Brands Have Limits – Saga and AA

I have written before about the merits of strong brands. This is a paragraph from my new book soon to be published (entitled “Business Perspective Investing”): “Trade marks help customers to identify with the product, and make it easier for them to select the product on a new purchase. Brands are particularly effective when there is actually little difference between competitors’ products – for example, lager beer, gin or washing powder. Brands are exceedingly valuable if well maintained. Coca-Cola is a great example of a powerful brand, supported of course by a secret recipe”. But there are limits to how much a brand can be exploited in the face of aggressive price competition or where the company milks the customers too aggressively. Recent events at Saga (SAGA) and AA (AA.) demonstrate the problem.

Saga specialises in insurance and holidays for the over 50s. I certainly qualify in that regards and until a couple of years ago I actually had a car insurance policy through them. The policy was well structured and they dealt with the odd claim well. But I found they consistently increased the premiums on each renewal to the point where they became simply uncompetitive on price. That undermined my trust in the company. It seems other customers may have faced similar issues because their insured customers have been falling. The shares fell by 37% yesterday after a preliminary results announcement that showed reported profits had turned into a loss and the dividend is to be halved. This is what it said:

“Over recent years Saga has faced increasing challenges from the commoditisation of the markets in which we operate, especially in Insurance.  This has had an impact on both customer numbers and profitability.  Although Underlying Profit Before Tax for the 2018/19 financial year is in line with our expectations, the long-term challenges we face and the results demonstrate that Saga cannot grow without a clearly differentiated offering to its customers.

In response, today we are launching a fundamental change to the Group’s strategy to return the whole business to its heritage as an organisation that offers differentiated products and services.  This will give our customers and members a compelling reason to come to us and stay with us.”

I also had a Saga branded credit card until last month, a service run by Allied Irish Bank (AIB). But Saga abruptly cancelled the service with no explanation as to why, and no alternative offered. Those who only had one credit card, or significant outstanding balances owing would have had to scramble quickly for an alternative (Saga did not arrange any transfer to another provider). This is no way to treat loyal customers.

It would seem that Saga has been making very substantial profits in the last few years by exploiting its brand and loyal customers, but there is always a limit to how much that can be done. The over 50 age group is growing in size so the company should have been growing its customer base, not see it declining. I fear that it will take some time to rebuild brand loyalty. The over 50s are not stupid and uncompetitive pricing will be found out sooner or later, which is exactly what has happened.

Similar problems have been hitting car breakdown service and insurer, the AA. Here again we have a very strong brand but turnover has been flat for several years and there are cheaper breakdown services. They have been losing customers of late. They also seem to have had operational problems in extreme weather conditions last year which increased their costs and here again their insurance offering is now less profitable than it was.

Competitors have crept up on both Saga and the AA in recent years and there is no great differentiation from competitors any more. Car insurance has become commoditised in recent years because there is little to choose between suppliers. There is no advantage in being over 50 at Saga or a long-standing AA customer. They both need to rethink what their appeal is to their existing customer base, and prospective customers, so as to ensure better retention and to attract new customers.

Rather like Superdry (SDRY) which I commented on recently, the brands need reviving with new and differentiated products and services. But brands can only be of limited help when the pricing is uncompetitive and operational mistakes are being made.

I don’t rate any of these companies as good investment propositions however cheap they may appear to be until they show that they have solved these problems.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: htt ps://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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All Change at Superdry and Intercede – Perhaps

Readers are probably aware that founder Julian Dunkerton managed to win the votes yesterday at the EGM that he requisitioned at Superdry (SDRY). The votes to appoint him and Peter Williams were won by the narrowest of margins despite proxy advisors such as ISS recommending opposition. My previous comments on events at Superdry are here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/03/12/superdry-does-it-need-a-revolution/ . It did not seem clear cut to me how shareholders should vote, but I did suggest there was a need for change.

There will certainly be that because the incumbent directors (including the CEO and CFO although that does not necessarily mean they have quit their executive positions) have all resigned from the board although some of the non-executive directors are serving out their notice. Dunkerton has been appointed interim CEO.

Perhaps the most apposite comment on the outcome was by Paul Scott in his Stockopedia blog. He said “To my mind, the suits have made a mess of running this company, so bringing back the founder seems eminently sensible to me”. However, I suggest there is still some uncertainty as to whether the Superdry fashion brand can be revived – perhaps the world has moved on and it has gone out of fashion. But Dunkerton should be able to fix some of the operational problems at least. Retailing is still a difficult sector at present so I won’t personally be rushing in to buy the stock.

Another momentous change took place at Intercede (IGP) yesterday. This company provides secure digital identities and has some very interesting technology. But for many years it has failed to turn that into profits and revenue has been also remained flat. But yesterday the company announced a large US Government order and hence they expect a “return to profitability”. This certainly surprised the market as another loss was forecast. The share price jumped 60% yesterday after it had been in long decline for several years.

I have held a small holding in the stock since 2010 (very small prior to yesterday) but I was never convinced that the company knew how to sell its technology – a common failing in UK IT companies. The former CEO and founder Richard Parris who was there for 26 years was surely part of the problem but he departed in 2018. Has the company actually learned how to make money under the new management? Perhaps, but one deal does not totally convince. One swallow does not make a spring as the old saying goes.

Even after the jump yesterday, the market cap is still not much more than one times revenue which is a lowly valuation for such a company. But investors need to be aware that the company has £4.6 million of convertible loan notes which would substantially dilute shareholders if they were converted. A company to keep an eye on I suggest, to see if it has really changed its spots.

Another surprising change yesterday was the abrupt departure of Richard Kellett-Clarke from the boards of both DotDigital (DOTD) and IDOX (IDOX) “due to private matters in his other directorships” according to the announcement from DOTD. DOTD is looking for a new Chairman. I wonder what that is about? We may find out in due course.

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

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Abcam Interims, Brexit Amusement and Superdry

Abcam (ABC) published their Interim Results this morning (4/3/2019). The share price promptly dropped 20% although it has recovered half of that at the time of writing. What was the reason for the price drop? A major profit warning, totally unexpected results or other issues? None that I could see. Before giving you my analysis, you may care to read what I said about the company after attending their last AGM – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/07/persimmon-departure-abcam-agm-and-over-boarding/ .

I expressed concerns about the cost and delays to the major Oracle ERP system which they are building to replace legacy systems. Clearly over budget and running late. I was also not impressed by the failure to answer questions by the Chairman.

The latest results did not seem exceptional to me – the IT project is still bogged down it seems with financial and procurement modules only “on-track for implementation in Summer 2019” but that’s hardly surprising. There is one more major module to do after that. Revenue growth was 10.8% which is better than they achieved for the whole of last year but slightly less than forecast for the full year.

Perhaps the major concern for investors was the decline in net margins although gross margins were up. Clearly administrative expenses are up, partly as the result of a move of their headquarters to a new site in Cambridge and product development costs have apparently increased.

One amusement was that it was mentioned that they are opening a new distribution facility in Holland to avoid any disruption post Brexit. This generated a question in the on-line analyst presentation (which you can see a recording of on their web site) on the cost, and the answer mentioned the new “HQ”. That was rapidly corrected to “Logistics Centre”, but the costs were not indicated as being of significance.

Another negative was the mention of a new banking facility of £200 million when they don’t seem to be particularly short of cash. This might be used for “future corporate transactions” and it was made clear they are looking for acquisitions.

A further issue is no doubt the typical bad habit of referring to “adjusted figures”. What does that mean? Here is what it says: “Adjusted figures exclude systems and process improvement costs, costs associated with the new Group headquarters, amortisation of acquired intangibles, the tax effect of adjusting items, and in respect of the six months ended 31 December 2017, one-off tax arising from new US tax legislation”. It sounds like there is a lot thrown in there that might be dubious.

One only has to look at the cash flow figures to see what is happening. Overall cash decreased by £7.8 million after £11.9 million spent on acquisitions. Purchases of “property, plant & equipment” and “intangible assets” almost doubled. Clearly costs have been ramped up as part of the aggressive growth strategy pursued by CEO Alan Hirzel since he joined. That required a major rebuild of internal systems and facilities which is proving costly.

The shares are still highly rated after this hiccup which looked somewhat of an over-reaction to me, but we seem to be in one of those markets where the share prices of companies can collapse on the hint of possible problems even though overall market trends are up. Investors are nervous.

Another company that has suffered sharp share price declines in recent weeks has been Superdry (SDRY), a retailing and brand company. Last Friday the company announced the requisition of a General Meeting to appoint two new directors, including founder Julian Dunkerton who left the board last year. He and another founder, James Holder, are clearly unhappy with recent events which includes more than one profit warning and a 65% drop in the share price. Between them the founders hold almost 30% of the shares and it looks like this is shaping up for a big proxy battle. The company has rebuffed any return of Mr Dunkerton or the appointment of an experienced independent non-executive director suggested by the founders.

Such a prompt rebuff with the likely costs that will be involved in a proxy battle as a result never seems a good idea to me. It tends to destroy any chance of an amicable resolution.

I may write more on this situation after obtaining more information on the key issues which seem to be other than the difficulties faced lately by many clothing retailers.

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

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