Serco Charges, Unilever Trading and DotDigital AGM

I like to report on the latest evidence of fraudulent accounting just to remind folks how little one can trust the accounts of companies. I have not mentioned Serco (SRP) previously but it is now reported that two executives of the company have been charged with fraud and false accounting by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

The charges related to false reporting of tagging of offenders to the Ministry of Justice and the company has previously entered into a deferred prosecution agreement over the allegations which date back to 2010-2013. They agreed to pay over £20 million in fines and costs.

The two defendants deny the allegations but is it not good to see the SFO pursue such cases, even if they could do so a lot quicker! Justice has to be swift if it is to an effective deterrent.

Unilever (ULVR) provided a “Sales Update” this morning. It said business was challenging in South Asia and West Africa and as a result underlying sales growth would be “slightly below its guidance” for 2019. However it also said “earnings, margin and cash are not expected to be impacted”. There were also some negative comments about growth in 2020 which is probably what really spooked the market. Regardless the share price has been falling for most of the day and is now down 7% at the time of writing which is a pretty major shift.

I recently purchased some shares in Unilever so this is another case where I misjudged a big company probably due to relying on analysts’ forecasts. However, I did not buy many shares as it was a new holding and had already sold some of them as the share price drifted down of late. Clearly the bad news had been leaking out! I’ll wait to see where it settles and for revised analyst forecasts before deciding whether to sell the remainder or buy more.

This morning I attended the DotDigital (DOTD) Annual General Meeting. I have held shares in the company for some years and it has made steady progress. Sales last year were up 15% (including discontinued operations) at £42 million and adjusted earnings up 33% with positive cash flow. The company originally focused on an email service for use in marketing, newsletter distribution, etc, but is now a multi-channel communication service. They acquired a company called Comapi to add functionality in that area last year but decided to close down part of that business which was non-core, and a large write down of goodwill was the result.

I’ll cover some the questions from attending shareholders, which were generally good ones.

One question was about how the company plans to expand, e.g geographically. The answer is that this is generally done by dipping a toe into the water before developing the market and making significant investment. Some 30% of revenue now comes from international markets and they have appointed a General Manager in North America who starts in January.

I questioned the high losses of non-exec directors in the last year and were they looking for new ones? The answer was yes they are, and hope to appoint someone soon. Founder Tink Taylor who has been acting as interim Chairman will be stepping down although he will continue to do some consultancy work for the business.

There was a question on the use of cash on the balance sheet which is now substantial, but only 10% of market cap according to the CEO, Milan Patel. They do not intend to use it for market share purchases, other than to satisfy share options. They would prefer to invest in the business or use on acquisitions, but it does not sound like there are any short-term prospects of the latter.

A question on competition was asked and Emarsys was mentioned as a competitor in the mid-range market which is a name new to me I must admit. But there is probably a very diverse competitive landscape. I use a competitor product but only because it used to be a lot cheaper and it is always a hassle to change software as one has to learn a new user interface. These kind of products are remarkably “sticky” with customers and it was mentioned that 50% of their end-users are now “integrated” in some way which would make it even more difficult for them to change supplier.

Another question was on the large amount of capitalised development cost (£5.5 million last year, with £2.5 million of previous cost amortised which is done over 5 years). You can understand why the figure is so large if you know that they have 78 development staff which was the answer to one of my questions! Some of these are ex rocket scientists based in Byelorussia and there are some in South Africa also.

There were a couple of Brexit related questions but the answers were of no great concern. I did not pick up any issues that worried me about this business and it was generally a useful AGM.

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

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