing a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.3 percent. In its prospectus, Fortinet said it has shipped more than 475,000 appliances to more than 5,000 channel partners and 75,000 customers worldwide — including more than 50 customers in the Fortune Global 100 — during the first nine months of 2009.

Regarding that latter point, my observation is that Fortinet would like deeper penetration in those high-end Fortune 500 accounts. Although it has cracked Fortune 500 companies, Fortinet’s account presence often is at a small number of branch offices rather than throughout the organizations. As much as it resists the notion, Fortinet probably would reluctantly concede that UTM products traditionally have enjoyed more success in SME accounts than in high-end enterprises.

Fortinet reported revenue of $123.5 million, $155.4 million, and $211.8 million for its fiscal years 2006, 2007, and 2008, respectively. It says it had revenue of $152.7 million and $181.4 million in the first nine months of fiscal 2008 and 2009, respectively. I regard as a strength the geographical diversification of Fortinet’s revenue mix. In first nine months of fiscal 2009, 37 percent of total revenue came from the Americas, 37 percent from Europe, and 26 percent from APAC. Since 2006, more than 60 percent of Fortinet’s revenue has been derived from outside the Americas.

For its size, the company has accrued a respectable amount of cash. Fortinet has generated positive cash flow from operations since 2005. Operational cash flow has grown from $3.4 million in fiscal 2005 to $37.7 million in fiscal 2008. During the first nine months of fiscal 2009, the company saw positive cash flow from operations of $45.8 million.

With the company’s revenue coming from product sales as well as from subscription-based services, the latter have provided a significant and growing source of recurring, high-margin revenue. That’s all good. As long as new customers are brought into the fold, subscription-based revenue will continue to proliferate and Fortinet will continue to generate meaningful operational cash flow.

Given the cash it is spinning and the proceeds it will derive from today’s IPO, Fortinet should be reasonably well placed to fortify itself, through acquisitions or other means. Although some factors are beyond its control, it is positioning itself strongly for the competitive struggles ahead.

The company has a good, battle-hardened management team. It’s a balanced group, with business and technological acumen. Fortinet also has been through some trials and tribulations. This isn’t a group of neophytes. The company has met adversity and endured.

Nothing lasts forever and nothing is a sure thing, but Fortinet comes into its IPO in good health, and with the near-term prospect of trading above its opening price range of $9 to $11 per share.

It now will sell 12.5 million shares instead of the originally planned 12 million shares.

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