The Departure of Sir Martin Sorrell

At last the highest paid and longest serving FTSE-100 CEO has departed from WPP after 33 years. His total pay last year was £48 million, down from the previous year’s “single figure” of £70 million. Sir Martin was certainly perceived to be a “star” businessman, and the financial performance of WPP pleased shareholders for many years. Despite recent problems the Annual Report of the company claims a Total Shareholder Return of 1,006% over the last twenty years as against a measly 241% for the FTSE-100.

Will the company find a suitable replacement manager who can continue to grow the business? Will the company survive in its current form or be broken up? Those are the questions all the media are pontificating upon.

My thoughts on this subject were crystalized by reading the business management classic “Good to Great” on a recent holiday break. First published in 2001, the author Jim Collins reported on research he had undertaken to determine what separated out simply “good” companies from the “great” ones, i.e. those that really offered investors superior returns rather than average ones. He also looked at what turned good companies into great ones, i.e. the crystalizing factors or turning points. It’s well worth reading by investors for that reason alone, even if some of the companies reported on as “great” have subsequently gone bust (e.g. Circuit City), and amusingly Berkshire Hathaway was only rated as “good” at the time so was not included in the analysis.

Management and the quality of the leadership was one of the key factors identified. It seemed that humble, self-effacing leaders were best. They often attributed the company’s success to luck or the other senior management team members. Star managers with high profiles such as Jack Welch at GEC or Lee Iacocca at Chrysler frequently proved to be shooting stars whose achievements rapidly disappeared after they left. In other words, they did not build great companies where their legacy lived on after their departure.

This is one very applicable quote from the book when you are considering director pay in companies: “We found no systematic pattern linking executive compensation to the process of going from good to great. The evidence simply does not support the idea that the specific structure of executive compensation acts as the key lever in taking a company from good to great”. In other words, high pay does not generate exceptional performance in managers, and schemes such as LTIPs which allegedly align managers’ interests with shareholders do not help either.

It’s a book well worth reading for tips on how to identify the companies and their CEOs that are likely to generate great returns for investors.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Lack of Transparency at the FRC

The Financial Times ran an interesting article on Friday (13/4/2018) headlined “FRC criticised over transparency”. It reported that the Financial Reporting Council answered only 6 out of 52 Freedom of Information requests since 2013. Atul Shah, Professor of Accounting at the University of Suffolk, was reported as saying: “This shows that there is a real problem within the soul of the FRC. It is a public regulator and not a private members’ club, and it has clear duties of transparency, accountability and reliability which it has been avoiding over many years”. He went on to say they have been fobbing of public queries over a long period and that it was really shocking.

How can they reject so many requests? Because only certain parts of their operations are covered by the Freedom of Information Act and they can claim they cannot comment on on-going investigations.

The Local Authority Pension Funds Forum (LAPFF) sent a long submission to the public consultation on the Corporate Governance Code echoing many of those complaints and adding others and saying that the FRC suffers from “internal cultural problems”. They are clearly very unhappy with the activities of the FRC. The FRC has seen fit to respond with a 5-page rebuttal letter which they have published on their web site.

I have of course covered this issue of the culture and processes of the FRC in two previous blog posts which are here: https://roliscon.blog/2017/12/10/brexit-hbos-globo-and-the-frc/ and here: https://roliscon.blog/2017/11/22/standard-life-uk-smaller-companies-and-frc-meetings/

My view is that although the FRC is under-resourced, the approach that it takes should be reformed. Too many times major accounting and audit issues take years to investigate, and often simply result in no action. For smaller companies, complaints can disappear into a black hole with no response being received at all to complaints. Reform is required.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Low Margin Companies, and McColl’s AGM

Should you invest in companies with low profit margins? Phil Oakley of Sharescope wrote a very interesting article a few days ago which questioned whether they are likely to be good investments. This was one complaint about Conviviality which recently went into administration.

As Phil said, high margins suggest that a company has pricing power and limited competition while low profit margins make a company vulnerable to tough trading conditions or a weak economy. The reason for this is simple. If the overhead costs are relatively fixed but revenues fall even by a small amount, or costs rise, then profits can rapidly disappear. In addition if margins are already tight, then when competitors cut prices to retain volume, a company with low margins can find they simply cannot respond without incurring losses. Low profit margins are often linked to low returns on capital which is always something to avoid.

In essence, companies with low profits margins can be living on a knife edge and hence one needs to be careful about investing in them. A margin of 10% or higher is preferable, and a number of companies I am investing in have operating margins of over 50%. But what about retailers? Their operating margins are often very low. For example, Sainsbury’s is at 1.66% according to Stockopedia, Tesco is at 3.2%, ASOS is at 3.79%, Boohoo at 8.43% and Dunelm at 9.43%. The more specialist the retailer, or the higher the value items of sold, the greater the operating margin should typically be.

Carpetright which has just announced a major restructuring and refinancing was at minus 0.15% a year ago so their recent problems are perhaps no surprise. Likewise Conviviality was at 1.62% although they had both wholesale and retail operations. But ignoring all retailers because they report low profit margins is not a strategy I would follow.

McColl’s Retail Group whose AGM I attended yesterday are a convenience store operator. Their average “basket” size is only £5.62. Their operating margin is only 2.1%. Well at least it’s better than Sainsbury’s and I suspect it’s been low for many years – indeed when I first purchased the shares 2 years ago it was only 2.5%. But if you look at the more conventional valuation metrics it does not look so bad. Prospective p/e of 11.9, dividend yield of 4.7% and like many retailers it generates a lot of cash as it sells its merchandise before it has to pay its suppliers – at least that’s true until they go bust.

They are therefore companies that you need to keep a close eye on to see that margins are not falling, and that revenue on a like-for-like basis is not declining. That’s particularly so when we have a bad patch of weather affecting footfall as we had recently, or where they are vulnerable to erosion from internet retailers. Are McColl’s in that regard? Probably not because 60% of their customers live within 400 meters of their local shop and they provide both fresh/chilled food and services such as a post office. The company is looking to “engage” even more with their customers who typically visit very frequently.

It was a useful AGM with a number of good questions from the audience (less than 10 shareholders attending at the company’s head office in Essex). One question related to the success of the acquisition of 290 stores from the Co-Op which have now been fully integrated but the CEO rejected a suggestion the stores were below targets and said the deal “met the business case”.

However one problem the company has faced in the last year is the collapse of supplier Palmer and Harvey. The business was closed by the administrator almost immediately so McColl’s had to make alternative arrangements very rapidly. This resulted in analysts forecasts of profits being reduced from £54m to £50m according to the CFO. In future they will be reliant to a large extent on Morrisons who they have done a deal with to retail products under the Safeway name. It seems to me that these two companies might become so closely linked that sooner or later it might make sense for Morrisons to acquire the business. Morrisons sold off their own convenience store chain in 2015 which was losing money and not easy to scale up.

One shareholder complained about the remuneration arrangements – a typical complex scheme including LTIPs. He said “why do people need a bonus to do their job?”. The Chairman said there is competition for talent. I also discussed this with the CFO after the formal meeting closed and suggested there were better solutions to incentivise staff.

I also talked to the Company Secretary about the problems with voting via Link Asset Services (see previous blog post on that topic).

One unusual aspect of this AGM was the issuance of the Minutes of the last AGM and request for shareholders to approve. Companies normally do minute their AGMs but don’t publish them.

The votes were taken on a poll with the results only announced later in the day. About 13% of votes were against the Remuneration Policy, against the Chairman and Rem. Comm. Chair Georgina Harvey and over 18% against share allotment and pre-emption resolutions. Plus 13% against company share purchases and the change of notice of General Meetings. These are unusually high figures and the board has committed to look into the reasons why and report back. Note that Klarus Capital hold over 11% of the company having bought the stake held by former Chairman James Lancaster.

My conclusions about this company: The management seem to be making the right decisions but they do need to improve the profit margin and return on capital. However it seems one reason for the deal with Morrison’s was to obtain “improved commercial terms” so that suggests they recognize this. Moving into growing segments such as “food-on-the go” and out of declining ones such as newspapers and tobacco should help as will store refurbishments and the addition of a few more stores.

The share price of McColls has been picking up recently from a low point. But like a lot of my holdings it seems to be somewhat volatile of late. Is that as a result of the holiday period with lower trading volumes, a tax year end effect, or investors being nervous about war in Syria? Will it be war or no war? Investors never like binary bets. Perhaps Donald Trump should get on the hot-line to Russia and negotiate an alternative scenario. After all he has written a book called “The Art of the Deal” so he should know how to finesse a face saving way out of the problem.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Conviviality Fire Sale

Conviviality (CVR) has now gone into administration, and the ordinary shares are probably worthless (they were suspended some days ago and are likely to remain so). The administrators have already sold the major parts of the business in “pre-pack” administration deals. That’s where arrangements are made to dispose of assets in advance of the appointment of administrators by the prospective administrators before they have in fact been appointed. Is that legal you may ask? Yes it is because of a past legal case however perverse the result might be.

It’s interesting to look at the deals done by the Conviviality administrators:

  1. Retail chains Bargain Booze and Wine Rack have been sold to Bestway for £7 million.
  2. The wholesale division comprising the former businesses of Mathew Clark and Bibendum has been sold to C&C (owners of Magners Cider) for £1, although it seems the new owners have taken on some of the debts owed.

Matthew Clark was bought by C&C for £200 million three years ago and Bibendum was bought for £60 million in 2016. You can see why I call this a “fire sale” when the administrator seems to have lined up buyers in just a few days and disposed of these businesses at a value that seems to be a great bargain for the buyers.

One of the problems with administrations is that often the administrators have an objective to sell the business absolutely as soon as possible. This is to protect their own financial interests it frequently appears to me as much as it is to protect the jobs of employees and maintain a business as a “going concern”. Administrators can only get paid out of the cash that is present in the business or can be collected. That’s why nobody wanted to take on the administration of Carillion and it went straight into liquidation.

Administrators have an obligation to market a business for sale but can that be done adequately and the best price obtained when the deal has clearly been done in just a few days? That obviously does not allow any time for the normal due diligence on a substantial deal so the buyers won’t have paid anywhere near the normal market price for the assets.

In summary, the buyers of the assets get a great deal, the jobs get preserved (at least to some extent), the bankers to the company often get their loans back and the administrators get well paid while minimising their risks. But the previous owners of the business (the ordinary shareholders) get left with nothing. Is that equitable?

In effect the current legal structure, and particularly the pre-pack arrangements, enable the rapid dismantling of a business when it might have been recoverable if the company had been able to have more time to refinance the business and stave off its creditors for just a few weeks.

This is why I argue that the current UK insolvency regime needs reform. It destroys companies in short order when ordinary shareholders have often invested in the company to grow the business in the past. In the case of Conviviality it only listed on AIM in 2013 and did subsequent placings to finance its expansion.

The reason for the invention of “administration” in the insolvency regime was to enable a more measured wind-up, disposal or restructuring of a business rather than a liquidation. But insolvency practitioners (i.e. administrators) seem to have changed it into a short-cut to wind-up. Reform is surely needed.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

Moneysupermarket and Private Eye

Fame at last. This week Private Eye published a letter of mine on the subject of Moneysupermarket.com Plc. This was in response to a somewhat inaccurate article on companies ditching their advertising agents. This is what the letter said:

“Sir, Contrary to your article on companies ditching their advertising agencies in EYE 1466, where it is stated that Moneysupermarket.com lost money last year, the truth is that they actually made profits of £78.1 million.

However, as an investor in the company, I applaud the action of the new CEO in firing their advertising agency. I always thought good advertising was about promoting the merits of the product or service you were offering. But Moneysupermarket’s recent campaigns, such as a prancing “twerking businessman with a giant arse” as you put it, was nothing of the kind. Perhaps the new(ish) CEO (he has been there a year) took a similar view. Particularly when the financial results for last year were indeed disappointing, albeit revenues and profits were up 4% – but that’s not much more than inflation.”

Private Eye often publish some revealing articles on financial matters and this latest edition contains one such by “Slicker”. It covers the “existential crisis in corporate governance” which he says has increased since the financial crisis of 2008 with no top bankers, auditors, lawyers or regulators in court. The article covers many of the scandals that have come to light in that period, and this is a particularly pertinent comment therein: “Non-executive directors, who supposedly oversee the executive directors, have too often become an over-rewarded mafia of mediocrity, exhibiting all the signs of Stockholm Syndrome, their captors being the domineering CEOs to whim they never say no”.

He suggests some remedies which include “a corporate vicarious liability law” as in the USA, a Sarbanes-Oxley style law, and the banning of LTIPs. All well argued and it’s certainly worth reading.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

 

More Annoyance from Link Asset Services

I have complained before about the services from the registrar Link Asset Services that frustrate shareholders from voting – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/03/14/voting-shares-via-link-asset-services-its-infuriating/

The latest example is on another company where Link sent a paper copy of the Annual Report out, and a Notice of the AGM, but no paper proxy voting form. They suggest in a covering letter that I can either vote on-line using their “share portal” or request a paper proxy form.

For those of us who do not wish to sign up for their share portal, and just want to vote our shares (which are on the register), this is exceedingly frustrating. It’s just another way that shareholders are being discouraged from voting, and the exercise of their rights made more difficult.

I have written to the Company Secretary suggesting they fire Link Asset Services and switch to using another registrar who can provide a better service. Unless Link have a change of mind on this issue.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.

GKN and Melrose – The Reality

Melrose has won the battle to take control of GKN although the Government might yet step in to halt the takeover. On what grounds is not exactly clear. Never having held shares in either company, I thought it worth looking at the facts rather than the hyperbole surrounding this deal as there seemed to be some myths being propagated.

Is GKN a key business in the UK’s engineering and technology infrastructure based on a long history of innovation? Or is it a financially poorly performing conglomerate that was vulnerable to a bid?

It has been said that GKN produced Spitfires in the Second World War but in reality they did not develop the plane but were just one of several assembly plants that were subcontracted to produce it in volume, In the 1960s I well remember the company under the name Guest, Keen and Nettlefold and in Birmingham they had large factories producing nuts and bolts. Hardly high-tech engineering even at that time. Later they did make a success of car parts production particularly with constant velocity joints (CVJs) as used in the Mini and other front wheel drive vehicles. But they are now proposing to split off the driveline business and merge it with another company. They plan to focus on the aerospace business. You can see a “polished” version of the history of the company here: https://www.gkn.com/en/about-gkn/history/ . In reality a long history of dubious diversifications, followed by later rationalisations.

The recent financial performance has been disappointing. Reported earnings per share in 2017 were the same as five years previously with a trough in between. Dividends in that period grew slowly and at the current share price equate to about 2% yield. Return on assets a measly 5.6% last year, and even that was an improvement on previous years. Although the financial prospects based on analysts’ forecasts might be slightly improving, is it not simply a case that institutional investors might have become disillusioned with the management in recent years and seen an opportunity in the Melrose bid to improve the financial returns?

There will no doubt have been some activity by share traders, arbitrageurs and hedge funds of late who might have influenced the outcome. But that’s capitalism in action. Holders, even long-term ones, sell to higher bidders.

Personally I oppose any suggestion that short-term holders should not be allowed to vote, and the use of other “poison-pill” mechanisms that can defeat takeovers. If I purchased a share in a company last week, I want to be able to vote it! I may not have known that a bid was coming and how I vote will depend on the arguments put by both sides. Clearly in this case GKN simply lost the argument.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right.

© Copyright. Disclaimer: Read the About page before relying on any information in this post.