Light with a twist is a winner for B


The star at Black & Decker Corp.'s annual meeting yesterday was 28 inches long and had a light bulb in its head.

The SnakeLight, the new flexible flashlight, was in the spotlight at the annual meeting of the Towson-based power tool and appliance manufacturer. A runaway best seller, the product is also symbolic of the company's dramatic turnaround in the last year.

"We hope this is just the beginning of a long period of growth and prosperity for Black & Decker," Noland D. Archibald, chairman and chief executive officer, told about 250 stockholders at the Sheraton Hotel in Towson.

While Mr. Archibald highlighted a number of products, ranging from DeWalt power tools to Titan locks, the emphasis was on the SnakeLight -- with its distinctive flexible rippled tube that can be twisted into a variety of shapes. Most of a video played at the meeting was devoted to regional and national newscasts in which reporters would twist the flashlight around their necks as they told how shoppers frantically sought SnakeLight during Christmas.

"I've seen it six or seven times, and I love it more each time," Mr. Archibald said of the video.

Introduced in October, more than 1 million SnakeLights have been sold and the company has orders through September for all the lights being produced at its Asheboro, N.C., plant, according to Don R. Graber, president of the company's household products group.

The SnakeLights also are in demand for rescue workers in Oklahoma City and Black & Decker has donated hundreds of them, Mr. Graber said.

They helped boost last year's sales 7.5 percent to $5.2 billion. But it was the company's stepped-up emphasis on cost-cutting and efficiency that boosted profits by 93.0 percent to $127.4 million. This performance was repeated in the first quarter, when net income jumped by 76 percent to $25.7 million.

Likewise, the company's stock has soared by 77.4 percent from July 13, when it sold for $17.125, to Friday when it closed at the high point of $30.375 a share. Yesterday it closed at $30.125, unchanged.

However, some stockholders complained about the stock's quarterly dividend, which has been stuck at 10 cents per share for eight years even as the salaries of corporate executives have increased.

"Clearly, we would like to increase the dividend," Mr. Archibald told the shareholders. But other matters, such as reducing the company's $2 billion debt from the 1989 Emhart acquisition, took precedence over increasing dividends. But now, with better results, the company will look at dividends again, he said.

"That is something we will certainly take under serious consideration," Mr. Archibald said.

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