Wednesday, June 18, 2014
The following is an excerpt of my diary notes in September 2013. It contains extracts from an email conversation I had with another investor whose opinions I admired. The central part of this excerpt concerns the issue of aggregators, namely companies that grow by acquiring others. I call them the Pac-Mans.
24 September 2013
Thought of the day: aggregators versus organic growers. Spending on acquisitions are capitalised whereas spending on organic growth is expensed.
Buffett has previously warned of the "sleight of hand" with the accounting treatment for acquisitions. He pointed out that post acquisition, the acquirer gets a free kick with margins and earnings as the target usually comes with accounts receivables and contracts in progress for which the costs of sales has already been expensed. Since the acquirer capitalises all acquisition costs, the metrics such as cashflow, earnings and margins are boosted in the operating section.
Your point that organic growth spending is usually expensed is an excellent point. Although in cases of heavy R & D, this may need to be revised. CSL provides an excellent support for your point, as they expensed all their R & D every year. The value of their IP does not show up on the balance sheet.
On the subject of aggregators (or roll-ups as they call it in the US), various anecdotes and studies I have read appears to suggest these fail more often than not. Neptune Marine Service (NMS) was an example. AMA was another failed example which got turned around. ABC Learning, MFS and Allco are the well-known bad-boys in the aftermath of the GFC. Nevertheless, early investors can make a lot of money on those who execute correctly. I am thinking ONT ran by the excellent ex-army Daryl Holmes, CPU in the days of Morris, QBE in the mad days of Frank, and Navitas.
Here is a quick list with my current thoughts:
SGH- I still believe this will implode, but may survive implosion. Dislike management intensely.
AMA- made good money on this when Malone turned it around. Very close to implosion before Malone.
ONT- this is a keeper, but not at current prices.
GXL- the debt load is getting scary, not as compelling as ONT. Not sure whether retailing business has any relevance to the core vet business.
VEI- another one which nearly imploded. I dont think it will do well, as the specialist doctors have too much bargaining power. Very different to ONT.
TRG- interesting but have not had a close look.
IVC- very good run, but I have questions about how they manage their prepaid book.
One quite common theme is that many of these aggregators have a strong run-up before they implode. The ones that don’t implode are runaway successes. The ones that do implode can do well if they are turned around. A good specialist in this field can make decent money.