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A shopping spree that has pushed Gibraltar Steel Corp. into higher-margin businesses continues to pay off as the Hamburg-based company Tuesday reported a 14.5 percent jump in its fourth-quarter earnings.

Gibraltar said its profits rose to $5.5 million, or 43 cents per share, from $4.8 million during the same quarter a year earlier, topping analyst expectations by a penny, according to earnings tracker First Call.

The higher profits capped a year when earnings Gibraltar's profits rose 26 percent from $19.8 million to $25 million.

A string of acquisitions in the building products and heat treating industries continues to fuel Gibraltar's revenue growth and produce higher profits. The company has made nine acquisitions in the last two years, including four in the last six months.

Gibraltar's fourth-quarter acquisitions included Brazing Concepts Co., a heat treating processor in Michigan with annual sales of $14 million, and Hughes Manufacturing, a $12-million building products manufacturer in Florida.

The buying binge helped the company's revenue jump 11 percent in 1999 to $622 million, from $558 million in 1998. The Hamburg-based steel company continues to pursue its 10-year strategic goal of becoming a $1 billion company. Gibraltar's annual sales were $168 million when the company went public in 1993.

Brian J. Lipke, Gibraltar's chairman and chief executive officer, is showing no signs of slowing down, indicating he hopes to "further accelerate" Gibraltar's growth this year. The company is completing a comprehensive strategic review which reinforces the growth strategy.

"This exhaustive process concluded that our long-standing growth strategy is sound, and that we are on the right track. As a result of this review, we have identified even more opportunities to continue the growth of our company and improve our performance," Lipke said.

Gibraltar earned a record $1.95 per diluted share for 1999, a 24 percent jump from $1.57 a share in 1998. Although the company had a strong year operationally, Gibraltar's stock price is not on the right track.

The company's stock has lost about $5 a share since November to close at $19.06 1/4 Tuesday.

Gibraltar was recently downgraded from "aggressive buy" to "buy" by an analyst at McDonald Investments, which projects a 12-to-18 month target price of $27 a share.

Gibraltar recently hired an investment banker to help find ways of boosting its stock price.

Lipke said 2000 looks to be another strong year for sales and earnings. Rising interest rates have not been slowing demand for the company's products.

"Demand trends in all of our major growth businesses remain strong, which should contribute to our continued growth. We are aggressively looking for ways to fully capture the many synergies throughout our company. And our pipeline of potential acquisitions is full, giving us a number of strategic growth opportunities," Lipke said.

The company has 3,100 employees at 50 facilities in 19 states and Mexico.

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