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Published: Friday, 3/16/2007

Investors in First Solar sunny

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
First Solar uses thin-film technology, which is less costly than crystaline-silicon wafers, for its panels. First Solar uses thin-film technology, which is less costly than crystaline-silicon wafers, for its panels.
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If not for his job as a Wood County building inspector, Kenneth Weislak may not ever have known about one of the region's hottest Nasdaq stocks.

Fortunately, First Solar Inc. executives have expanded their Perrysburg solar-panel-making operations three times in the past two years, requiring an inspection by Mr. Weislak.

"When I was there several years ago, behind my shoulder was John Walton. I asked a fellow there who that was and they told me he was one of the biggest owners," Mr. Weislak said. "I knew if he was invested in it that would be smart money."

The company's stock was sold to the public Nov. 16, and its price has more than doubled since. It closed yesterday at $52.69, but was up near $58 this week. It opened at $24.50 on Nov. 17.

Mr. Weislak, acting on the investment of the now deceased heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, bought 1,000 shares for $27 each.

Investor Sam Onweller, of Swanton, bought 500 shares during the initial public offering, encouraged by his son and brother, who work at the Perrysburg plant.

He plans to hang onto the stock. "I'm smiling and my brother is smiling too," he said. "Anybody who didn't buy in is likely kicking themselves."

Some analysts believe First Solar is just warming up.

Kenneth Weislak invested in the company after he learned that the heir to the Wal-Mart fortune was a stockholder. Kenneth Weislak invested in the company after he learned that the heir to the Wal-Mart fortune was a stockholder.
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Lazard Capital Markets, which just started covering the company, said it expects the stock to hit $65 a share and gave it a "buy" rating. It based its prediction on expectations the company will meet and exceed targets for capacity increase, cost reduction, and technology improvements.

Cowen and Co. analyst Rob Stone also is "very bullish." "First Solar is one of our top picks in particular," he said. "Its advantages are it's a thin-film company, while the vast majority, about 90 percent of the industry, are producing crystal silicon."

The company, which is based in Phoenix but has its only manufacturing factory in suburban Toledo, began decades ago in Toledo as Solar Cells, the brainchild of the late industrialist Harold McMasters.

Given the push in Europe for more energy efficiency, much of the local production is shipped overseas. The company is building a factory in Germany to be operating by fall and has announced plans for a factory in Malaysia to be running 2008. The firm has fixed contracts to supply solar panels for the next five years.

First Solar's thin-film technology involves thin coatings over a special glass panel.

Raw materials to make thin film are plentiful and cheap, whereas materials to make crystalline-silicon wafers are in high demand, short supply, and are expensive, analysts said.

Industry analysts are high on the stock as a result. A company spokesman said executives are in a "self-imposed quiet period," and would not comment on company-related issues.

Thomas Monaghan, of Lambertville, is happy he purchased First Solar stock in January for $29 a share. But he wishes he had hung onto it instead of selling at $37. "I sold it and then it went wild," he said.

Mr. Monaghan, formerly of Palm Springs, Calif., where solar panels are frequently used, said, "I was president of our homeowners association, and we used solar cells to heat our pools. That saved us a lot of money."

As for First Solar, he added, "I'm thinking of getting back into it. It may still have some life in it."

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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