Patisserie – and How to Avoid Disasters

The events at Patisserie (CAKE) have been well covered in both the national media and financial press so I won’t repeat them here. This article will therefore concentrate on how to avoid such companies in the future. The case of Patisserie is very similar to those of Globo in 2015 and Torex Retail in 2007. All three were large AIM companies that went into administration after fraud was discovered. These were not just cases of over-optimistic or misleading financial accounts, but deliberate false accounting. Executives of Torex Retail received jail terms and Globo is still being investigated. Note that such criminal cases take years to come to a conclusion. Both Globo and Patisserie were audited by the same firm (Grant Thornton). Such cases can happen not just in relatively small AIM companies, but also large ones – for example Polly Peck.

Ordinary shareholders received zero from the administration of Torex Retail and Globo and it is very likely it will be the same from Patisserie. The only glimmer of light is that it does look as though a normal sale process is being followed by the administrators and there is at least one enthusiastic bidder for the remaining stores. There is also the prospect of a tax refund from HMRC because it is clear the fraud has been running for some years so Patisserie has been paying tax on imaginary profits. But the bank overdrafts/loans need paying, loans from Luke Johnson need repaying (which incredibly seem to rank ahead of the banks), trade creditors need paying, staff need paying, HMRC needs paying and the administrators will run up the usual enormous bills no doubt so I doubt there will be much, if anything, left after those distributions. There usually is not.

Legal action against the former directors who were culpable in these events by regulatory authorities is highly likely. For example, it is a crime (market abuse) to publish false accounts under the Financial Services and Markets Act so that would be one basis. Investors who invested in the company on the basis of those false accounts should submit a complaint to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and encourage them to take such action.

Are there possible legal actions by investors to recover their losses? Perhaps and I know at least two people who are talking to solicitors about that. But such legal actions are very expensive and depend on a) Identifying defendants with sufficient assets to meet both the claim and legal costs; b) Having sufficient standing to do so. Unfortunately shareholders would probably have to do it via a “derivative action” which means applying to the court to force the administrator to pursue such a claim. Bearing in mind administrations are often relatively short term, and it will take years to conclude regulatory investigations and actions, there might be a problem there.

Who could be targeted? The auditors possibly although they will probably say they were misled by the company directors (bank accounts not disclosed, etc). Luke Johnson perhaps although he clearly denies previous knowledge of the fraud and pursuing him for breach of his responsibilities as a director might be difficult – however he does have the assets having taken well over £20 million out of the company in share sales over the years. Former finance director Chris Marsh sold shares worth £8.42 million in 2018 while former CEO Paul May sold shares worth £14.34 million in that year it is worth noting. They both appear to have been near the centre of the fraud but culpability clearly will need to be proved. They have yet to comment in public on the matter.

Were the share sales by those two executive directors a sign that all was not well at the company? Perhaps but Luke Johnson was not selling in 2018 and these sales were the result of share option exercises from LTIPs which executives often sell, partly to meet tax demands.

So how to avoid such fraudulent companies from damaging your wealth in future? From experience I can offer the following advice, and you will see why Patisserie side-stepped all the warning signs:

  1. Try to invest in directors who you feel you can trust. Luke Johnson had a very public reputation in the investment world which he was no doubt keen to protect. Indeed his actions to try and bail-out the business when the fraud was discovered shows exactly that, although institutional investors who took up the rescue rights issue will be none too happy. His fellow executive directors were a long-established team and hence should have been trustworthy. Make sure you take opportunities to meet the management.
  2. Do the financial analysis. Read the book “The Signs Were There” which I have covered in a previous article – it tells you where to look. For example, do the profits turn into cash? But if the cash on the balance sheet is a lie, as at both Patisserie and Globo, it does not help. Does the company not pay dividends when it could, or make decisions to raise more debt when it does not apparently need it or provide good justification? That was the what crystalised my views on Globo.
  3. Look at who else is investing or commenting on the company, e.g. Chris Boxall of Fundamental Asset Management, a very experienced small cap investor, or Paul Scott of Stockopedia who recently said “Quindell, Globo and Carillion were easy to spot a mile off – indeed we warned investors of all 3 long before they blew up. Patisserie Valerie however, appeared to be a wonderful, cash generative business”. Because I follow what others are saying and pay attention, I never invested in Torex Retail and I did not lose money on Globo despite holding some shares until the end. But Patisserie fooled pretty well everyone.
  4. Research the product or service offering. Some people say they were wary because when they visited the shops, they were not busy and did not like the cakes. That was not my experience after a number of visits to different locations.
  5. Read the IPO prospectus for AIM companies. It tells you a lot more than you can read in the Annual Reports and is legally required under AIM rules to be available on their web site.
  6. Invest in steps and not at the IPO so you can build confidence in the company. Private investors have the advantage of being able to do that. After all it’s unusual for frauds to run for years without being discovered by someone – rarely by auditors though. I first invested in Patisserie in 2017 and built up a small holding in stages following the share price momentum. But this was only limited protection and it appears the fraud had been going on for many years at Patisserie.
  7. Have a diversified portfolio so one company can go bust and it does not undermine your overall returns. If you invest in large cap companies which may be less risky, perhaps 10 to 20 shares are sufficient diversification. Throwing in a few investment trusts or other funds will help as they are intrinsically diversified. But if you are investing in AIM shares you need a lot more. By having a large portfolio of shares in terms of numbers of holdings the damage to my portfolio from the administration has been a loss of 0.9% of my portfolio value. That’s less than the portfolio varies from day to day on some days. I have spoken to a number of investors who bet their houses or life savings on one share, e.g. Northern Rock or the Royal Bank of Scotland rights issue. One at least went bankrupt. Don’t be so daft.
  8. Monitor news flow on a company and unusual share price movements. But at Patisserie there was really nothing unusual until the date the shares were suspended.

I hope the above comments help investors to avoid the dogs and complete frauds of the investment world. Some of these avoidance techniques help you to avoid not just outright frauds but general financial mismanagement by company directors.

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

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Bioventix AGM, Babcock Attack and FCA Measures on CFDs

On Thursday (6/12/2018) I attended the Annual General Meeting of Bioventix Plc (BVXP) at Farnham Castle. There were about a dozen ordinary shareholders present. Bioventix develop antibodies for use in blood tests. Their Annual Report contains a very good explanation of the business.

This AIM company had revenue of £7.9 million last year and post-tax profits of £5.6 million. They did that with only 15 staff. Total director pay was £362,000 even though CEO Peter Harrison’s pay went up by 54% – but no shareholders even mentioned that. With consistent growth, good dividends and high return on capital, there’s not much to complain about here.

There is a copy of the last presentation the company gave to investors here: https://www.bioventix.com/investors/overview/ which gives you more information on the company.

I won’t cover the meeting in detail but there were a few points worth mentioning:

Peter explained that the Vitamin D antibody market is “plateauing”, i.e. unlikely to show the same growth as historically. The key product for future revenue growth is their new Troponin test for which there are high hopes, but take-off seems sluggish. This is a marker for heart attacks and is used to check when someone turns up in A&E with chest pains whether they are having a heart attack or some other problem, the former being much more serious of course and needing rapid treatment. The new Troponin test is faster and more accurate which helps speedy and more accurate diagnosis. However adoption of it to replace the older test is slow. This seems to be because hospitals are slow to change their “protocols”. There is also some competition but it is not clear how the company’s product stands against that in terms of sales. It would seem more education and promotion of the new product is required but Bioventix is reliant on the blood-testing machine partner (Siemens) to promote it and it seems there is little financial advantage in doing so to them – the new product is no more expensive than the old. That you might think makes it easy for customers to convert to the new, but also provides little motivation for the supplier to promote. However, NICE and others are promoting the new tests. That’s a summary of what Peter explained to the shareholders with my deductions.

It would certainly be of advantage to patients if the new test was adopted. Might have saved me hanging around in A&E for most of the night a few years back just awaiting confirmation I had not had a heart attack.

There are other antibodies in the R&D pipeline although it can take 5 years from R&D commencement to product sales, even if the product is adopted. All R&D is written off in the year incurred though.

There were questions on cash and special dividends which the company sometimes pays. The business is highly cash-generative but they like to keep about £5 million in cash on the balance sheet and no debt so that they can take up any acquisition or IP opportunities.

On Friday (7/12/2018), there was an interesting article in the Financial Times on the attack on Babcock International (BAB) by Boatman Capital Research – a typical type of attack by an anonymous blogger probably combined with shorting. The article quoted an investor as saying “Boatman made some valid points…..but there were whopping inaccuracies which seemed calculated to drive the share price down”. For example, the article mentioned claims about overruns on a contract to build a dry dock at Devonport – there is no such contract.

Babcock has been trying to find out who Boatman Capital are, but with no success at all. The organisation or its owners cannot be located, and their web site is anonymised. So Babcock cannot even sue the authors. They may well be located overseas in any case which would make it even more difficult. Babcock share price has been falling as a result and is down 20% since the Boatman report was published. See the FT report here: https://www.ft.com/content/c2780d6e-f942-11e8-af46-2022a0b02a6c

Comment (I do not hold Babcock shares): The Boatman report seems to be the usual mixture of a few probable facts, mixed with errors and innuendo as one sees in such shorting attacks. There have been a few examples where such reports did provide very important information but because of the approach the writers of such reports take it is very difficult to deduce whether the content is all true, partially true, or totally erroneous and misguided. The shorter does not care because they can do the damage regardless and turn a profit.

The basic problem is that with the internet it is easy to propagate “fake news” and get it circulated so rapidly that the company cannot respond fast enough, and regulators likewise – the latter typically take months or years to do anything, even if they have a channel they can use. We really need new legislation to stop this kind of market abuse which can just as easily involve going long on a stock as going short. Contracts for Difference (CFDs) are one way to take an interest in a share price without owning the underlying stock and hence are ideal for such market manipulations.

Which brings me on to the next topic. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has announced proposals to restrict the sales of CFDs and Binary Options to retail investors. Most retail investors in CFDs lose money – see my previous comments here on this subject: https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/14/want-to-get-rich-quickly/ . The latest FCA proposals are covered here: https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-proposes-permanent-measures-retail-cfds-and-binary-options

You will note it contains protections to ensure clients cannot lose all their money and positions will be closed out earlier. But leverage can still be up to 30 to 1. The new rules might substantially reduce losses incurred by retail investors, the FCA believes.

But it still looks like a half-baked compromise to me. If the FCA really wants to protect retail investors from their own foolishness, then an outright ban would surely be wiser. At best most CFD purchasers are speculating, not investing, and I cannot see why the FCA should be permitting what is essentially gambling on stock prices. It creates a dubious culture, and the promotion of these products is based on them being a quick way to riches when in reality it’s usually a quick way to become poorer.

You only have to look at the accounts of publicly listed CFD providers to see who is making the money – it’s the providers not the clients. Those companies seem to be mainly saying the new rules won’t have much impact on them. That is shame when they should do and shows how the FCA’s solution is a poor, half-baked compromise.

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

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AJ Bell and FinnCap IPOs

Here are some comments on the IPOs of AJ Bell and FinnCap which are open to private investors  ̶  the former to any of their clients who wish to put in £1,000 or more. The latter can be purchased from the PrimaryBid platform.

Bearing in mind that I have previously said that you should never invest in IPOs (see my comment on Aston Martin which was certainly right as the shares are now down over 20% since IPO here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/09/the-market-dunedin-and-standard-life-smaller-companies-merger-and-aston-martin-ipo/ ), these comments will be reserved in nature. Even the very successful launch of Smithson Investment Trust which went to an initial premium seems to have retraced its steps. But there are exceptions.

One reason why you might wish to buy AJ Bell shares, or at the very least read their prospectus, is if you are a client who uses their Youinvest platform. As we saw with past debacles in stockbrokers, such as the recent events at Beaufort, because investors on such platforms are in nominee accounts it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on their accounts. Being a shareholder means you can go along to their AGMs and ask questions. Investors will be pleased to hear that AJ Bell claim to have a “strong regulatory capital position which is supported by a high Pillar I coverage in excess of approximately 440%”.

The company has 95,000 retail investor customers and 89,000 customers via advisors. All are execution-only clients, i.e. AJ Bell provides no advice. Their average customer account value is higher than most of their big competitors and this is probably because of their historic concentration on SIPP accounts which represent 63% by asset value of their accounts.

Founder Andy Bell is still with the company as CEO after 23 years and will remain. No very specific reasons are given for the IPO – it’s just referred to as a “natural next step”. No new capital is being raised and Andy Bell is selling 10% of his shares in the IPO, which will cut his holding to 25%, but together with related parties (a “Concert Party”) he will still control more than 30% after the IPO. Major shareholder Invesco is also selling a major proportion of their shareholding. No new money is being raised for the company.

The financials look very good in comparison with many platform operators, other than possibly Hargreaves Lansdown who are the gorilla in this market, but the shares are likely to be cheaper than theirs. Share price range will be between £1.54 and £1.66 giving a market cap of over £626 million.

Is it a good time to invest in platform operators whose profits can depend on the volume of share trading and assets under management? Certainly recent volatility might have helped but it is difficult to judge the longer-term trend. But as stockbrokers are highly regulated businesses it’s worth reading the “Risk Factors” and associated warnings in the prospectus. Market trends of an ageing population who may be tending to move their pension funds into SIPPs or have saved in ISAs has no doubt helped AJ Bell in recent years and is likely to continue to do so. This has generated compound growth in numbers of customers at AJ Bell of 24% in the last 7 years.

It’s particularly interesting to read the “asset transfer momentum” table on page 45 of the prospectus. That shows AJ Bell among the top few for transfers in, while Alliance Trust Savings is at the bottom – perhaps Alliance Trust were wise to dispose of it.

I have never heard complaints about the AJ Bell IT platform (they have a proprietary client front-end with “outsourced” software being used for the back-office work), so that bodes well for the future. Although it would be good if they made it easier for investors to vote their shares on their nominee platform which I think was promised but has not arrived.

I think this will be a popular IPO and although the market has been depressed by Brexit worries it might therefore get away easily. But you’ll have to make your own mind up whether it is good or bad value. I repeat my warning about buying IPOs in general – the sellers know more about the business and market trends than you do.

Details of the IPO can be found here: https://www.youinvest.co.uk/markets/ipo/ajbell

As regards FinnCap, they spell it as “finnCap” which rather shows their ignorance of English grammar. The business is a small company corporate broker and AIM Nomad. I hold a number of AIM companies who they act as broker for and they seem to do a competent job on the whole – at least no worse than any other AIM Nomad who operate in a market full of companies with optimistic future growth projections but frequently unrealistic ambitions and unproven management. This is no doubt a business with substantial regulatory risk.

FinnCap are merging with Cavendish Corporate Finance before the IPO. As a very people-dependent business, operating in a cyclical market sector, I am not sure these kinds of companies are ideal to be public companies. Therefore I won’t even attempt to comment on the valuation.

I repeat my warning about investing in IPOs – see above.

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

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Too Much Cash, Wey Education and Patisserie Accounts

Are you stacked up with cash in your ISAs, SIPPs, and direct portfolios? As a dedicated follower of fashion (if the markets are falling as investors sell, then so do I) it is of some concern that the cash is not earning any interest. There was some relatively good news yesterday from soon to be listed A.J.Bell Youinvest. They are increasing the interest they pay on cash held in portfolios. Previously you got 0.05% on balances more than £50,000. It will now be 0.10% above £10,000, 0.15% above £50,000 and 0.25% above £100,000 on SIPPs and similar increases on ISAs and dealing accounts.

But that is still really quite paltry and still not good enough when you can get over 0.2% on even High Street bank deposit accounts and Goldman Sach’s Marcus account is offering 1.5%. Youinvest and other platforms must try harder I suggest to offer fair interest rates. In the meantime, the only option for investors is to take the cash out and deposit it elsewhere or spend it. But moving cash out of ISAs and SIPPs can make it difficult to put back in. The rules on such accounts should surely be changed to permit that more generally because at present it is “anti-competitive”. One option is to transfer your ISA or SIPP to another provider who does provide a better rate of interest on cash holdings, but that is such a tortuous and expensive process at present that it’s not really very practical to do so – at least the FCA is looking at that issue.

Why are investors selling? Apart from panics in certain stocks and sectors, such as the FAANG technology stocks in the USA, the political uncertainty in the UK is surely simply causing investors to take their money off the table. Folks are getting nervous. Reducing exposure to stocks likely to be hit by a hard Brexit or by the risk of a General Election and Labour taking power is a completely rational move. Private investors can do this quite easily while institutional investors apart from hedge funds can be more limited in their ability to do so. Investors in funds don’t like their funds to be holding large amounts of cash and the manager cannot easily move in and out of holdings in size without finding prices move against them.

Wey Education (WEY) is an AIM listed provider of on-line education. It has big ambitions but this morning the company announced that Executive Chairman David Massie has resigned with immediate effect. The cause is continuing health problems after major heart surgery. They also reported trading as “strong” but this will clearly be a major disruption in the short term as Mr Massie was undoubtedly the driving force behind the business of late. It rather highlights the danger of having an Executive Chairman in a company rather than a more conventional board structure. The share price is down 11% at the time of writing. This was one of my “experimental” small holdings where the picture has simply not developed as I hoped – that’s apart from the latest news. One concern here is that the company did not announce the fact that Mr Massie was only working part-time because of his health problems recently – surely this is “price-sensitive” information that should have been issued?

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) have announced an investigation into the audit of the last 3 years accounts of Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) by Grant Thornton. They are also looking into the preparation of the financial statements by the former CFO. With the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and the FCA also involved, the management of the company are going to be spending a lot of time talking to investigators. Let us hope that does not detract too much from putting the company back on a sound basis.

Patisserie has also been accused of failing to declare LTIP share awards to executives including the former CFO. Will there be action on that matter? I wrote a previous blog article on how they do things differently in the USA after the conviction of a former Autonomy executive for fraud – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/05/02/they-do-things-differently-in-the-usa/ . They also do things differently in Japan where Carlos Ghosn, Chairman of Nissan, has been arrested for misreporting his pay. Allegedly he actually received over $88 million over the last five years but only half was reported in their accounts. It is surely true that the UK is really quite “soft” on corporate misdemeanors of all kinds when it should be a lot tougher.

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

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Johnston Press, TrakM8 and Brexit

Over the weekend, Johnston Press (JPR) was put into administration and immediately sold to a new group of companies controlled by the company’s bondholders. In other words this looks like a typical “pre-pack” administration where a company does not go through a proper administration process with an open sales process but is flogged off to in a fire sale to those who already know the business and see an opportunity to collect a bargain.

Trade creditors will lose their money, shareholders will lose everything and the pension scheme is being dumped – and is likely to need bailing out by the Pension Protection Fund.

One investor in the company who wished to revive the business was Norwegian Mr Ager-Hanssen who on Saturday accused the board of thwarting efforts to turn the group around and a “sham” sales process. He is probably right from my experience of what happens in pre-pack administrations. Pre-pack administrations are an anathema as I have said many times before as they undermine a proper process when a company is in difficulties.

Johnston Press does have some very valuable media titles such as the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post but had managed to accumulate an enormous amount of debt by going on an acquisition spree. It also had a big pension deficit. The company put itself up for sale recently but now states that the offers were insufficient to repay the bonds so the company has concluded the equity is worthless. Or perhaps it was simply an example of where the prospective buyers could see it was cheaper to do it via a pre-pack.

I have never held shares in Johnston Press although I looked at it a few times as a possible “value” play. But high debt is a killer when the market in which a company operates is facing strategic problems. With newspaper circulations dropping, and advertising revenue being impacted by changes to media usage – particularly a move to internet advertising – the company failed to cut its debt rapidly enough while revenue was falling and profits disappeared.

Another disaster area on Friday was AIM-listed Trakm8 (TRAK) whose shares fell by 66% on the day to a new low of 22p. This was after publication of their half-year results and a trading statement. Group revenue fell by 38% and a very large loss was the result. The company provided numerous excuses for this and a very negative short-term outlook. But it suggests the market for the company’s solutions “will be robust in the longer term”. Anyone who believes the latter statement must be an eternal optimist.

I did hold this company’s shares briefly in early 2016 when it was the darling of many private investors and the share price peaked at over 360p but I rapidly became disillusioned with the management. Peculiar acquisitions made subsequently, poor cash flow (rather suggesting profits were a mirage of fancy accounting) and generally over-optimistic statements being issued. Warren Buffett has always emphasised the importance of trust in the management of companies in which he invests, and when I lose trust I sell in short order.

Brexit is a topic one can hardly avoid talking about at present. I gave my personal analysis of the draft withdrawal agreement here (yes I have read it): https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/16/brexit-agreement-is-it-a-fair-deal/ . On reflection it seems to me that Mrs May is attempting to meet the demands of both brexiteers and remainers with a compromise deal that keeps us partly in the EU in many regards. The result is that she has pleased few people – the right wing of her own party, the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn who is stirring the pot like mad to gain political advantage, the DUP who May relies on for votes, and many others. Even her cabinet seems split counting only those who remain. The concept of the “chequers” plan might have made some sense, but the detail of the proposed agreement is simply not acceptable to many people. I suggest she needs to reconsider, sooner rather than later.

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

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ShareSoc Seminar, new Patisserie CEO and Brexit

I attended the ShareSoc AGM and Company Presentations Seminar last night. The AGM was routine but a couple of points are worth noting: 1) Total membership increased to almost 4,000 in 2017 and I gather it has increased further since – partly from the Beaufort campaign; 2) Lord Lee, a well-known writer for the FT on small cap stocks, has become “Patron”. Anyone reading this who has not yet become a full, subscribing Member of ShareSoc should do so because they do an enormous amount of good work for investors.

As regards the company presentations, here is some brief coverage of the first three:

Ilika (IKA): This company produces solid-state batteries which have advantages over other battery types for certain applications. I first saw this company present to investors a couple of years ago. Revenue is creeping up but losses still exceed revenue. As last time, there seem to be some business opportunities but major revenue growth and profits do not appear to be likely in the short term. They might have interesting technology but can they sell it at a profit and in volume? Until they can prove this, I don’t think it’s a company in which I will consider investing.

Pelatro (PTRO): This company provides marketing software to telecoms companies. The company was only incorporated in January 2017 and listed on AIM in December of that year. They did a placing to raise more funds in August 2017. It’s clearly early days yet but revenue is forecast to grow rapidly. The CEO was a glib and fast talker which somewhat put me off, but he did explain the business reasonably well. This is definitely one I will do more research on. The AIM prospectus is of course available on their web site which is always worth reading for newish listings. However, attempting to print their last Annual Report caused Internet Explorer to hang twice, which is somewhat annoying.

Forbidden Technologies (FBT): This company provides technology to edit and manage videos using a proprietary codec. At least that is so far as I could understand it. The company has been listed on AIM for years but has been consistently loss making and revenue last year was still less than £1 million. There were a couple of existing disgruntled shareholders in the audience. The company came across as having some interesting technology but no very clear focus on who they were going to sell it to, what the USP was, what the competitors are, etc. Was it to be sold to major platform operators, or consumers? Looks like a typical company founded by technologists who don’t have strengths in sales and marketing – a very typical UK story. I could not see that the outlook will change because the presenters could not even sell the company to investors.

Perhaps I am being harsh on Ilika and Forbidden Technologies. But technology companies and their managers do need to learn that there is more to business than having a good idea and some bright technical staff.

The interesting news today was that Patisserie Holdings (CAKE) CEO Paul May has departed and a new CEO with a CV as long as your arm on “turnarounds” has been appointed with immediate effect. It’s hardly surprising that Paul May has left. The previous CFO went promptly after the alleged fraud was discovered but internal systems seem to have been very lax with the CEO not knowing about winding-up petitions and bank overdrafts. I hope he will be returning the bonus shares he obtained based on the false accounts.

Incidentally there will be a discussion on Patisserie at the Mello London event run by David Stredder on the 26th November – see http://melloevents.com/mello-london/ . The Mello events are always interesting for investors in small cap companies.

Brexit

One reader of my blog suggested that politics was off topic for this blog and I should stick to investment matters. But the blog does cover wider issues occasionally including economics, politics, corporate governance, management, transport, art, London events and other issues. Yes I do have a very broad range of interests! But Brexit is so key to the future financial health of the UK economy, and hence to investors in it, that it would be remiss not to cover it to some degree. No doubt that it is the reason why the Financial Times goes on about it endlessly.

Now I think the best comment on the current position was given in this tweet by my M.P., Bob Neill: “With all respect to some of my colleagues, pontificating about the draft deal Theresa May has secured before they have even read the text does not do justice to the seriousness of the issues at stake. The country deserves better than that and any proposals deserve a fair hearing.

I am therefore going to defer comments myself in detail until I have read the whole 585 pages of the draft withdrawal agreement and a couple of associated documents. You can find them here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/progress-on-the-uks-exit-from-and-future-relationship-with-the-european-union . I will also listen to what Mrs May has to say and other intelligent commentators before coming to any conclusions.

Although I am keen on many aspects of Brexit and hope it can be achieved without too much in the way of compromises, and with a practical solution, we certainly should not rush into any decision on the matter. This is not the time for emotion, or grandstanding.

Anyone who has read the whole 585 pages of the draft withdrawal agreement is welcome to post some comments on this blog of course. There’s a challenge for you!

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

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Persimmon Departure, Abcam AGM and Over-boarding

Persimmon (PSN) issued an announcement this morning saying that CEO Jeff Fairburn was stepping down at the request of the company because “the Board believes that the distraction around his remuneration from the 2012 LTIP scheme continues to have a negative impact on the reputation of the business and consequently on Jeff’s ability to continue in his role”. They are undoubtedly right there.

To remind readers, their misconceived and uncapped LTIP potentially would have meant bonus shares being awarded to Mr Fairburn worth well over £100 million, and similar large sums to other managers. Part of the potential award was later given up but even so it was the most disgraceful example of how pay has been ramped up by LTIPs in recent years. Another example at Abcam (ABC) is covered below.

Persimmon also issued a third quarter trading statement today which was generally positive. They clearly have a good forward committed sales pipeline and the extension of the help-to-buy scheme was positive news in the budget. But I am still somewhat nervous that the housebuilding market may suffer as interest rates rise. New houses are becoming unaffordable for many people despite the demand for accommodation and growing population.

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Abcam. This is a company that sells antibodies and other life science products/services. It is operating in a high growth sector. I first invested in the shares of the company in 2006 and it has delivered a compound total return of over 32% per annum to me since based on Sharescope figures. I am therefore happy with the financial performance of the business as I said to the board at the AGM. That’s even allowing for recent declines in the share price as analyst forecasts were reduced and general market malaise affected high-flying technology stocks. But I am very unhappy about two aspects: 1) failure to answer simple questions at the AGM, which is the second time in a week where this problem has arisen (the previous being Patisserie); and 2) the remuneration scheme and revised LTIP.

What follows is a report on the meeting, summarised and paraphrased for brevity. The meeting was held at the company’s Cambridge offices at 2.00 pm, but not even a cup of tea was offered.

The recently appointed new Chairman, Peter Allen, introduced the board and there was then a very brief presentation from CEO Alan Hirzel. He said there were between £5 billion and £8 billion of opportunities for the company to grow which they were focused on. They had doubled revenue in the last 5 years, at 11.5% CAGR. There were lots of opportunities to continue to grow the business. They are now focused on 4 areas: 1) RUO Antibodies which are still growing; 2) Immunoassays where growth was 25% last year; 3) China for RUO tools (China could be as big a market as the USA in a few years and they now have 300 people there and are putting more investment in); and 4) CP&L (Abcam Inside). He said the company needs to invest in technology and IT to achieve their growth goals.

Questions were then invited. I commented on the absolutely massive expenditure on new IT systems. They have spent at least £33 million on the Oracle implementation with another £16 million to go and the project is clearly way behind schedule. This level of costs has even caused analysts to downgrade future profit forecasts. As the former IT manager of a large public company, this seemed disproportionate to me in relation to the size of the business. However much one recognises that IT is the key to the business, this looks like a typical project that is way out of control. Who is responsible for this, are they still with the company, who are the outside contractors and what is the current state of this project?

The Chairman first responded that any answers to shareholder questions could only relate to information already in the public domain. This is simply legally wrong and I will be writing to him on this subject and the other issues below.

However Alan Hirzel did respond and accepted the IT project was over budget and covered the history of the project. It was essential to replace some of the legacy systems which were unmaintainable. Many had been built in-house (even an email system apparently) and they had multiple different HR systems in different countries. HR was the first project completed (partner Hitachi as systems integrator) followed by a communication system (part CRM perhaps – it was not clear) but finance and supply chain (manufacturing) projects were yet to be done. He said the CIO had been replaced and a new system integration partner appointed. He assured me that the project was under control now.

I asked who the new IT contractor was, at which point the Chairman refused to answer as that was not in the public domain. I complained that this was a breach of company law as questions must be answered unless there are good reasons to do otherwise. For example, answers can be refused if it is confidential information, not in the company’s interests to do so or may affect the good order of the meeting. The relevant Regulation is here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/1632/pdfs/uksi_20091632_en.pdf (see Section 12).

I can see no reason why my question could not be answered as I said to the Chairman and to their lawyer, neither of whom seemed to be aware of the Regulations or the common law principle about answering questions at general meetings. The Chairman also suggested that they could not disclose some information because they would have to issue an RNS announcement to cover it. This of course only applies to “price sensitive” information and I don’t see how knowing who their IT contractor is would be price sensitive. Very annoying and feeble excuses were being given in essence from someone who is supposed to be a very experienced company Chairman. This is the second time in a week (the other was at Patisserie) where the law on answering questions was ignored which is exceedingly annoying.

After that debate, which I will be following up including with a complaint to the FCA as it is not acceptable for companies to ignore the law, we moved on to the Remuneration Resolutions.

I said the following: “Remuneration also seems to be out of control. Although the CEO seems to be generally doing a good job, his pay last year was £1.8 million. This is also out of proportion to the revenue and profitability of the business. Not only that but his basic pay has been increased by 22%, and the maximum award under the LTIP increased from 150% to 400% of base salary. This is obscene and totally unnecessary. Such highly geared schemes promote risky behaviour as we saw with bankers in the financial crash of 2008. I always vote against remuneration policies where the maximum award under LTIPs is more than 100% of base salary and I will be doing the same here. I encourage my fellow shareholders to do likewise”.

There was a response from Louise Patten, chair of the Remuneration Committee to the effect that they could be “traduced” for underpaying rather than overpaying (“criticised” I think she meant). A review had shown that the CEO was underpaid in comparison with market rates in the sector. The LTIP was only a temporary measure as a new policy would be adopted in 3 years’ time.

I also asked whether they had received representations on the subject of remuneration from proxy advisory services and fund managers. She indicated there had been but mainly focused on other issues than the LTIP (in fact they got only 67.1% FOR the Remuneration Report, and 86.7% for the Remuneration Policy which are very low numbers). I said I had no objection to an increase in base pay if justified, but the LTIP was an example of how pay is ratcheting up and it sets a very bad precedent that other companies will follow to have a 400% bonus maximum. I have of course argued with Ms Patten before on the remuneration schemes at this company to no effect, so I chose to vote against her and her two colleagues on the Remuneration Committee but she still collected most of the proxy votes. No other shareholders in the meeting, other than my son Alex who holds the shares also, voted against the remuneration resolutions or the directors which rather demonstrates that when shareholders are happy with a company’s financial performance, they will vote for anything.

There were few other questions from shareholders at the meeting, but after the formal part had finished I asked the Chairman why he only managed to achieve 79.6% of votes in support of his appointment. He said this was because of complaints of “over-boarding”, i.e. that he had too many roles. In fact he has 4 other Chairman roles and one other non-executive directorship which I certainly think is too many and is contrary to ShareSoc’s guidelines. He argued that it was no problem and he did not agree with the current attitude of some proxy advisory services. I disagreed. The duties of directors are more onerous than ever, particularly if the job is to be done properly. Even small difficulties at a company can create a lot of extra work. One of course only has to look at Patisserie Holdings and their recent difficulties where Luke Johnson had lots of other commitments and failed to pick up what appears to be a massive fraud executed by the finance director. Peter Allen seems to think that all he has to do is turn up for a few board meetings each year, let the executive directors get on with business and do not much else. But Abcam is becoming a large company where the Chairman’s role is much more significant than that.

I voted against the Chairman anyway because I think Chairman should be familiar with company law and how to handle questions at meetings. Good ones do of course know how to answer questions without giving out sensitive information or avoiding direct answers but it is certainly not good for the Chairmen to start an argument with a shareholder in a meeting on any subject. Some Chairmen need to take a lesson in how to handle awkward folks like me who are not easily ignored.

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

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