Abcam, Pay and Voting

As a long-standing shareholder in Abcam (ABC), I have just received the Annual Report and I am not happy.

Abcam rather surprised the market when they issued their preliminary results which showed a massive investment in a new Oracle IT system was in difficulties. Clearly the project is over-budget and over-schedule. Costs are ramping up in other areas also and the result was a lowered broker forecast and an instant collapse in the share price – down over 30% at one point on the day. It’s been recovering since but it certainly looked like a case of mismanagement of the IT function. As a former IT manager of a large public company, I have seen this kind of thing before so I am none too impressed. Massive commitments to a big-bang approach to a new IT system which is sold on the basis that it will solve all your problems, but rarely does. So that will be one thing to raise at the AGM which I plan to attend.

But remuneration will be another issue to be questioned. The CEO, Alan Hirzell, seems to be doing a good job but his pay last year was £1.8 million. The company is now proposing a new Remuneration Policy which will increase the maximum potential LTIP award from 150% to 400%. In my view this is outrageously generous – I normally vote against any bonus scheme that awards more than 100% of salary as it promotes risky behaviour of the worst kind as we saw in the financial crisis with banker’s bonuses. The CFO will also get an LTIP with a maximum 200% bonus. Although there will be performance targets the justification given is that it will “promote the underlying philosophy of share ownership among our Executive Directors and reward the sustainable delivery of long-term profitable growth”. Hogwash is my comment.

So I will be voting against Louise Patten who is Chair of the Remuneration Committee as I did last year, and against her two colleagues, Mara Aspinall and Sue Harris who also have too many “roles” at other organisations in my view – contrary to ShareSoc guidelines. Also I will be voting against the new Chairman, Peter Allen, who should know better than to allow this kind of pay package to go forward. Plus I will be voting against the Remuneration Report and Remuneration Policy recommendations. In addition, there is a resolution to approve a change to the 2015 Share Option Plan for staff which permits nil-cost awards which seems unjustified so a vote against that also.

Note that they are also introducing a new all-employee share purchase plan which is not even being put to shareholders – not required under AIM rules they say.

Incidentally Louise Patten has an interesting career history. To quote from Wikipedia “In 2006 she started as a non-executive director of Marks & Spencer plc. As chairman of the Remuneration Committee, she was responsible for approving a bonus scheme which was criticised for making it easier for executive directors to change the associated growth targets”. She was also a non-executive director of Bradford & Bingley when the company failed and was nationalised in 2008. There may be more interesting information that I could not see because in Google a search for “Louise Patten” retrieves only a few entries with the statement “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe”.

I suggest other shareholders vote against the aforementioned resolutions likewise.

But it is easy to vote if you are on the register of the company and have been sent a proxy voting form. Equiniti, the company’s registrar, do provide an easy on-line voting system unlike other registrars, although for some peculiar reason they do not advertise the fact this year. All you need is the three numbers on the voting card and you can vote here: https://www.shareview.co.uk/views2/asp/VoteLogin.asp . No need to register or remember your log-in and password – just vote. As I said to a Link Asset Services representative at another AGM last week, why don’t they provide a simple system like that? They just wish to collect email addresses in my view by having people register and there is no security issue as they claim as it’s very unlikely that anyone would intercept the proxy voting card.

Registrars do need regulating by the FCA in my view, as I have said before, to put a stop to this kind of nonsense.

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

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Horizon Discovery – Ripe For Some Activism?

Horizon Discovery Group (HZD) announced their interim results this morning. Still not making any profits although the EBITDA losses improved “before exceptional items”, i.e. before depreciation and amortisation which they prefer to ignore.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, this is one of my speculations in the field of gene biotechnology. In this mornings’ announcement the new CEO said: “In light of this rapid change, and since my appointment as CEO, we have taken the opportunity to refresh our five-year strategic plan. Horizon is uniquely positioned to capitalise on rapidly growing market demand through our scientific and commercial leadership. With limited direct competition, Horizon has strong prospects for growth and is moving swiftly to capitalise on these opportunities. Our goals remain ambitious:  to harness the power of the cell in order to be the ‘go to’ provider of IP-rich cell engineering solutions and to establish leadership positions in our key markets, based on a highly scalable and repeatable business model.”

Sounds like they are going to spend more cash, whereas I suggested previously that this is one company that might be nearing profitability in this sector. I also attended the last AGM of Horizon in June and it was clear to me then that this was a company that could be turned profitable very easily (see blog report here on that: https://roliscon.blog/2018/06/19/horizon-discovery-agm-and-chrysalis-vct/ ).

The company also received a tentative bid from Abcam not long ago which they rejected as undervaluing the business.

The interesting thing is that the FT reported today that activist investor ValueAct had acquired another 5% of the company (they already held 5%) from Woodford Investment Management. Between these two companies they now hold 28% of the shares. Although ValueAct may be one of the less aggressive activist investors, it does suggest that change might be afoot.

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

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Brexit, Abcam, Victoria and the Beaufort Case

Another bad day for my portfolio yesterday after a week of bad days last week when I was on holiday. Some of the problems relate to the rise in the pound based on suggestions by Michel Barnier that there might actually be a settlement of Brexit along the lines proposed by Theresa May. This has hit all the companies with lots of exports and investment trusts with big holdings in dollar investments that comprise much of my portfolio. But a really big hit yesterday was Abcam (ABC).

Abcam issued their preliminary results yesterday morning. When I first read it, it seemed to be much as expected. Adjusted earnings per share up 27.1%, dividend up 17.1% and broker forecasts generally met. The share price promptly headed downhill and dropped as much as 32%, which is the kind of drop you see on a major profit warning, before recovering to a drop of 15.2% at the end of the day.

I re-read the announcement more than once without being able to identify any major issues or hidden messages that could explain this drop. The announcement did mention more investment in the Oracle ERP system, in a new office and other costs but those projects were already known about. Indeed I covered them in the last blog post I wrote about the previous Abcam AGM where I was somewhat critical of the rising costs (see https://roliscon.blog/2017/11/15/abcam-agm-cambridge-cognition-ultra-electronics-wey-education-and-idox/ ). The Oracle project is clearly over-budget and running behind schedule. A lot of these costs are being capitalised so they disappear from the “adjusted” figures.

The killer to the share price appears to have been comments from Peel Hunt that the extra costs will reduce adjusted earnings by 9% based on reduced margins. The preliminary results announcement did suggest that the adjusted EBITDA margin would likely be 36% as against the 37.8% that was actually reported for last year. Revenue growth of 11% is expected for the current year so even at the reduced margin that still means profits will grow by about 5%. That implies only a slight reduction in adjusted e.p.s. on my calculations which implies a prospective p/e of about 34. That may be acceptable for such a high-quality company with an enviable track record (which is why it is one of my larger holdings) but perhaps investors suddenly realised that the previous rating was too high and vulnerable to a change of sentiment. That realisation seems to be affecting many highly rated go-go growth stocks at present.

The excessive IT project costs are of concern but if the management considered that such investment (£33 million to date) was necessary I think I’ll take their word on it for the present. At least the implementation of the remaining modules is being done on a phased approach which suggests some consideration has been given to controlling the costs in the short term.

I attended the AGM of another of my holdings yesterday – Victoria (VCP). They manufacture flooring products such as carpets, tiles, underlay and also distribute synthetic flooring products (I think that means laminates etc). There was a big bust-up at this company back in 2012 in which I was involved. The company was loss making at the time but some major shareholders decided they wanted a change or management and lined up Geoff Wilding who is now Executive Chairman. After an argument over his generous remuneration scheme and several general meetings, it was finally settled. After meeting Geoff I decided he knew more about the carpet business and what was wrong with the company than the previous management and therefore backed him – a wise decision as it turned out. Since then, with aggressive use of debt, he has done a great job of expanding the business by acquisition and this has driven the share price up from 25p to 760p. Needless to say shareholders are happy, but there were only about half a dozen at the AGM in London.

I’ll cover some of the key questions raised, and the answers, in brief. I asked about the rise in administration costs. This arises from the acquisitions and investment in the management team apparently. I also questioned the high amortisation of acquisition intangibles which apparently relates to customer relationships capitalised but was assured this was not abnormal. This is one of those companies, a bit like Abcam, where the “adjusted” or “underlying” figures differ greatly to the “reported” numbers so one has to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is happening. It can be easier to just look at the cash flow.

Incidentally the company still has a large amount of debt because that has been raised to finance acquisitions in addition to the use of equity placings. In response to another question it was stated that the policy is to maintain net debt to EBITDA at a ratio of no more than 2.5 to 3 times. But earnings accretion is an important factor.

Geoff spent a few minutes outlining his approach to acquisitions and their integration which was most revealing. He talked a lot of sense. He will never ever buy a failing company. He wants to buy good companies with enthusiastic management. Thereafter he acts as a coach and wants to avoid disrupting the culture. He said a lot of acquisitions fail as people try to change everything wholesale. One shareholder suggestion this was leading to a “rambling empire” but the CEO advised otherwise.

The impact of Brexit was raised, particularly as there is nothing in the Annual Report on the subject. Were there any contingency plans? Geoff replied that if it is messy it will help Victoria as a lot of carpet is made on the continent and a fall in sterling will also help. He suggested they have lower operational gearing than many people think but obviously they might be affected by changing customer confidence. The CEO said that Brexit is on his “opportunity list”, not his “problem list”.

A question arose about the level of short selling in the stock which seems to have driven down the share price of late. Geoff suggested this was a concerted effort by certain hedge funds but he was confident the share price will recover.

Clearly Geoff Wilding is a key person in this company so the question arose about his future ambitions. He expects to do 2, 3 or 4 acquisitions per year and life would be simpler if he didn’t do so many. He tends to live out of a suitcase at present. But he still hopes to be leading the company in 5 year’s time.

In summary this was a useful meeting and I wish I had purchased more shares years ago but was somewhat put off by the debt levels.

Lastly, there was a very interesting article by Mark Bentley on the Beaufort case in the latest ShareSoc newsletter (if you are not a member already, please join as it covers many important topics for private investors). It seems that the possible “shortfall” in assets was only 0.1% of the claimed assets with only three client accounts unreconciled. But administrators PWC and lawyers Linklaters are racking up millions of pounds in fees when the client assets could have been transferred to other brokers in no time at all and at minimal cost. An absolute disgrace in essence. Be sure you encourage the Government, via your M.P., to reform the relevant legislation to stop this kind of gravy train in future.

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

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All Change at Intercede, and Drug Development Costs

An interesting announcement this morning was the news that founder Richard Parris is losing his role as Executive Chairman at Intercede Group (IGP). He is stepping down to the role of Non-Executive Director and they are looking for a new CEO.

The company operates in the digital identity area. I once held quite a few shares in it but became disillusioned with the leadership some years ago and the company’s remuneration arrangements, so I now only have a nominal holding. For a company with interesting technology in a hot sector, it has a disappointing financial track record. Slow growth and lumpy sales, and consistent losses in recent years.

It is surely good news that Mr Parris is stepping down, although the share price has fallen today at the time of writing. He and his wife do hold quite a significant proportion of the shares. Let us hope the new management is able to make this company a world beater after all – it seems to have suffered the problem of many UK technology companies in failing to develop a sales and marketing strategy to turn good technology into market leadership.

I spent an interesting day on Wednesday meeting with Professor Jonathan Barratt at Leicester University. He is researching IgA Nephropathy, a disease that can lead to kidney damage and ultimately the need for a kidney transplant (as in my case). It included a tour of the labs and attending a lecture he gave on the subject which was most interesting. It’s a worthy cause if any investors have surplus cash after the recent stock market rout as Prof. Barratt and his team are making significant progress. Remember there are tax benefits from charitable donations.

One of the things Prof. Barratt mentioned was the enormous cost of drug development. According to the Tufts Centre, they suggested the cost was $2.6 billion in 2016 to get a drug to the FDA approved stage. One can see why relatively rare diseases do not get a lot of interest from drug companies, particularly those like IgA Nephropathy where the progression of the disease can be so slow that clinical trials take years to complete. I also now know exactly why I don’t invest in drug development companies, where the chance of success and obtaining a good financial return is so low.

But one aspect that Prof Barratt is working on is the possibility of improved diagnosis by using blood tests based on antibodies to identify the disease at an early stage which might assist with prevention. This is an area where I am invested though with holdings in Abcam (ABC) and Bioventix (BVCP). The latter produced some unexpectedly good interim results due to one of their customers identifying some royalties due that had not previously been reported. But even without that the figures were good.

One important future revenue stream for Bioventix is a troponin test which is a marker for heart attacks. This might speed up the diagnosis of chest pain. That is important if you arrive in A&E with severe chest pain as there can be many other causes although doctors often focus on that to the exclusion of problems such as gall stones or gall bladder infections which I was once told were more common. Delayed or misdiagnosis is obviously a major issue here that the new test might prevent.

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

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Abcam AGM, Cambridge Cognition, Ultra Electronics, Wey Education and IDOX

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Abcam (ABC) in Cambridge as I often do as I have held the stock since 2006. Share price then (adjusted for consolidation) was about 50p and it’s now about 950p so I like most investors in the company, I am happy. Alex Lawson will be doing a full write-up of the meeting for ShareSoc so I will only cover a few points herein.

One shareholder expressed concern about the rising costs. The company is clearly making heavy investments in new infrastructure and more management. Although revenue was up 26.5% last year, earnings per share were only up 11.8% (unadjusted) and operating margin has been falling. Also Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) has been falling – only 12.3% last year when it used to be in the high teens.

Apart from opening a new building next year, they are implementing an Oracle Cloud software solution to replace their historic purpose-built legacy software systems. The total cost of that project is £44 million (see page 23 of the Annual Report) when profits last year were only £42 million post tax. In other words, all of last years profits could be taken to be consumed by this project. This project has been running for some time and I have asked questions about it in previous years. This year I asked: “is the project on schedule and on budget”. I did not get a straight answer. But it was said that initial cost estimates have expanded, and additional modules been added (for example warehouse management). It should “go live” in the current financial year. From those and other comments made, I got the impression that this is a typical IT project that is too ambitious and costs are escalating while delays have arisen. Those “big bang” IT projects rarely go according to plan, but management are often suckers for them.

Now it may be arguable that older systems need replacing (for example, the CEO mentioned it was impossible to bill in Swiss francs that at least one customer would prefer), and maintaining old code was clearly proving to be difficult. The massive investment in this area alone may be justified by the company’s ambitions to “double the 2016 scale by 2023 by investing in operating capabilities” as the CEO mentioned. The expectation is that growth will improve revenues and hence margins in due course.

One more way that costs have been rising is increased pay for management. CEO’s pay alone up from £614k to £1,378k in the last year (“single figure remuneration). In addition, I commented negatively on the fact that the LTIP target had been adjusted for the “scale and complexity of the transformational programme” of the new ERP system implementation, i.e. costs are much higher than expected so the LTIP target has been made easier to achieve!

At least Louise Patten (acting Chairman now after departure of Murray Hennesey for a proper job, and Chair of the Remuneration Committee) admitted later that LTIPs are often problematic but institutions like them. LTIPs at Abcam have rarely paid out, and management at many companies seem not to value them highly. There are better bonus scheme alternatives.

I also spoke briefly to a representative of Equiniti, the company’s registrar, about the difficulty of voting electronically. He is to look into it. Amusing to see the company slogan on his business card is “Our mission is making complex things simple”, exactly the opposite of my experience!

In the morning I also visited Cambridge Cognition (COG) who have offices in the village of Bottisham east of Cambridge. Although their offices are in what appear to be wooden huts, they are well furbished. The company specialises in cognitive health (brain function). Sixty per cent of its revenue comes from clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies, thirty per cent from research institutes and academia and ten per cent from healthcare and consulting.

On clinical trials they do about 15 deals a year so by their nature they are lumpy one-off deals. Total revenue was £6.8 million last year. Before last year revenue was flat but it grew last year and is forecast to grow this year.

A lot of pharma companies are actively researching alzheimers and other degenerative brain diseases, and developing products to assist – as the population ages such diseases are becoming more prevalent. Cambridge Cognition’s technology relies on historically well validated studies. The company provides a lot of consulting support in clinical trial sales.

Such deals include 30 to 40% of software which is billed and paid for on normal 30+ days terms, with the services paid for as provided. One issue that arose is that their accountants are likely to require them to change so as to allocate the software revenue over future periods due to IFRS 15 because they host the software. This is the same problem that Rolls-Royce have tripped up on, and it is also an issue at Ultra Electronics (ULE) according to a report in the FT yesterday. That company also issued a profit warning on Monday and the share price fell 19.5% on the day. I used to hold it but not of late. The FT writer suggested it was time to “exit”. Cambridge Cognition did suggest though that they would not need to restate last years accounts, and the change might actually smooth their revenue figures. IFRS 15 is an important correction to historic aggressive revenue recognition policies in some companies.

Otherwise Cambridge Cognition have some interesting technology – for example using smart watches to monitor brain function during the day, and using speech recognition to perform analysis. Whether these can be turned into profitable markets remains to be seen. One of the original ideas in the company was to provide their software on i-Pads for general practitioners to use in diagnosis but that never took off due to changes in purchasing arrangements in the NHS who of course are notoriously difficult to sell to (and budgets of late for technology seem to have been cut). If anyone wants more background on Cambridge Cognition you are welcome to contact me.

A few weeks ago I purchased a minute number of shares in Wey Education (WEY). Minute because although it looks an interesting business I thought the share price was way too high on any sensible fundamental view. This morning the company announced a share placing to make an acquistion. This will be at 22p which is a 33.3% discount to the price on the 14th November according to the company. Clearly advisors and institutions took the same view as me on the previous share price. Has the share price collapsed this morning as a result? It’s down but not by much so far. Wey Education does look like one to monitor (which is why I bought a few shares) but I think I’ll stand back from the speculation for the present while the market is so twitchy.

This looks like one of those hot technology stocks that are all the rage of late (the company provides education over the internet as an alternative to school attendance). But investors are clearly getting more nervous about many of those stocks in the last few days – it’s no longer “keep buying on momentum” as some share prices have fallen back from their peaks (Abcam is one example), so it’s now sell, sell, sell. And if a company indicates that the outcome for the year will not be as good as the optimistic broker forecasts suggest, as IDOX did mid-afternoon yesterday, then the share price gets hammered. Announcements mid-afternoon of this nature are never a good idea. Interesting to note that Richard Kellett-Clarke is to remain on the board after all as a non-executive. He was previously CEO. That might inspire more confidence in the business as these kinds of hiccups did not occur during his regime.

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

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Abcam, Voting and Non-Executives

I am a long-standing holder of Abcam (ABC) and have been very happy with my investment – a compound annual return of 33% p.a. since I first purchased the shares in 2006 according to Sharescope. But the notice of this year’s AGM (to be held in Cambridge as normal) has made me unhappy for other reasons.

Firstly, I tried to vote. Rather than use the paper proxy voting form (I am on the register so I get one) I thought it would be easy to do so electronically using the Equiniti ShareVote service. Even though there were no obvious instructions on the paperwork, I found the web site, entered the required three pieces of id information, and pressed submit. But it would not accept it because I have a pop-up blocker turned on. Grrr…..

Why do companies and their registrars make it so difficult to vote? They will be wasting money now because I will use the pre-paid voting card instead.

I then studied the resolutions:

  • Remuneration too high and the usual horribly complex mix of bonuses and LTIPs – but I told them that at the 2015 AGM. The only saving grace is that as an AIM company they don’t need to disclose all the information or have a vote on it, so it was good of them to do so. But I will be voting against the Remuneration Report.
  • What also attracted my attention is the presence of three non-executive directors (other than the former CEO) who are all women. One is the Chair of the Remuneration Committee so she gets a vote against for that reason alone. But all three have numerous other jobs/roles which exceed the ShareSoc guidelines and some seem to have little relevant experience of the markets in which Abcam operates. So I am voting against all three. Now I know that experienced female non-executives to fill public company boards are in short supply now that everyone wants to be “gender” balanced, so such ladies can line up numerous jobs with ease. But this is simply not good enough.

This is of course the result of the “box ticking” syndrome to keep the institutional shareholders and proxy voting advisors happy. But no non-executive director can do a good job if they have more than 4 or 5 positions.

I think I will have to attend the AGM again this year to make some of the above points.

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

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