Victoria AGM, Dunelm Results and Brexit Impacts

I attended the Annual General Meeting of Victoria (VCP) in central London yesterday. I have held a few shares in this producer of carpets and tiles since the revolution that installed Geoff Wilding as Executive Chairman a few years ago. He did a great job of turning the business around but the share price fell back sharply last October over concerns about the level of debt and a failed bond issue to replace bank debt which cost £7.3 million As Mr Wilding says in the Annual Report: “There is no way to view the majority of these costs other than, with the benefit of hindsight, a waste of money”. The Annual Report is certainly worth reading as it is a good example of the Chairman and CEO revealing their thoughts on many issues rather than the polished and anodyne statements you see in most such reports.

The company has subsequently issued some loan notes with a five-year term and fixed rate of interest to replace some of the bank debt. These were described as “covenant light” in the meeting. The company has adopted the use of high debt levels (net debt/EBITDA ratio of 3.2) to finance acquisitions and to finance substantial restructuring of its operations. There is extensive justification of this policy in the Annual Report but there are clearly still concerns among investors.

Last year the company reported a loss of £7.9 million despite reporting an operating profit of £24 million because of the exceptional finance costs, restructuring costs and amortisation of acquired intangibles. This is one of those companies where it is best to look at the cash flow statement to see what is going on as the accounts are otherwise quite confusing. The company did generate £52 million in cash from operations last year.

An announcement from the company on the morning of the AGM contained positive comments and they expect to meet market expectations for the full year. They are also continuing to look at further acquisitions although it states “mindful of financial leverage levels, the Board is proceeding cautiously”. I would certainly like to see some reduction in debt levels with fewer exceptional costs for a period of time.

There were less than a dozen shareholders at the AGM. There were only a few questions. One was on the attributes of new non-executive director Zachary Sternberg, and what he will be contributing. Apparently he is the investment manager of a US fund who have a 15% stake in Victoria. It was said he is very good at financial analysis but is not a flooring expert.

I asked about the breakdown of sales. Turf (i.e. artificial grass) is now 4% and growing. Otherwise it’s about two thirds tiles to one third carpet. In Europe hard flooring (not just tiles but wood/laminates) is growing but the demand varies between countries. That surely is has been a long-term but slow trend in recent years in the UK for example. Even my wife wants to replace our hall carpet with something else because she is tired of cleaning it but other areas are likely to remain carpet.

I also asked about the impact of Brexit, hard or otherwise. Earlier in the year they built up stock in case of disruption and are now doing this again. But the CEO said they might be able to take advantage by increasing prices. He did not appear too concerned about the prospects.

In summary a useful meeting, but investing in this company is very much dependent on one’s trust in Geoff Wilding to manage the debt levels and its business operations wisely. Mr Wilding has a beneficial interest in 18% of the shares although he did dispose of some shares last year.

Another company I hold is Dunelm (DNLM). The company issued preliminary results this morning and at the time of writing the share price is down about 8%. That may be surprising because the earnings were slightly better than forecast and a special dividend was also declared. Like-for-like revenue was up 10.7% and market share is increasing in the homewares sector. The company appears to have been successful in moving into “multi-channel” operations with internet sales rapidly increasing. So why would shareholders be concerned about the announcement?

One comment in the announcement was “Whilst trading performance has continued to be strong, we remain cautious about the full year outlook due to ongoing Brexit uncertainty and specifically the impact it may have on consumer spending as we enter out peak period”. They go into more detail on the impact of Brexit, especially a “no-deal” version which might disrupt imports after the possible Oct 31st date. But if Boris Johnson loses his fight against the “remainers” this evening then it could be put off yet again, even into “never-never” land. Comment: What a shambles and the House of Commons is descending into anarchy. I hope Mr Johnson manages to call a General Election to get this matter settled finally. But at least a Scottish Court has rejected the challenge to the Government’s ability to prorogue Parliament which was surely misconceived. Legal cases driven by emotion are never a good idea.

As regards Dunelm, perhaps another issue that rattled investors was the adoption of IFRS16 which will apparently reduce group pre-tax profit by approximately £3 million (i.e. by about 2.3%) but with no impact on cash flows. However EBITDA will increase. IFRS16 concerns accounting for leases and has surely been well known about for some time so it is odd if this was the cause of the share price fall.

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

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Blue Prism, GB Group, Gooch & Housego, Greggs, IDOX, Pets at Home, Victoria, Brexit and Pre-Pack Administrations

Lots of results and trading statements this morning of interest. Here’s a few brief comments on some of them in alphabetic order (I hold some of these stocks), with the share price movement on the day at 14:00 hours (at the time of writing):

Blue Prism (PRSM) – down 12.3%. This was one of the ultimate go-go technology stocks until mid-September when it started a sharp decline like many other such stocks. It has some very interesting technology to automate business processes which is why everyone wanted to buy the shares. The trading statement had some positive comments about sales and cash flow (without giving any specifics which is annoying), but it also said “The EBITDA loss is expected to be larger than current expectations due to continued investments into the Group’s growth strategy and increased sales commissions arising from the strong fourth quarter”. With rising losses already forecast and no prospect of a profit in sight, the share price predictably fell. This company has a market cap of over £1 billion when revenue in the current year might be £55 million. I have seen technology companies before (e.g. in the dot.com boom era) that managed to grow sales at a terrific rate but with rising losses. Often they never did manage to show they had a profitable business as competition eroded their USP before they got there.

GB Group (GBG) – up 5.0%. Half year results much as expected taking into account the big one-off deal in the previous half year. Like Blue Prism the share price was down by 30% since early September in the technology stock rout. The valuation is now back down to a more sensible level and with revenue growth of 9%, cash up by £14.5 million and a positive outlook statement there seems to be little to be concerned about. The company provides on-line id verification and location services which is clearly a growth area at present and accounts for the consistently high valuation of the company.

Gooch & Housego (GHH) – down 1.8%. The share price fell sharply after the market opened but that seems to be a frequent occurrence after announcements by small technology stocks as a few insiders take the opportunity to sell. But the new chairman bought a few shares today. The shares in the company are also thinly traded which means they tend to be volatile. The preliminary results were slightly better than forecast on an “adjusted” basis although the reported accounts of this company are heavily distorted by the number of exceptional items including a large write-off of goodwill, restructuring costs (including a site closure) and transaction fees on acquisitions. The share price has been declining like other technology stocks and the announcement today about the departure of the CFO, but not until summer 2019, may not help the share price. The company has moved into a net debt position due to heavy investment in property, plant and equipment and an acquisition but it’s still quite lowly geared.

Greggs (GRG) – Up 11.6%. The share price jumped after the company reported sales up 9.0% in the last eight weeks – no particular reason was supplied. Also forecasting profits to be substantially ahead of forecasts. Greggs went through a share price dip in the middle of the year probably due to poor figures after bad weather hit this “food-on-the-go” seller. But it seems junk food is still a growth market if you adapt to sell it in new locations and less on the High Street, and the weather is good – not that Greggs are not into selling healthy options now of course.

IDOX (IDOX) – up 1.6%. A year-end trading update showed declining revenues even ignoring the disposal of the loss-making Digital business which will have a negative impact on the final results. The company is in cost-cutting mood so as to increase profitability and so as to “align the cost base more directly with its re-focused business model”. There was a new Chairman appointed recently with a very relevant industry background. The business should at least report a profit this year unlike last, and the valuation is lowly due to past problems. But investors may be getting impatient for better results.

Pets at Home (PETS) – down 0.1%. Interim results reported good like-for-like growth in both the retail business and the vet practices but a restructuring of the vet business is going to result in very substantial write-downs including cash costs of £27 million. The reason the share price did not fall is probably because of the positive trading figures and a commitment to hold the dividends both for the interim and future final ones. It’s on a prospective yield of 6.5% at present. With a new management team this may be a good share for those who like “value” plays but being in the general retail sector which is a bloodbath for many such stocks does not help.

Treatt (TET) – Up 5%. This manufacturer of flavourings issued very positive final results – revenue up 11% and adjusted earnings up 10%, with positive comments about likely future results in addition. This is one of John Lee’s favourite stocks and no doubt he will have been talking about it in the last couple of days at the Mello London conference. Unfortunately I could not attend that event, which is one reason for this long blog post today.

Victoria (VCP) – up 1.6%. Interim results were generally positive and they look to be on target to make the full year estimates. But Exec Chairman Geoff Wilding probably summed it up well with this comment: “Finally, I am acutely aware that Victoria’s share price is not where I believe it should be given our current trading and prospects. As one of the largest shareholders, you can be assured that I, and the other directors and management, are focused on building the confidence of investors and delivering the financial results expected of Victoria. It is important to remember, together we own a very robust, well-managed, and growing business with over 3,000 employees who manufacture and sell some of the finest flooring in the world. The events of the last couple of months have not distracted management from delivering and for that reason I am highly confident of Victoria’s continued long-term success”. The events he refers to were the growing concerns about the level of debt in the company and the aborted proposal to convert bank debt into a bond. Floor-covering businesses can be somewhat cyclical, as results from the Australian subsidiary in these figures indicate. Investors can get nervous about high debt and what will happen when it is due for repayment. You need a lot of confidence in Geoff Wilding for him to steer through this situation to buy the shares even at the current level.

It is remarkable looking back over these results and the share price performance of the companies over the last few months that share prices seem to have been driven by emotion and trend following even more than usual. Brexit also seems to be making investors nervous and overseas investors particularly so. That explains why the dividend yield on the market overall is at record levels. Current yield is not everything of course as future growth is also important to market valuations which depends on profit growth. But apart from Brexit there are few clouds on the horizon at present.

Brexit. Mrs May is apparently trying to sell her agreed Brexit deal directly to the general public, i.e. over the heads of politicians. But with no unanimity in the Conservative party nobody sees how she can get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament even if she manages to persuade the DUP to support it. It’s not easy to see how even a change of leader would help unless they can tweak the Agreement in some aspects to make it acceptable to the hardliners. That might just be possible whatever the EU bureaucrats currently say but otherwise we are headed for a “hard” and abrupt exit in March. Am I worried about such a prospect? Having run a business which exported considerably into Europe before we joined the Common Market, the concerns about the required customs formalities are exaggerated. The port facilities may suffer temporary congestion but it is always remarkable how quickly businesses can adapt to differing circumstances. For those who think we should simply go for a hard Brexit and stop debating what to do there is an on-line Parliamentary petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/229963/signatures/new . With the Brexit Withdrawal date set for March 29th 2019, I confidently predict that the matter will be settled by March 28th or soon after, probably based on Theresa May’s Agreement which actually does have many positive aspects. It’s just the few glaring stumbling blocks in the deal that are annoying the Brexiteers.

Incidentally Donald Trump was incorrect in suggesting that the current Agreement would prevent the UK signing a trade deal with the USA. See https://brexitfacts.blog.gov.uk/2018/11/27/response-to-coverage-of-the-uks-ability-to-strike-a-trade-deal-with-the-us-when-we-leave-the-eu/ . There’s just as much fake news from politicians than there is from digital media platforms these days.

Pre-Pack Administrations. There was an interesting article on the subject of Pre-Pack Administrations in the Financial Times yesterday (26/11/2018). I have covered this topic, many times in the past, always negatively. For example on the recent case of Johnston Press – see https://roliscon.blog/2018/11/19/johnston-press-trakm8-and-brexit/ where creditors were dumped and a payment into the pension scheme due in just days time was not made with the result than the Pension Protection Fund is likely to pick up the tab. That not just means pensioners in the Johnston scheme will suffer to some extent, but the costs fall on all other defined benefit schemes so you could be contributing also.

They are not the only losers though. The FT article pointed out that one of the biggest losers are HMRC as it seems some pre-packs are done to simply avoid paying tax due to them. There is now an advisory group called the “Pre-Pack Pool” that was set up to try and stop the abusive use of pre-packs, but it is reported that even when they gave a pre-pack proposal a “red card” many were put through regardless. This looks another case where self-regulation does not work and abuses are likely to continue.

That’s not to say that all administrations could result in a better return to trade creditors and the taxman than zero, but a conventional administration with proper marketing and the sale of a business as a going concern is much more likely to do so. The insolvency regime needs reform to stop pre-packs and provide better alternatives.

Have I got a bee in my bonnet about pre-packs because of suffering from one or more? No, but I know people who have even though they are relatively rare in public companies. But I just hate the duplicity and underhand shenanigans that go along with them.

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

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Bad News from Crawshaw and ULS, Ideagen AGM, Victoria Doubts and Other News

The real bad news today is that butchers Crawshaw (CRAW) is going into administration, “in order to protect both shareholders and creditors”. They hope the business will be sold as a going concern but it is unusual for shareholders to end up with anything in such circumstances. The shares have been suspended and the last share price was 2p. It actually achieved a share price of 3425p at its peak in 2005. Revenue have been rising of late but losses have been also.

I never invested in the company although I do recall seeing a presentation by the company when it was the hottest stock in the market but I considered it to be a business operating in a market with no barriers to entry and likely to suffer from competition once the supermarkets had woken up to what it was doing. That’s apart from the difficulties all high street retailers have been facing of late. Well that’s one disaster I avoided at least.

Another AIM stock I do hold is ULS Technology (ULS) who operate a conveyance service platform. A trading statement this morning for the first half year said the revenue is expected to be up 3% and underlying profit up 5%, despite a fall of 4% in the number of housing transactions across the UK market. But the sting in the tail was the mention of a slowdown in mortgage approvals which “may well be short lived but is likely to have some impact on the Group’s second half results”. The share price promptly dropped 20% this morning. It’s that kind of market at present – any negative comments promptly cause investors to dump the shares in a thin market.

One piece of good news for the housing market which I failed to mention in my comments on the budget was that the “Help to Buy” scheme is not being curtailed as some expected, but is extended for at least another two years to 2023.

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Ideagen (IDEA), another company I hold. It was unexciting with only 4 ordinary shareholders in attendance so I won’t cover it in detail. But boring is certainly good these days.

It was the first AGM chaired by David Hornsby who is now Executive Chairman. One pertinent question from a shareholder was “what keeps the CEO awake at night?”. It transpired that the pound/dollar exchange rate was one of them simply because a lot of their revenue is in dollars (their US market seems to be a high growth area also). I suggested they might want a “hard Brexit” when the pound would collapse and improve their profits greatly. But the board somewhat ducked that issue. Note that this business is moving to a SAAS revenue model from up-front licence fees which may reduce organic growth slightly but increase revenue visibility. The point to bear in mind here is that even on a hard Brexit it is unlikely that trade tariffs would impact software income because there are no “goods” exported on a SAAS model.

Another question asked was about financing new acquisitions which the company does regularly. These are generally purchased for cash, and share placings are done to raise the funds required. Debt target revenue is only one times EBITDA so debt tends to be avoided.

It is worth comparing that with Victoria (VCP) a manufacturer of floor coverings who issued a trading statement on the 29th October which did not impress me or anyone else it seems. Paul Scott did a devasting critique on Stockopedia of the announcement. In summary he questioned the mention of a new debt being raised, although it was said that this would be used to repay existing debt, when there were few other details given. He also questioned the reference to reduction in margins to maintain revenue growth. The share price promptly headed south.

The company issued another RNS this morning in response to the negative speculation to reassure investors about the banking relationships, covenants and credit rating.

I have held a few shares in Victoria since the board bust-up a few years back and attended their last AGM in September when I wrote a report on it here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/11/brexit-abcam-victoria-and-the-beaufort-case/ . The share price was already falling due to shorters activities and my report mentioned the high level of debt. The companies target for debt was stated to be “no more than 2.5 to 3 times” at the AGM which is clearly very different to Ideagen’s!

I did have confidence in Geoff Wilding, Executive Chairman, to sort out the original mess in Victoria but the excessive use of debt and a very opaque announcement on the 29th has caused a lot of folks to lose confidence in the company and his leadership. Let us hope he gets through these difficulties. But in the current state of the stock market, the concerns raised are good enough to spook investors. It’s yet another previously high-flying company that has fallen back to earth.

One more company in which I have a miniscule number of shares is Restaurant Group (RTN) which I bought back in 2016 as a value/recovery play. That was a mistake as it’s really gone nowhere since with continuing declines in like-for-like sales. At least I never bought many. Yesterday the company announced the acquisition of the Wagamama restaurant chain, to be financed by a rights issue. The market reacted negatively and the share price fell.

I did sample some of the restaurants in the RTN portfolio but I don’t recall eating in Wagamama’s so it’s difficult to comment on the wisdom of this move. All “casual dining” chains are having difficulties of late as the market changes, although Wagamama is suggested to have more growth potential. The dividend will be rebased and more debt taken on though. With those reservations, the price does not look excessive. However, while they are still trying to get the original business back to strength does it really make much sense to make an acquisition of another chain operating in the same market? Will it not stretch management further? I will await more details but I suspect I may not take up the rights in this case.

One other item of news that slipped through in the budget announcements was the fact that in future Index-linked Saving Certificates from NS&I will be indexed by Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI). This is likely to reduce the interest paid on them. But it will only affect certificates that come up for renewal as no new issues have been made of late. These certificates are becoming less and less attractive now that deposit interest rates are rising so investors in them should be careful when renewing to consider whether they are still a good buy. I suspect the Chancellor is relying too much on folks inertia.

At least even with the bad news, my portfolio is up significantly today. Is the market about to bounce back? I think it depends on consistent price rises in the USA before the UK market picks up, or a good Brexit deal being announced.

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

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Brexit, Abcam, Victoria and the Beaufort Case

Another bad day for my portfolio yesterday after a week of bad days last week when I was on holiday. Some of the problems relate to the rise in the pound based on suggestions by Michel Barnier that there might actually be a settlement of Brexit along the lines proposed by Theresa May. This has hit all the companies with lots of exports and investment trusts with big holdings in dollar investments that comprise much of my portfolio. But a really big hit yesterday was Abcam (ABC).

Abcam issued their preliminary results yesterday morning. When I first read it, it seemed to be much as expected. Adjusted earnings per share up 27.1%, dividend up 17.1% and broker forecasts generally met. The share price promptly headed downhill and dropped as much as 32%, which is the kind of drop you see on a major profit warning, before recovering to a drop of 15.2% at the end of the day.

I re-read the announcement more than once without being able to identify any major issues or hidden messages that could explain this drop. The announcement did mention more investment in the Oracle ERP system, in a new office and other costs but those projects were already known about. Indeed I covered them in the last blog post I wrote about the previous Abcam AGM where I was somewhat critical of the rising costs (see https://roliscon.blog/2017/11/15/abcam-agm-cambridge-cognition-ultra-electronics-wey-education-and-idox/ ). The Oracle project is clearly over-budget and running behind schedule. A lot of these costs are being capitalised so they disappear from the “adjusted” figures.

The killer to the share price appears to have been comments from Peel Hunt that the extra costs will reduce adjusted earnings by 9% based on reduced margins. The preliminary results announcement did suggest that the adjusted EBITDA margin would likely be 36% as against the 37.8% that was actually reported for last year. Revenue growth of 11% is expected for the current year so even at the reduced margin that still means profits will grow by about 5%. That implies only a slight reduction in adjusted e.p.s. on my calculations which implies a prospective p/e of about 34. That may be acceptable for such a high-quality company with an enviable track record (which is why it is one of my larger holdings) but perhaps investors suddenly realised that the previous rating was too high and vulnerable to a change of sentiment. That realisation seems to be affecting many highly rated go-go growth stocks at present.

The excessive IT project costs are of concern but if the management considered that such investment (£33 million to date) was necessary I think I’ll take their word on it for the present. At least the implementation of the remaining modules is being done on a phased approach which suggests some consideration has been given to controlling the costs in the short term.

I attended the AGM of another of my holdings yesterday – Victoria (VCP). They manufacture flooring products such as carpets, tiles, underlay and also distribute synthetic flooring products (I think that means laminates etc). There was a big bust-up at this company back in 2012 in which I was involved. The company was loss making at the time but some major shareholders decided they wanted a change or management and lined up Geoff Wilding who is now Executive Chairman. After an argument over his generous remuneration scheme and several general meetings, it was finally settled. After meeting Geoff I decided he knew more about the carpet business and what was wrong with the company than the previous management and therefore backed him – a wise decision as it turned out. Since then, with aggressive use of debt, he has done a great job of expanding the business by acquisition and this has driven the share price up from 25p to 760p. Needless to say shareholders are happy, but there were only about half a dozen at the AGM in London.

I’ll cover some of the key questions raised, and the answers, in brief. I asked about the rise in administration costs. This arises from the acquisitions and investment in the management team apparently. I also questioned the high amortisation of acquisition intangibles which apparently relates to customer relationships capitalised but was assured this was not abnormal. This is one of those companies, a bit like Abcam, where the “adjusted” or “underlying” figures differ greatly to the “reported” numbers so one has to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is happening. It can be easier to just look at the cash flow.

Incidentally the company still has a large amount of debt because that has been raised to finance acquisitions in addition to the use of equity placings. In response to another question it was stated that the policy is to maintain net debt to EBITDA at a ratio of no more than 2.5 to 3 times. But earnings accretion is an important factor.

Geoff spent a few minutes outlining his approach to acquisitions and their integration which was most revealing. He talked a lot of sense. He will never ever buy a failing company. He wants to buy good companies with enthusiastic management. Thereafter he acts as a coach and wants to avoid disrupting the culture. He said a lot of acquisitions fail as people try to change everything wholesale. One shareholder suggestion this was leading to a “rambling empire” but the CEO advised otherwise.

The impact of Brexit was raised, particularly as there is nothing in the Annual Report on the subject. Were there any contingency plans? Geoff replied that if it is messy it will help Victoria as a lot of carpet is made on the continent and a fall in sterling will also help. He suggested they have lower operational gearing than many people think but obviously they might be affected by changing customer confidence. The CEO said that Brexit is on his “opportunity list”, not his “problem list”.

A question arose about the level of short selling in the stock which seems to have driven down the share price of late. Geoff suggested this was a concerted effort by certain hedge funds but he was confident the share price will recover.

Clearly Geoff Wilding is a key person in this company so the question arose about his future ambitions. He expects to do 2, 3 or 4 acquisitions per year and life would be simpler if he didn’t do so many. He tends to live out of a suitcase at present. But he still hopes to be leading the company in 5 year’s time.

In summary this was a useful meeting and I wish I had purchased more shares years ago but was somewhat put off by the debt levels.

Lastly, there was a very interesting article by Mark Bentley on the Beaufort case in the latest ShareSoc newsletter (if you are not a member already, please join as it covers many important topics for private investors). It seems that the possible “shortfall” in assets was only 0.1% of the claimed assets with only three client accounts unreconciled. But administrators PWC and lawyers Linklaters are racking up millions of pounds in fees when the client assets could have been transferred to other brokers in no time at all and at minimal cost. An absolute disgrace in essence. Be sure you encourage the Government, via your M.P., to reform the relevant legislation to stop this kind of gravy train in future.

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

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