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Give C&D Technologies a 'B' for return to profitability

The Blue Bell maker of backup battery systems is being helped by lower lead prices and resilient demand for utility and telecommunications customers.

When a company hasn't been profitable in 10 straight quarters, you tend to notice when it's finally turned the corner.

C&D Technologies Inc. reported net income of $577,000, or 2 cents per share, on Thursday. As modest as that amount sounds, its shares took off the next day.

Even as the Dow Jones industrial average fell 394.64 points on Friday, C&D shares rose $1.28, or 18.9 percent, to close at $8.04.

Given that C&D shares touched $60 in 2000, some shareholders probably aren't ready to celebrate just yet.

Current CEO Jeffrey Graves, who joined the company in July 2005, remarked in his first press release how pleased he was that C&D had returned to profitability. Until last week, he wasn't able to reuse that phrase.

You might say that quarter after quarter of red ink was like a lead weight on the Blue Bell company's stock price and financial condition.

Given that lead is used in C&D's industrial batteries and accounts for 40 percent of its cost of sales, the heavy metal plays a huge role in how the company performs.

For the last few years, the price of lead, like other raw materials, seemed to know only one direction. C&D said the average price of lead went from 45 cents per pound during its 2006 fiscal year to $1.21 in the 2008 fiscal year.

Lead traded as high as $1.81 on Oct., 15, 2007, but recently the price has come back down. C&D said lead settled at 90 cents per pound on May 26.

Not that lead has been the sole source of the company's challenges. C&D, whose initials come from its founders Frank Carlile and Leon Doughty, has spent the last couple of years shedding operations, such as selling a factory in Shanghai, China, and closing a plant in Conyers, Ga.

The company, which had net sales of $346 million last year, is counting on having the right products to capitalize on trends such as the growing investment in solar power generation and reinvestment in the electric power transmission infrastructure.

We'll see if this 102-year-old firm still has the juice to profit from the United States' thirst for energy.