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Published: Saturday, 11/18/2006

Firm's stock debut a winner

A suburban Toledo solar-panel factory began selling stock yesterday, and found shares trading higher than expected and in extremely heavy volume.

The company, First Solar Inc., traded under the ticker symbol FSLR on Nasdaq, and its stock opened at $20 a share and ended the day at $24.74, with 18.4 million shares traded.

The firm, which is based in Phoenix but has its only factory in Perrysburg Township, was founded as Solar Cells in the late 1980s by the late Toledo industrialist Harold McMaster.

The reconfigured firm began its public stock venture to raise up to $315 million to build another factory in Asia and to pay some debt from a plant it is building in Germany.

The company makes energy panels that have thin coatings over special glass panels. The coatings use fewer materials and are simpler to make and apply than some competitors' technologies.

The local factory has more than doubled in size this year since a $74 million expansion, prompted by the demand in Europe stemming from government regulations and incentives.

The firm said in the spring that its production would amount to 330,000 panels a year, or enough to power 45,000 houses.

Trading in the stock began about 90 minutes after the stock market opened yesterday. The company's prospectus said it expected to sell 17.5 million shares estimated to trade between $17 and $19 a share.

The company does not plan to pay a dividend.

An additional 51.9 million shares are controlled by the company's principal owners: the estate of the late John Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart Stores; as well as First Solar chief executive Michael Ahearn and the investment firm of Goldman Sachs,

The company has yet to make a profit. Last year its sales grew to $48 million, but it lost $6.5 million.

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