Why 2017 Was a Year to Remember for Corning Inc.

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Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW) enjoyed quite a year in 2017 and, no, that's not a reference to the stock's 32% gain, a rise that easily outpaced the S&P 500's returns. While it's always nice to see the stocks we hold go up in price, long-term minded investors know that a focus on a company's prospects and fundamentals is far more important to sustained investment success than short term price movements. When investors check under the hood of Corning, there is a lot to like.

This year Corning received a $200 million investment from the world's biggest company, signed a $1 billion-plus deal with one of the country's largest wireless networks, and announced the development of a new product that might end up being a $4 billion opportunity in a new market. Each of these announcements underlines a different and promising line of business for the company, illustrating how much Corning has transformed itself since being almost solely a display glass manufacturer, with earnings that were notoriously cyclical and often based on glass prices, a factor outside its control. Let's take a closer look at these growing lines of business to better appreciate the great year Corning just had.

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Corning's Metrics 2017 Q3 2016 Q3 Change
Core Sales $2.7 billion $2.55 billion 6%
Core EPS $0.43 $0.42 2%
Optical Communications Sales $917 million $795 million 15%
Specialty Materials Sales $373 million $295 million 26%

A moat 1 billion kilometers wide

Corning's Optical Communications division supplies optical fiber to major telecom companies and internet service providers. In April, Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) made a commitment to purchase at least $1.05 billion worth of fiber from Corning, good enough to buy about 20 million kilometers worth over the length of the contract. As one can imagine after seeing the details of a massive deal like this, sales in the division are growing nicely, and increased 15% year over year in the company's third quarter.

Corning scientists made the first low-loss optical fiber for commercial use in 1970 and the company produced its billionth kilometer of optical fiber during its third quarter. With that type of experience it's no wonder that, during the company's third-quarter conference call, CEO Wendell Weeks revealed Corning was the world's lowest cost producer of the material. Coupled with its great technical prowess and proprietary know-how in the area, that constitutes an impressive economic moat. Weeks said:

Strong as a gorilla

Last May, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) CEO Tim Cook announced Corning would receive $200 million as the first recipient of the company's Advanced Manufacturing Fund, a fund conceived to spur innovation among American manufacturers. The money was going to Corning's manufacturing facility in Kentucky where it makes Gorilla Glass -- its tough, lightweight, and scratch-resistant glass that has been used to cover more than 5 billion devices from 40 different manufacturers, including every iPhone and iPad ever made.

Corning's Specialty Materials division, where Gorilla Glass is accounted for, continues to show strong growth. In the company's third quarter, the segment's sales increased 26% and core earnings increased 61% year over year. While Gorilla Glass 5 (GG5), the fifth generation of Gorilla Glass, is now being used by virtually all major smartphone manufacturers, the company is also finding other uses for Gorilla Glass. Many wearable devices are now using Gorilla Glass SR+, a version specifically built for wearables.

In the company's third-quarter conference call, Weeks also said Corning was exploring different uses for Gorilla Glass on 25 different automobile platforms. "On the exteriors of cars, Gorilla Glass laminates are lighter and tougher than conventional auto glass, plus its superior optical quality allows larger, clearer head-up displays," Weeks said. "For interiors, Gorilla Glass makes cars more connected and durable with sophisticated capabilities you come to expect from your smartphones."

The better part of Valor

Just before the company released its second-quarter earnings this year, Corning announced a new product, Valor Glass, a "totally redesigned pharmaceutical package." The new glass packaging is designed to improve glass lamella, what happens when tiny flakes of glass shed on the inside of the package and contaminate the medicine. The problem is so serious that the FDA has previously released warnings on it. Valor Glass packaging "dramatically reduces particle contamination, breaks and cracks while significantly increasing throughput."

The product has already been endorsed by major pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) and Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE: MRK). "We believe that our collaboration with Corning is a game changer," Pfizer CEO Ian Read said. "The glass industry represents about $4 billion in expenditures for the pharmaceutical industry, but subsequent issues, potential shards or breakages require strong quality control to ensure that it doesn't get through to patients." In other words, Valor Glass is a potential $4 billion opportunity for Corning.

Corning's year brought new opportunities and strong growth in the company's core competencies and, best of all, there are no signs these developments are about to slow down. Global demand for optical fiber continues to rise, smartphones and other applications for Gorilla Glass abound, and Valor Glass has yet to make any impact whatsoever to Corning's top and bottom lines. In other words, while 2017 was a year to remember for Corning, 2018 might be even better.

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Matthew Cochrane owns shares of Corning and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Corning. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.