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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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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