Alcoa kicks off the earnings season with its its fourth quarter earnings report, expected after markets close Monday.
Alcoa kicks off the earnings season with its its fourth quarter earnings report, expected after markets close Monday. - 
Listen To The Story

It’s not hard to hear the air quotes Morningstar analyst Andrew Lane uses when he describes the conference call in which Alcoa executives discussed the company's earnings yesterday. "CEO Klaus Kleinfeld referred to the company numerous times as a 'lightweight multi-material innovation powerhouse,'" says Lane, who thinks the company will keep making money by making aluminum for a long time. 

However, Lane also says, yes: A lot of Alcoa’s profits come from new lines in metals like titanium. And special alloys in the aluminum body for the new Ford F-150 truck coming out next year.

The company also has a substantial aerospace business, which is why it has a spot on Josh Sullivan's list. Sullivan, an analyst at Sterne Agee, generally covers the aerospace business, not raw materials companies. When did a company known for mining and smelting metal turn itself into an aerospace company?  

"Well, Alcoa’s actually always been an aerospace company," says Sullivan. Because to build an airplane to fight World War II -- or, later, a rocket ship, or a 737 -- required the strongest, lightest metal available. "We don’t think of aluminum as an advanced metal," says Sullivan, "but at one point it was the most advanced metal out there."

In fact, Alcoa "was always a high-tech company," says business historian George David Smith from New York University. Through the first half of the 20th century, Alcoa maintained a major R&D department. "Like many new technologies of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, there wasn't much academic wisdom about these materials," he says. "Alcoa had to set up a scientific laboratory, really, to learn about the properties of the metal and how it could work with it."

The company's strategy shifted after it lost a big antitrust case to the U.S. government after World War II. Among the outcomes, says Smith: "They had to provide their patent rights to their new competitors -- namely Kaiser and Reynolds Corporations -- free of charge."

Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann