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Go with the gut
Salix proves the way to an investor's heart is through his stomach.
By David Mildenberg

There has been nothing irritable about holding Salix Pharmaceuticals Ltd. shares the last decade. The Raleigh-based drug developer’s stock has soared 11-fold during that time because of increased profits and sales of its treatments for gastrointestinal illnesses and other maladies. Salix continued its run last year, gaining 86% on news of promising clinical trials, and now ranks 12th — up from 16th in 2013 — on Business North Carolina’s annual ranking of the 75 largest public companies based in the state.
 
Though Salix’s rise was extraordinary, investors owning other North Carolina-based stocks also benefited as the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low and consumer confidence improved. Reaching 22%, the Top 75’s median change in market value topped 20% for the third time in four years. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has more than doubled since June 2009, but stocks don’t appear overvalued, says Don Olmstead, managing director of Novare Capital Management LLC, the Charlotte company that compiled this year’s list, which is based on the final trading day in June. “The S&P 500 is trading at about 16 times earnings, which is the historical average over the last 50 years. We had been undervalued for many years.”
 
The Top 75 includes a dose of biotech and pharma concerns, but investors haven’t had to bet on drug discoveries to win big. Shares of seven of the 10 largest companies more than doubled the past five years, led by a 564% gain by Winston-Salem-based Hanesbrands Inc. BB&T just missed at 96%. Laggards among the large caps include Charlotte-based giants Nucor Corp., and Bank of America Corp., which were up 27% and 18%, respectively, during that span. Greensboro-based Lorillard Inc., No. 7 this year, won’t appear next year because of its pending sale to Reynolds American Inc. of Winston-Salem.
 
Seven newly public companies made this year’s list, following six in 2013, reflecting investors’ renewed enthusiasm for stocks, says James Harlow, a Novare research analyst who assembled the list with Senior Portfolio Manager Brian Rudisill. “Consumer confidence numbers aren’t back to historic high levels, but they’ve rebounded a ton since 2008,” says Olmstead, whose company manages $740 million. “Many consumers have deleveraged, they aren’t taking out mortgages, and they have more discretionary income so they are feeling pretty good.”
 
Salix will not be on the list next year. It agreed in July to buy drug patents from Italy-based Cosmo Pharmaceuticals SpA for $2.7 billion in stock, enabling it to move its headquarters to Ireland and cut its tax bill when the deal closes later this year. Salix shareholders will own about 80% of the combined company. Carolyn Logan, who had shares valued at more than $120 million, will remain CEO.
 
Click here for the Top 75 public companies list.
 

THE WEIGH-IN: How the Top 75 public companies performed.