Blancco AGM and Regulatory Landscape

Today I attended the Annual General Meeting of Blancco Technology Group (BLTG). This technology company is now focused on the data erasure market which is surely a growing one. I have commented on this company before (see links below), particularly as the company, and its shareholders, seemed to be a victim of false accounting – an issue that is way too prevalent of late.

The legal framework under which companies, their directors and the regulatory bodies operate just seems to be too weak to bring errant directors and auditors to account. This is not just obvious from this case but from the discussions at the recent ShareSoc/UKSA sponsored meeting with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). See my previous comments on the Autonomy case in addition. As you will see below, no action seems to be being taken against the former directors of Blancco by the company, although complaints have been made to the FRC and to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about past events and the latter may still be investigating – but as usual feedback is non-existent. As regards the complaint to the FRC, they have passed the buck to the ICAEW (the regulatory body for accountants) on the basis that it is too small a company to be bothered with.

There were about a dozen shareholders at the Blancco AGM in the City of London. The Chairman, Rob Woodwood, opened the meeting by introducing the board. That included new CEO Matt Jones who joined in March and new CFO Adam Maloney. Rob said the last year was a period of positive change for the company, which one can hardly dispute. He said after a turbulent year, they are on a positive track.

Shareholder Bruce Noble, first queried comments on the impact of currency movements (see page 9 of the Annual Report). The CFO admitted it could perhaps have been explained better.

Bruce then pointed out that the report made it clear that management controls had been avoided in the past as a result of which the accounts were false. This resulted in the management obtaining £400,000 and shareholders losing £135 million. The board responded that investigations were on-going and as result they were unable to comment about what is being done due to “legal privilege”. Both Bruce and I complained that we did not understand that comment, and I said that they were in breach of their legal obligations to answer questions put by shareholders at a General Meeting (see my past articles on similar issues at Abcam and Patisserie). As usual they refused to respond further due to “legal advice” so I suggested they should get better advice.

As I said to the Chairman after the meeting ended, we don’t expect him to disclose their conversations with the FCA or FRC, but there is no reason why they cannot pursue a civil case against the former management if there are justifiable grounds. They need to give reasons if they choose not to do so and simply saying they wish to concentrate on rebuilding the business is not good enough. I suggested I would be voting against his re-election in future (not on the agenda at this meeting) if he failed to take action on this matter.

The above is an abbreviated summary of what was a rather long discussion on this issue.

Bruce Noble also criticised the proposed re-election of Frank Blin, who was Chairman of the Audit Committee when the past events occurred. He asked him to do the “honourable” thing and step down, which Mr Blin refused to do. Bruce also criticised the appointment of PWC to take over from the former auditors (KPMG) when Mr Blin had a previous relationship with PWC and PWC had received criticism about other audits. Mr Blin responded that the relationship mentioned was more than 6 years ago and PWC had been appointed after an open tender process. Another shareholder suggested they might get better attention from a smaller audit firm but Blin responded that they did need a firm that could cover a complex international business particularly their operations in Finland and India. Comment: I don’t think having a smaller audit firm would help – Grant Thornton has had similar problems to larger firms. There is a more general problem with the overall quality of audits which has been recognised in the national media and by many investors.

I questioned the presentation of the income statement in the Annual Report, where “adjustments” are mixed in with normal “reported” figures and confuse the reader. They will look at this issue.

We then had a brief presentation from the new CEO Matt Jones. He is clearly an experienced manager of IT businesses. He said they have good customers and good staff but were spread too thinly. They need to focus more. He will be focusing on those with good growth opportunities, namely ITAD, mobile and enterprise solutions (note: they each represent about one third of current revenue).

There was a question about cash flow and operating margins. The response was that they are making investment this year to increase growth and hence margins will come down this year, but will grow thereafter. It was noted later that the investment will be mainly in R&D and to a lesser extent in sales and marketing. The CFO said the key was to avoid major exceptionals and improve cash flow.

One shareholder raised the issue about reliance on one customer at 11% of turnover but the board expressed no concerns and it might fall slightly this year.

I asked about the competitive landscape. Answer given was the main area for that was in mobile and they are working to improve their offering to meet that.

Another shareholder questioned their presence in 26 countries – are they spreading themselves too thinly? The answer was they are not planning any cut back in the geographic perspective. It transpired later than some of their locations are only very small sales operations, even though the CEO clearly spends a lot of time on planes (incidentally he mentioned he is based in California and works from home with an office above his garage). Modern communications methods assist a great deal.

The CEO said they have adequate sales/marketing staff and productivity is improving.

Lastly a question was raised as to the apparent votes from large shareholder M&G who abstained on some of the resolutions. Does the board know why? The answer was no, and it was not clear whether they had even been asked why although the Chairman did say he had been in communication with them and other large shareholders. Could it be I wonder that they were also unhappy with the openness of the board and their apparent failure to pursue past wrongdoing?

In conclusion, it does seem that the Chairman and the rest of the board are at least taking sensible steps to rebuild the company. The new executives seem to be good appointments but we will have to wait and see whether they can actually produce the goods. In the meantime, investor confidence in the company may take time to rebuild but even so it’s still quite highly rated on the normal financial ratios. My concern is that revenue growth does not seem particularly high for this kind of business and the current valuation. But there is certainly business opportunities to pursue given the growing populations of IT and phone equipment that need erasure or disposal at some point.

https://roliscon.blog/2018/01/15/sharesoc-takes-up-blancco-complaints/ https://roliscon.blog/2017/12/20/lse-general-meeting-and-blancco-agm/

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

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ShareSoc Takes Up Blancco Complaints

As a small shareholder in Blancco Technology Group (BLTG) I reported on the events at their AGM in a previous blog post. This company had to restate their accounts following discovery that some of the previously recognised revenues were invalid. It calls into question the competence of the past audits of the company and the management of the business.

ShareSoc has now taken up the issues and has requested both the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Financial Reporting Council (FRC) to investigate what happened. See this press release that ShareSoc issued for more information: https://www.sharesoc.org/sharesoc-news/sharesoc-requests-investigation-affairs-blancco-technology-group/

Shareholders in this company have lost substantial capital as a result of the failure to recognise revenue correctly, a failing all too common in IT companies and which, for some reason, auditors seem unable to spot.

If you were or are a shareholder in Blancco, you can register your interest in this matter on the ShareSoc web site so that you are informed of future news.

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

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LSE General Meeting and Blancco AGM

Yesterday I attended two company general meetings (I hold a trivial number of shares in each). Here’s a brief report on events, with the later one being more interesting than the first one.

London Stock Exchange (LSE) General Meeting.

As readers may be aware, a General Meeting was called at the LSE by The Children’s Master Investor Fund (TCF), which is led by Sir Christopher Hohn, in an attempt to remove the Chairman Donald Brydon. That was the only item on the agenda. This arose from a dispute over the removal of CEO Xavier Rolet after the board decided to do some “succession planning”. Mr Rolet has been a very successful leader of the LSE for eight years (the share price has gone up more than 6 times since he was appointed to the board in 2009).

Mr Rolet was going to depart after the Deutsche Borse merger but when that fell through the board apparently decided that he should be replaced. Sir Christopher Hohn objected to him being eased out. There then appeared a number of press reports (e.g. in the FT) suggesting that Mr Rolet was a difficult person to work with – rude to colleagues, tended to not pay attention in meetings, and other defamatory remarks. The company’s defence document for the meeting referred to Mr Rolet’s “operating style” as an important factor in seeking a replacement.

The meeting was attended by mainly “suits”, with very few private shareholders as is more common at these kinds of events – only the latter asked any questions. Neither Mr Rolet or Mr Hohn attended but the latter certainly had representatives present.

The meeting was chaired by the Senior Independent Director, Paul Heiden, and the acting CEO Donald Warran also spoke. Mr Brydon said little. Mr Warren emphasised the need for a “team” to deliver business success and made positive comments about the prospects for the company.

One shareholder commented that it was a “sorry affair” that had generated considerable opprobrium against the company.

The vote was taken on a poll, with results announced some time later. The votes were 79% opposed to the resolution to remove the Chairman (i.e. 21% supportive although there were also 9 million votes Withheld). Sir Christopher Hohn suggested afterwards that this shows considerable support for a change of Chairman and that the board should look to do that sooner rather than later.

Comment: I agree with the views expressed by one shareholder in the meeting. This seems to have been handled badly. Succession planning for non-executive directors who have reached ten years’ service are routine. But when you decide to remove an executive director you have to tread a lot more carefully. This resulted in a public battle, and then having to pay off Mr Rolet with a very generous compensation package.

The allegations about Mr Rolet’s management style may or may not be true. But forceful personalities are very common in high achieving leaders (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are two very good examples). Organisations are wisest to put up with such personalities in my experience. Having heard what was said at the meeting, I voted in favour of removing Mr Brydon as Chairman. 

Blancco (BLTG) Annual General Meeting

Blannco is an AIM listed software company that specialises in data erasure and mobile phone diagnostics. It transmogrified from a business named Regenersis which was into hardware repair and there were changes of management and restructuring when that happened.

The meeting was chaired by Rob Woodward with about a dozen, mainly disgruntled, private shareholders present.

The reason for their unhappiness is no doubt the substantial losses reported in the last three years (£4.3 million in the year ending June 2017) compounded by the need to restate the 2016 accounts following the discovery by a new interim CFO that sales worth £3.5 million booked in June and December 2016 were uncollectable. The company had to raise additional funds as a result at that time. The former CEO, Patrick Clawson, departed and the interim CFO is now interim CEO. They are looking for a new permanent CEO.

Mr Woodward opened the meeting by introducing the board and said “last year was a year of substantial challenge”. He summarised the events mentioned above and said “several members of the senior management team had departed”. He suggested the company needed to rebuild trust with all stakeholders, but the market opportunity remains strong. He said he was unable to comment on some of the investigations undertaken into past events for legal reasons.

Shareholders asked questions about current revenue recognition policies. Then the question of who might be accountable arose, e.g. the auditors for failing to spot the abuse or the former CEO. But Mr Woodward said the board did not believe it was in anyone’s interests to take action against individuals.

Note: the auditor at the time was KPMG but they were replaced by PWC at this meeting. Past events were not given as a reason but open tenders following length of service and other platitudes. Mr Woodward stated the auditors correctly prepared the accounts based on management information provided and that the management overrode controls. The company had taken legal advice but were unwilling to disclose it.

I asked whether there had been any report to the FRC asking them to investigate the audit. Apparently not.

A vote on the resolutions was taken on a show of hands. All resolutions passed with 100% voting For in several cases. But there were over 11 million votes Withheld on some of the resolutions. I asked who that might be as clearly some institution was unhappy. Although the Chairman declined to say, a shareholder pointed out that the number matched the holding of M&G/Prudential (see page 29 of the Annual Report).

Simon Herrick, acting CEO, gave us some information on his background (he had recently helped to float Ramsdens, a financial services company). He said Blancco had a great position in the market. Data erasure will be a big market but it is really only just beginning to kick off. The company seemed to have been rationalising its operations by introducing Salesforce everywhere and a new accounting system (NetSuite). He said the company did not need more cash in the short term but they are not generating large amounts either. He suggested shareholders study the last results presentation on their web site where cash flow is analysed (page 14).

Apparently the company is well down the process of finding a new CEO with a software background, strong leadership capabilities and who can grow the business. They are focusing on a US background which is their major market at present and where such people are easier to find. (Comment: but they are also expensive).

Note it is remarkable that this company only has one person on the board with any software industry experience. To my mind this is a major defect.

Concluding Comments: This problem of revenue recognition at software and other IT companies persists, with auditors apparently incapable of identifying the signs. The rules in the accounting standards have been tightened up, but the activities of over enthusiastic management keen to achieve their bonuses or even ramp up the share price persists. This is in reality a fraud on the company and on their investors.

Why auditors are still proving incapable of spotting such frauds is probably because they are not sceptical enough about the information they are given. But they are not that difficult to identify. Large deals done near financial year ends, where the cash is not yet collected or the agreed payment terms are very extended should be examined very closely.

Not that these are foolproof. As we are coming up to the year end, I recall the case of Software International some years ago who got their sales staff to book sales to customers near the year end which were then invoiced. The customers were told they should simply cancel them in the new year. They employed very persuasive female sales staff who begged the customers to help with their bonus entitlements. The company collapsed when this process was discovered.

But there are way too many of these problems still arising, e.g. HP/Autonomy, Globo (both audits still under investigation), and more recently IDOX. Readers can probably suggest others.

As regards the prospects for Blancco, there is certainly a market opportunity but whether it can be exploited profitably remains to be seen. They really do need a good new CEO but they are not easy to hire. In the meantime, the events in the last couple of years must have been somewhat demoralising for the company staff. If I worked for this business, I am not sure that I would have great confidence in the current board. These kinds of businesses need visionary leaders who can promote the merits of the new technology enthusiastically and who have a very strong technology background.

With profits somewhat uncertain, but on a revenue multiple of 1.5 times, the uncertainty is probably reflected in the current share price.

Postscript: Feel sorry for KPMG losing the audit of Blancco? You don’t need to. The average pay of partners in the UK at the firm last year was £519,000 and according to the last annual report there were 623 UK partners. But those at PWC, EY and Deloittes did even better (the latter on £865,000).

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

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Johnston Press, Blancco Technology and Intercede

Companies in difficulties always make for interesting reading, and here’s a brace of them.

Firstly Johnston Press (JPR), a publisher of newspapers. That includes many local ones but also the Yorkshire Post and the Scotsman who cover national business news – the latter is particularly good on the travails of those big banks registered in Scotland such as RBS and Lloyds. The company had more operating losses than revenue last year, debt is way too high and dividends have been non-existant for years. Local newspapers have been shrinking as advertising revenue has moved elsewhere and traditional national newspapers have also been battered by the availability of free news on the internet. It is clearly operating in a sector in sharp decline.

Now it has become the subject of an attempted revolution by its largest shareholder, Norwegian Christen Ager-Hanssen who holds 20% of the equity. He wishes to replace some, if not all, the directors and called an EGM to do so. Removal of the Chairman of Johnston is proposed and the appointment of Alex Salmond, former First Minister in Scotland, and experienced newspaper executive Steve Auckland.

Apparently they feel confident of winning a vote, and would have been even more aggressive in removing directors if the company did not have a “poison pill”. One of their issued bonds includes a provision that if new directors form a majority of the board but were not appointed by the existing directors the debt could become immediately repayable. The company would have little hope of doing that. Mr Ager-Hansen says this mechanism is a “breach of fiduciary duties” and is consulting lawyers as to whether action could be taken against the directors. This writer certainly agrees that this arrangement was and is morally dubious and the sooner the Chairman of Johnston Press Camillia Rhodes, goes then the better. Shareholders should vote accordingly.

Whether a new management team can revive such an ailing business, even if editorial policy and management improves (which is one of the issues apparently) is surely doubtful.

Blancco Technology Group (BLTG) has been in turmoil for a couple of years. Results for the year to June were published today. They changed the nature of the business to focus on software for “erasure” and “mobile phone diagnostics” and new management was put in place a couple of years ago. But today’s announcement makes grim reading. The Chairman, Rob Woodward, spells it out to begin with by saying: “2017 has been a year of substantial challenges for the Group, with the business performing far below our expectations”, But he does say: “However, the underlying strengths of Blancco remain in place and I am confident that these, together with the significant number of remedial actions we are taking, will restore a sustainable growth trajectory and build long-term shareholder value”.

But the detail makes for horrific reading. For example: “During April the Group undertook a review of cash flow forecasts and identified anticipated pressure on the cash position of the Group.  This pressure was caused by the non-collection of £3.5 million of outstanding receivables relating to a sale booked in June 2016 and a sale booked in December 2016, and costs associated with past acquisition activity, including earn-outs and M&A advisory fees”; and “On 4 September 2017 the Group announced the reversal of two contracts totalling £2.9 million booked as revenue during June 2017, following a number of matters being brought to the Board’s attention”. As a result the 2016 accounts have been restated. In addition, the new interim CFO, Simon Herrick, was appointed interim CEO and the former CEO departed.

Last year’s accounts were full of adjustments and the complexity compounded by the number of disposals and acquisitions. This year is not much different, and they even report “adjusted cash flows”. I always thought cash was cash, but apparently not. But the share price perked up somewhat – up 30% at 72p at the time of writing after a long decline. The company does seem to have some interesting technology but whether all the problems have now been revealed we do not know. The Chairman is sticking around after previously announcing his departure but they are still looking for a new CEO.

I would not care to predict the future for this business. But one question worth asking is “what were the auditors doing last year?”. Revenue recognition is often a problem in this kind of company and it looks like a case of sales proving to be fictitious when some questions were asked about them. This is yet another example of the audit profession falling down on the job which we have seen so many times before. Shareholders in Blannco should consider asking for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to undertake an investigation into the audits of this company. The auditors last year were KPMG.

Intercede (IGP) issued a profit warning yesterday in a Trading Update. A large order for its identity software solution that was expected will not now be received until the next financial year. Other orders are also apparently being delayed. As a result, revenue growth this year will be below market expectations. The share price fell yesterday and today and is 34p at the time of writing.

I first commented on Intercede back in 2011 when ShareSoc ran a campaign against the remuneration scheme in the company. The share price then was about 60p. It briefly went over 200p in 2014, on hopes of real growth in revenue and profits but then steadily declined before this latest announcement. In reality this company is a consistent under-performer. It operates in what should be a hot sector (personal id security) but never seems able to capitalise on its interesting technology in a growing market. Change is made difficult as Richard Parris runs it as “Executive Chairman”, assisted by his wife who is also employed in the business. An example of a “lifestyle” business, not uncommon on AIM, where the directors extract signficant sums while the business goes nowhere in particular.

This company would probably be worth a lot more than the current market cap to a trade buyer who could exploit the technology and improve the sales and marketing. What’s the chance of that happening? Not much I would guess.

Note: the writer has trivial holdings in Blancco and Intercede.

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

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