A123Systems: "Record Year," But Tests of Scaling & Profit Lie Ahead

For A123Systems (s AONE), the Massachusetts-based lithium-ion battery maker, 2009 marked the best year yet in its 8-year history in terms of revenue, an IPO and government funding: The company scored a coveted $249 million government grant and its $371 million initial public offering in September was the biggest IPO of the year. CEO David Vieau emphasized 2009 as a “record year” for the company in a statement Tuesday afternoon as A123 released its latest financial results.

Revenue rose to just over $91.05 million for the 2009 calendar year, up from $68.52 million in 2008. In the last three months of 2009, A123 saw higher-than-expected revenues of $24.53 million, up from $23.65 million in the same period a year earlier.

However, A123Systems increased its losses over the year — losing $86.59 million for the calendar year 2009 — up from $80.43 million the previous year. Losses narrowed in the fourth quarter of 2009 to $22.47 million, or 22 cents per share (2 cents worse than expected), compared to $28.56 million ($3.08 per share) in that period in 2008. The way Vieau sees it, “momentum is strong entering 2010.”

The record revenues amid increased losses indicate rising demand for the company’s lithium-ion batteries, but also how much investment, and time, it takes to grow into a large battery maker and to generate substantial profits. Revenue and profits at A123Systems are expected to ramp up after 2012, which has been a problem for impatient investors — the stock has been up and down and up over the past several months. By afternoon on Wednesday A123’s stock had dropped to $16.48, off of former highs above $20.

But in the long run many investors see A123 as worth the wait. After a visit to A123Systems factories in China and Korea, Deutsche Bank analysts felt that the company was ready to scale up to meet bigger demands, explaining “The maturity of operations, level of automation, and depth of manufacturing experience within each company’s subsidiaries gave us increased confidence that production scaling is a manageable risk.”

In particular the company is trying to rapidly scale its production of batteries for electric vehicles, a market that could drive sales of up to $7.9 billion (16.9 gigawatt-hours) in 2015, according to Pike Research. In A123’s 2009 year financials its transportation unit saw revenue more than triple over 2008 to $45.3 million — more than it collected from any other business unit, including consumer products ($20.1 million) and electric grid storage ($11.1 million). The company is planning a major expansion and announced on Tuesday that it now aims to add another 200 megawatt-hours at its Livonia, Mich. facility — bringing the plant’s total capacity to about 560 megawatt-hours — up from a planned 120 megawatt-hour expansion.

At least some of that capacity will be used to supply batteries for startup Fisker Automotive’s upcoming plug-in hybrid vehicles.) To put that in perspective, A123 shipped batteries equivalent to a total of 66.5 megawatt-hours during all of last year.

But like many juicy opportunities, there’s more than a little risk involved in the coming electric vehicles market, and timing is crucial. Analyst John Gartner of Pike Research told us last month that A123Systems and other U.S. battery developers planning to build out new plants in the next few years, “are not sitting on a lot of cash.” As a result, “Once they establish that manufacturing, they need to be instantly generating revenue.”

A123Systems said in its release this week that it expects 2010 to be “a year of focus on execution,” and building a “foundation” for significant growth in 2011 and 2012, when it anticipates customer programs (i.e. electric car makers) will, “move into full scale production.” The company’s doing its part to ensure that actually happens, having offered a leg up to customer Fisker Automotive in the form of a $23 million investment.