Accesso and Executive Chairmen

Yesterday the share price of Accesso Technology Group (ASCO) dropped over 35% after the company issued a trading update and also announced that Executive Chairman Tom Burnet was moving to become a non-executive director. This company has been one of the great growth stories on AIM after Tom took charge as CEO in 2010. Revenue has grown more than 6 times since then but profits and cash flow have been more variable. But Tom is a very persuasive speaker and the share price multiplied by more than 25 times to reach a peak of 2800p in September 2018 – it’s now 930p.

I first purchased the shares in 2012 when the business was selling a solution for theme park queuing and most of their revenue came from one customer. They have now developed the technology to have wider applications and have a wider customers base of “visitor attractions”. Acquisitions have also been made to broaden the product offering and the strategic plan of the business was to become a “consolidator” in the ticketing and other IT solutions to this sector.

Tom Burnet was made Executive Chairman in May 2016. That concerned me somewhat because he is clearly a very forceful person and I generally do not like Executive Chairmen unless there is a very good reason to have that kind of sole dictatorship such as the company being in dire difficulties – there did not seem to be such a justification here, and it is of course contrary to Corporate Governance guidelines for good reasons.

I sold most of my shares over 2016, 2017 and 2018 after the share price continued to ramp up driven by momentum and some investors apparently feeling that Tom could do no wrong. He seemed to think likewise when I prefer more humble personalities as CEOs. Institutional investors also piled in. But the financial numbers were not all that impressive – indeed I queried the poor return on capital and large increase in administrative expenses at last year’s AGM. Other commentators queried the revenue recognition, poor cash flow and high levels of software development capitalisation. Director share sales by Tom and others in 2018 were also a negative.

That’s the history, so what about the current valuation? The last published financial results were the interims for the 6 months to end June 2018 when I made a note that the prospective normalised p/e was 47! But Accesso’s interim results are usually very untypical of the full year figures as it’s a very seasonal business – not many people visit theme parks in the winter. But they did mention the impact of IFRS15 on revenue recognition where they had previously been recognizing the full value of tickets, not just their commission income. This is probably why current analysts’ forecasts show a fall in revenue for the 2018 year versus 2017, with a resumption of growth thereafter.

The latest announcement suggested the full year results will be “broadly” in line with market expectations – which is a bit tendentious bearing in mind we are now well past the financial year end already. It also mentions a one-off cost exceptional cost of $1.7 million on an acquisition which was aborted in October 2018. Why was there no announcement of this at the time as surely it was price-sensitive information?

Actually figuring out what the likely earnings will be for 2018, particularly as the new board might wish to take a bath and clean out any questionable capitalisations is almost impossible without more information.

My fall-back valuation method in such circumstances is to look at the market cap revenue multiple. Revenue forecast for 2019 is $138m which equates to £106m when the current market capitalisation is £254m. So the multiple is 2.4 which is relatively low for a high growth business, with good IP (protected by patents), high recurring revenue figures from existing customers and some profits rather than losses. The business might look very attractive to trade buyers who could strip out a lot of the overhead costs (which is why revenue multiples are important in valuing such companies).

There may be more bad news to come of course, but at least they now have a conventional board structure with a new non-executive Chairman (Bill Russell) who seems to have a very relevant background.

The dangers or having a dominant and forceful Executive Chairman have of course been reinforced by events at Patisserie (CAKE) where Luke Johnson had that role. Having a more conventional board structure might not have prevented the fraud there altogether, but it might have enabled the non-executive directors to more easily question the way the company operated, the internal controls and the information being provided to them. Indeed it might have ensured more questioning non-executive directors were appointed to the board in the first place. A separate Chairman might also have questioned whether Luke Johnson was spreading himself too thinly across his numerous business interests.

The corporate governance principle of having a non-executive Chairman is not something investors should ignore.

Postscript: I corrected the revenue growth figure and the market cap sales multiple figure a few hours after the above was first published after I identified some sloppy research, but the conclusions were unchanged.

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

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New Corporate Governance Code

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) have published a new UK Corporate Governance Code – a draft that is subject to public consultation. The revised Code sets out good practice so that the boards of companies can:

  • Establish a company’s purpose, strategy and values and satisfy themselves that these and their culture are aligned;
  • Undertake effective engagement with wider stakeholders, to improve trust and achieve mutual benefit, and to have regard to wider society;
  • Gather views of the workforce;
  • Ensure appointments to boards and succession plans are based on merit and objective criteria to avoid group think, and promote diversity of gender, social and ethnic backgrounds, cognitive and personal strengths;
  • Be more specific about actions when they encounter significant shareholder opposition on any resolution, including those on executive pay policies and awards; and
  • Give remuneration committees broader responsibility and discretion for overseeing how remuneration and workforce policies align with strategic objectives.

Perhaps the most controversial change will be the requirement to consult with the workforce and suggests three ways this might be done (worker directors, a workforce advisory panel or a designated non-exec director), although it does not rule out other methods. This writer suggests this is a positive step but some shareholders might not agree.

It also suggests better engagement with shareholders although as usual there is an emphasis on a few major shareholders rather than the wider shareholder community.

The UK Corporate Governance Code has helped to improve the operation of UK company boards so it is important that any changes made are positive. On a quick review most of the changes seem to be improvements, but the devil is in the detail on such documents. More information including how to respond to the consultation is present here: https://www.frc.org.uk/news/december-2017-(1)/a-sharper-uk-corporate-governance-code-to-achieve

I may comment further at a later date.

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

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Corporate Governance Reform and Pay – No Revolution

Yesterday the Government published its response to the consultation on the green paper entitled “Corporate Governance Reform”. The paper aimed to tackle some of the perceived problems in UK public companies and Theresa May hoped that it would tackle “the unacceptable face of capitalism” demonstrated by outrageous pay levels in some companies as she described it.

Has it done that? Well most of the responses from the media suggested not with comments such as “watered down” being printed as tougher binding votes on pay have been dropped (possibly because of legislative log-jams in Parliament), and workers on boards not supported. However, we do have a commitment to publish pay ratios of employees to directors – not that this writer thinks that will help much.

If you read the full Government response (present here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/640631/corporate-governance-reform-government-response.pdf ), you can see that the Government has responded in many detail ways to the consultation responses. As in UK politics in general, particularly when your party has a narrow majority and many other problems on their minds, no revolutions are advocated. Just minor improvements, and more red tape, are the order of the day.

Not that I expected any great result from the matters being considered in the consultation. This is what I said in my personal response to the consultation back in February:

“As regards director pay, the document makes clear that despite more obligations on companies on reporting and voting on pay introduced in 2013, not a lot has changed in reality. Although there is widespread public concern about pay levels, the paper notes that the average vote in favour of remuneration reports was 93% (see page 19) and only one binding vote has been lost. I certainly support further significant reform in this area. The key problem is that remuneration of directors is still decided by the same directors and there is very little external input from shareholders, employees or other stakeholders before it is put to a vote at an AGM – but this is too late and institutions hate voting against directors’ wishes. 

In addition, retail shareholders have little say and are effectively disenfranchised because of the widespread use of the nominee system. A substantial reform of this area of company law and the activities of stockbrokers and company registrars needs to be undertaken to fix that problem. All shareholders (including beneficial owners in nominee accounts) should be on the share registers of companies with full rights as members of the company including voting, information and other rights.

Shareholder Committees are a core part of the solution to the problems of corporate governance. There are many other aspects of corporate governance that can be improved. However, without Shareholder Committees, and concomitant reform to restore the rights of individual shareholders, other amendments to corporate governance are unlikely to produce meaningful change.”

NONE OF THESE THREE POINTS HAS BEEN TACKLED IN THE GOVERNMENTS RESPONSE.

There are some detailed proposals to encourage more “engagement” between boards and their shareholders plus employees which might be welcome, but whether they will have any real impact is very doubtful. So long as directors can ignore you, some will do so – a typical recent example is Sports Direct.

ShareSoc/UKSA have issued a joint press release which is very critical of the Government’s response particularly about the proposal that the Investment Association keeps a register of “infringements”. John Hunter is quoted as saying: “Asking the Investment Association to keep a register of ‘baddies’ has all the authority and credibility of appointing foxes to keep a register of poor builders of chicken coops!” 

One has to agree with ShareSoc and UKSA that this is a very disappointing outcome. It looks a classic case of Government civil servants and politicians having little understanding of how companies work and the dynamics of boards, as usual, and have listened to the fat cats in preference to others.

In summary, TOO TIMID is my final comment.

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

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