The biggest question facing Cirrus Logic (NASDAQ: CRUS) is: now what?
It's a digital controller that allows users to dim or brighten their LED lights.
Now, I know some of you may still have strong doubts about the LED market given the drubbing those stocks took about 18 months ago.
In fact, I was right there with you.
At first glance, I was ready to write off Cirrus Logic's move into the LED space as being just plain stupid.
But the more I looked into it, the more I saw how shrewd this move really is.
Today, LEDs have the backing of the major car companies, outdoor advertising firms, the green lobby and the FBI…
Tomorrow, LEDs will become a light source for the masses.
Sales of LED lights are already picking up, and Cirrus is perfectly positioned to benefit since it doesn't need to spend much on new gear to make the control units.
It just has to tweak its existing devices to make LEDs operate with nearly every dimmer switch made in the world.
As for Rhode, the fact that LEDs cost several times more than standard bulbs doesn't worry him in the least.
The Cirrus LED Game Plan
In this case, he's just taking a page from his Apple play book.
Cirrus already makes audio processors used by Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL). You can find them in Apple's mobile devices: the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
Those are some of the hottest products ever invented. We're talking sales of five million iPhones alone per month for several months in a row in the past year.
For Cirrus that's a tough act to follow.
Yet, Rhode is already talking sales of at least five million LED controllers by the end of this year.
It sounds ambitious. But here's the logic…
One reason buyers haven't gone gaga over LED lights is simple — it's difficult to control them.
The dimmers that are now on the market often make LEDs flicker like strobe lights at dance clubs. For many shoppers that's a deal breaker.
Rhode says the problem means many people buy LED lamps or light sockets only to return them later for a refund. The Cirrus controller makes that problem disappear.
The Cirrus solution isn't just good for the company's cash flow. It could become a boon for the green-energy movement.
Remember, the U.S. is dropping incandescent bulbs that served as a mainstay for more than 100 years. At the behest of the federal government, the phase-out begins this year.
The Department of Energy estimates that replacing standard bulbs with LEDs could cut energy use in half by the year 2030.
Of course, no one knows just how many light dimmers remain in use today. But it must number well into the millions when you add up all the homes, offices, bars and restaurants that use them.
This is something I know about from my own experience. I redid the lighting in my house, installing eight dimmer switches a decade ago.
That's one of the reasons why I skipped completely the move to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). I just couldn't dim them.
But with a Cirrus controller, I can skip CFLs and move to LEDs. That's when my own proverbial light bulb went on.
As it turns out, the LEDs provide much better lighting than CFLs. And they offer another big selling point — they work well outdoors.
So well, in fact, car makers are starting to use them in a big way. Consider this:
- Chrysler now uses LEDs in the headlights of its midsize 200 models and its upscale 300 sedans.
- Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) will install LEDs for the turn signals as well as the parking and tail lights in its 2013 Taurus sedan.
- Volkswagen decked out the 2012 Beetle with a necklace of LED daytime running lights.
Meantime, billboard firms are also falling in love with LEDs. These lights work great for digital billboards, which allow several firms to use the same signs but change the messages as drivers cruise by.
And police endorse them as high-tech crime-fighting tools. Take the case of the FBI.
The bureau says it has caught more than 45 suspects with these devices. Often it's free of charge because billboard firms will donate the space as part of their PR campaigns.
Cirrus Logic: Riding the Big Trends
Clearly, Cirrus has several big trends going in its favor. But that's no guarantee of success. After all, the LED sector is just now starting to bounce back.
For my money, Rhode is the right guy to make money off LEDs.
First of all, he has a doctorate in electrical engineering and knows a thing or two about inventing products — he holds 19 patents. And he's a stickler for details.
He had his crew buy 200 dimmers from all over the world to make sure they worked with Cirrus control units.
Remember, he's the guy who put Cirrus in the fast lane to begin with. When he joined as CEO five years ago next month, Cirrus was in deep trouble.
The firm faced a scandal over how it had back dated stock options. It even came close to having its stock delisted. Shares have tripled in value since Rhode took over.
It may be because Rhode is the type of CEO who understands the challenges facing high-tech firms in the Era of Radical Change.
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About the Author
Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.