Bargain Bin or Dumpster Fire?

Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Holdings is setting up to be an interesting situation. The company buys “end of run” goods and sells them at deeply discounted prices. Grant’s Interest Rate Observer described Ollie’s business as follows:

“The closeout business is off-price retailing without the frills. Like the cigar-butt investor, the closeout merchant finds stock where it’s cheapest: in discontinued merchandise, canceled orders, modified orders, liquidations. He buys low, sells a little higher.”

Interestingly, Ollie’s has no online presence. Despite that, or perhaps partly because of that, the company has been thriving. https://www.forbes.com/sites/abrambrown/2019/04/01/the-outlandish-story-of-ollies-a-5-billion-retail-empire-that-sells-nothing-online-but-is-beating-amazon/#71c235e850d5 . The question before investors is whether Ollie’s future looks like its past. If so, Ollie’s equity appears reasonably priced.

The average Ollie’s store produces roughly $475k of unlevered earnings. Those stores grow earnings at roughly 2% per year IF you look at 2 year comps. Given where assets trade, it’s not unreasonable to assume a required return of 8% for owning the unlevered equity of the stabilized store base. Therefore, each existing store could be worth ~$8.1mm.

Today, there are 332 existing stores. Thus, the value of the equity of the business as it exists today could be ~$2.7Bn IF the assumptions above are valid. The current offered price of Ollie’s equity is $3.5Bn. Why might that be a reasonable price to pay?

Ollie’s believes they can grow the store count to 950 stores. Their strategy involves entering adjacent markets. They are expanding West as they started on the East Coast. The current store footprint appears to be as far West as Indiana down to just West of Jackson, Mississippi. Importantly, the company has a history of successful store openings.

Each store costs approximately $1.0mm to open. Assuming the $8.1mm value cited above is correct, each store opening creates ~$7.1mm of value. They believe they can open 45-50 stores per year. Therefore, the present value of the growth could be anywhere up to $2.0Bn (assuming a 12% discount rate).

Accordingly, the offered price of the Ollie’s equity is ~75% of the present value of the equity. Not a screaming bargain, but also reasonably cheap given the environment today. Why? First, Ollie’s had a bad quarter. Second, key man risk materialized.

Missed Execution

Note: Technical analysis isn’t part of this discussion but that is a scary chart.

Missed earnings (and a demanding valuation) caused the sell off during the week of August 26, 2019. As the company tells it, accelerating store openings and odd box sizes caused some disruption to the company’s growth formula.

Source: Mark Butler’s opening remarks on the 2q20 earnings call.
Source: Q&A portion of 2q20 earnings call.

The pace of store openings allegedly stressed the entire system and resulted in SG&A deleveraging (meaning SG&A as a percentage of sales increased). This is a plausible explanation because Ollie’s took advantage of the Toys ‘R Us (“TRU”) bankruptcy and acquired some good real estate. On one hand this was an opportunistic way to open stores in good locations. On the other, the store acquisitions complicated Ollie’s growth formula.

First, Ollie’s accelerated its store opening cadence because they wanted to get the TRU stores open. Second, the TRU real estate introduced a different store footprint/layout. Mr. Butler attributed some of the operating hiccups to those factors. Mr. Butler’s track record warrants some deference. Therefore, this appears to be one of those situations where the reality of operating a growth company comes in direct conflict with Wall Street’s Excel models.

Further hurting Ollie’s quarterly results was Ollie’s inventory consisted of lower margin products. This is meaningless to a long term investor. What matters, long term, is whether Ollie’s is satisfying its customers. A skeptic would argue Ollie’s margins came down due to inventory quality. Again, Mark Butler’s record warrants deference.

The Potential Opportunity

To summarize, Ollie’s had a pretty poor quarter and the stock was priced for perfection; not a good combination. Below is a screenshot illustrating Ollie’s multiple compression as market participants realize (a) growth isn’t painless and (b) margins occasionally compress.

At the time Mark Butler tried to settle investors by saying:

Thinking long term, the case for buying Ollie’s shares rests on the power of the business model, increased scale resulting in more inbound calls from companies looking to liquidate end of run goods (and excess inventory), and store openings driving efficiencies through the business (by absorbing the recent distribution center costs, for instance). Scale resulting in better buying opportunities is a particularly compelling thesis. As the barriers to new product discovery continue to erode CPG companies, set up for longer production runs and pushing demand, may have more frequent forecasting misses. Accordingly they could need to sell through a channel that is (a) discrete and (b) can actually move the excess product quickly. Ollie’s appears to have a high probability of solving that need.

The Short Story

In March of 2019 Grant’s Interest Rate Observer wrote negatively of Ollie’s shares. A prescient call, Grant’s rested some of it’s thesis on valuation. But, valuation wasn’t all:

“As no proper bear case rests on valuation alone, our bill of particulars goes well beyond that FAANG-like multiple. Among its highlights: rising competition, operational shortcomings, low inventory turnover, high exposure to financially vulnerable consumers and accounting problems.”

The first accounting claim Grant’s alleges is Ollie’s free cash flow and net income diverge substantially. While this is true, it’s also somewhat explainable by store growth. Ollie’s inventory is growing at ~14-16% per year, which is in line with store count growth. Comparing Ollie’s to another high growth retailer, Five Below, its unclear the free cash flow conversion is a concern.

The second, and more compelling, accounting claim Grant’s discusses relates to Ollie’s irregularities pertaining to inventory and pre-opening expenses (oddly these include store closure costs). Grant’s discussion is concerning given the outdated inventory systems Ollie’s allegedly uses. To summarize the concern, if it is true that Ollies has terrible inventory systems, its possible that reported gross margin overstates actual gross margins. That said, it’s tough to overstate cash generation. And Ollie’s generates cash. Enough cash to retire $200mm+ of borrowings since 1/30/16 while investing in growth.

Grant’s concludes by mentioning the internet may increase competition for closeout sellers. While that may be true, Mark Butler contended that Ollie’s offers a preferred liquidation channel because there are no prices found on the internet. Therefore, a company like P&G can sell Tide through Ollie’s without upsetting the brand’s image in most consumer’s minds. Both thesis have merit but again, Mark Butler’s argument seems more likely.

More Fodder For Short Sellers

On December 1, 2019, Mark Butler, Ollie’s CEO and founder, died. Turn on an earnings call and listen to his enthusiasm. The man is irreplaceable.

One example of Mr. Butler’s genius was buying wedding dresses on closeout. No one sells wedding dresses at a closeout store. Consequently, Ollie’s got a fair amount of publicity from selling deeply discounted dresses. It’s unclear whether the remaining buying (and management) team will be willing to take those types of risks.

Mr. Butler’s replacement, John Swygert, has been with Ollie’s for a long time but is untested as a CEO. So, this would be an opportune time for a short seller to test him and/or shareholders. It appears as though that is going on as the side by side shown below is making the rounds.

The implication of that side by side seems to be that Mark Butler talked about toy sales when they were good and John Swygert is not talking about toy sales when they are bad. That conclusion appears tenuous given Swygert’s comments that “we are pleased with what we’re seeing right now.” Further, Mr. Butler and Mr. Swygert have different styles. Some of the language change may be attributable to who delivers the message. Long term investors should be way more concerned with the accuracy of these statements:

The Shorts May Have a Real Argument

Mark Butler’s death is a potentially derailing event. He had a reputation as an extremely sharp buyer and a one-of-a-kind charisma. It’s quite plausible that Ollie’s dependent on one man; that story isn’t uncommon in retail. That said, Ollie’s team has been there for a while. They’ve thought about succession planning as evidenced by elevating John Swygert’s position in the company a few years ago.

Importantly, based on a conversation with a very trusted source, we find it likely that there is institutional knowledge within these types of organizations. Coordinating purchases, store openings, inventory management, and logistics is probably more than one man can handle. JP Morgan has this to say about Ollie’s bench strength:

Source: JP Morgan Ollie’s note released 02 December 2019

Going forward, it’s almost inhuman to expect Ollie’s to hit their short term plan. Those people lost a leader. But, if the team can focus on execution, maintain buying relationships, and continue to open stores then Ollie’s should have a very good future. Parsing short term issues from fundamental long term business erosion probably won’t be easy.

The Balance Sheet: A Potential Asset

Ollie’s doesn’t own its real estate. Therefore, the business doesn’t need to carry the leverage it would need to if it owned it’s real estate. Instead, they have ~330mm of lease assets on the balance sheet. Accordingly, Ollie’s cost of real estate flows through the income statement (and operating cash flows) as rent rather than through interest expense, changes in PP&E, and net financing cash flows. The average lease term is 7.2 years so there could be some liability if certain store results erode quickly.

Other than leases, there is no debt at the company. Many retailers would fund at least a part of their inventory carrying costs with a revolving credit line. While Ollie’s has a $100.0mm revolving credit line, that line is undrawn. If the share price sells off too much, Ollie’s could use it’s $10.1mm of cash and some of its credit line to retire shares. They opportunistically bought in shares at ~$58.02/sh last quarter. We expect some more repurchases in the upcoming quarter considering they should be generating seasonal cash and the shares are currently trading at $53.34/sh.

Conclusion

Today’s investor gets paid for taking execution risk and betting on the business model. Whether the odds offered are enticing enough is another matter. There’s currently uncertainty around whether the new team can execute the growth plan.

An under discussed risk is how the new CEO interacts with the Board. Will he be able to take over after a charismatic founder passed away? Will he feel comfortable implementing “risky” and/or unconventional (like the wedding dress sale) promotions/actions? Mark Butler’s shoes are not easy to fill…

This is one to watch. Assuming the discussion above is accurate, the upside offered in the stock is probably not much more than 40% (assuming no share repurchases). The downside could easily be ~30%. Accordingly, an investor needs to be ~43% or more certain that a Mark Butler-less team is up to the task. Therefore, this may be one to watch from the sidelines.

PS. What will Chuck Akre’s firm do? Is Mark Butler’s death sufficient reason to sell or did they bet on the business and team? That will be interesting to see given The Art of (Not) Selling.

Cognitive Dissonance Revisited

Chuck Akre’s firm lives inside my head. “The Art of (Not) Selling” is causing soul searching, confusion, and even a bit of anger. That anger is self directed.

For the longest time I searched for The Answer. Immersed in “value investing” books, praying to the alter of Buffett and Graham, and searching for The Formula. Here’s the problem: The Formula doesn’t exist. Only models and theories.

The past year was a good one for SCG. Given some of our large holdings, it’s remarkable that we kept pace with the index. That said, our performance was catapulted by a large position in Charter Communications, which is not a “value investment” as defined by deciles of valuation. Other meaningful contributors to performance included Apple, Netflix, and J.W. Nordstrom. Our portfolio continues to own J.W. Nordstrom and Charter as of this writing.

Going forward, the portfolio will look different from last year’s portfolio. Much of the change is attributable to our firing of a manager, which brought a substantial percentage of the portfolio “in house.” The decision to part with our previous manager was not easy, but it was the right decision. From hereafter, we completely eat what we kill.

Our strategy is to accumulate minority interests, in businesses we understand, at values that make the risk of permanent capital impairment minimal. As stated before, in the past year, the portfolio benefited from churn. Unfortunately, your manager is concerned he “learned” the wrong lessons.

Focusing on entry price has been a worthwhile pursuit. However, would it not have been better to be invested in quality companies with long runways? Sure, the entry multiples would have been higher, but the tax drag on the portfolio would be lower and we’d still own the businesses. See Charter as an example of a business that wouldn’t screen cheap but almost certainly was when we acquired our interest.

One could reasonably argue that worrying about not focusing enough on terminal values is a great “late cycle” indicator. Maybe, but also maybe not. Two quotes come to mind (thank you to @tsoh_investing on Twitter):

  • “The role of financial markets is to take money away from mediocre and underperforming companies and put it in stable, growing, high return on capital companies. Money has an almost metaphysical attraction to places where it is put to careful, good use. You can fight that trend, and invest in companies, for instance that are deeply undervalued and mismanaged – and some people are successful investing in the dregs – but very few over the long term. To use a whitewater kayaking analogy, freshwater seeks saltwater, and you can fight that if you want, but paddling upstream eventually is likely to become highly problematic.” https://microcapclub.com/2015/05/i-passed-on-berkshire-hathaway-at-97-per-share/
  • “Generally speaking, I think if you’re sure enough about a business being wonderful, it’s more important to be certain about the business being a wonderful business than it is to be certain that the price is not 10% too high … That’s a philosophy that I came slowly to. I originally was incredibly price conscious. We used to have prayer meetings before we would raise our bid an eighth. But that was a mistake. And in some cases, a huge mistake. I mean, we’ve missed things because of that.” – Warren Buffett, 1997 Shareholder Meeting, Morning Session.

In defense of our strategy, with the exception of Wells Fargo, I think it’s hard to argue our holdings are “poorly managed.” Facebook is one that many would argue should fall into that category. Personally, I might agree. However, that is a judgment call and, to the extent possible, we will invest based on fundamental truths. One of those fundamental truths is Zuckerberg built one of the biggest social networks ever and acquired two more. Thus, management is at least acceptable.

The current contemplation of whether our focus on entry price is misguided stems from a different framing of math. On one hand, it is very hard to lose when you are purchasing a $1.00 for $0.50. However, it’s also very hard to win big and IRRs will depend on how quickly the market realizes that $1.00.

On the other hand, investing is one of the few games where winners can run for a very, very long time. Importantly, strong organizations attract strong people. Those strong people tend to win. Consequently, while there is momentum in stock prices there is also business momentum. Thus, $1.00 can turn into $5.00 over time. Has a focus on entry price undervalued the momentum benefiting truly great organizations? Perhaps. To not at least contemplate that question is to remain stupid. We will not do that.

To be clear, we own our perception of good businesses. Each serves an important function in its customer’s lives. Many of these businesses are mature and cannibalizing shares. Therefore, on a per share basis, we are quite comfortable with our existing portfolio’s growth rate. Moreover, the portfolio is reasonably priced. As of this writing the Top 10 holdings, accounting for 64% of the portfolio are as follows:

Note: The weighting of the positions in this year’s portfolio are materially different from last year’s. As stated above, this is the result of firing a manager and merging the portfolios. Going forward, all major accounts are consolidated and further large changes are not anticipated.

Of the businesses listed above, Phillip Morris (PM) appears to be the one at greatest risk of deterioration. That said, we own the company because it sells an addictive product, has room to take prices, and is a low cost producer. Longer term, it’s plausible that PM acquires other cigarette makers (it recently tried to acquire Altria) and the volume deterioration is slower than anticipated. Phillip Morris rhymes with AB InBev (now a smaller position due to portfolio consolidation) because both entities have dominant positions, are suffering from volume declines, and benefit from raising prices.

Going forward, SCG will probably own fewer of these types of businesses and look to own businesses that are growing volumes as well. Mr. Akre makes a compelling case that it’s better to own a business that can grow its way out of a period of overvaluation. I will put more energy and focus into finding those situations.

Thank you for your continued trust. I commit to taking fewer actions in the future and finding greater long term, durable, investments. For now, our results have been satisfactory. Thus, expect at least some of the same behaviors to recur.

The Art of Not Selling

Chuck Akre, one of the most interesting investors in the world, recently had his firm issue a blog post discussing their sell discipline, or lack thereof. The meat of the post was:

“In addition, we try to resist the temptation to sell (or trim, even) on the basis of valuation alone. We are unfazed when our businesses are quoted in the market at prices above what we would pay for them. It might be worth reading that last sentence again for emphasis.

Why? For three reasons…

First, when selling because of valuation, it is often with the idea that there will be an opportunity down the road to buy back in at lower prices. In our experience, it seldom works out this way.

Second, of the thousands of publicly traded companies, there are probably fewer than one hundred that meet our criteria, and opportunities to buy them at attractive prices are few and far between. Unlike average businesses that can be traded like-for-like on the basis of valuation alone, growing and competitively advantaged businesses are just too hard to replace.

Third, the very best businesses tend to exceed expectations. What may seem like a high price today may be proven to be perfectly reasonable in hindsight.”

See https://www.akrecapital.com/the-art-of-not-selling/ .

The post has caused some cognitive dissonance for SCG. For one, our portfolio has benefited from churn. Specifically, churn among one of the greatest companies in the world: Apple. Note: Apple never exceeded a 5% portfolio position at cost, which reflects some concerns cited below.

Our first investment in Apple took place in early 2013, after Steve Jobs died and there were concerns about whether the iPhone would continue to sell in droves. We held that position until 10/22/2018. We repurchased Apple on 12/28/18 to then sell again on 11/19/19. To be sure, our portfolio missed out on another 10% move from 11/19/19 to 12/31/19.

There is a decent chance the churn activity cited above reinforced bad habits. Further, it is only one memorable example so (a) it’s statistically insignificant, (b) increases the chances of memory biases, and (c) could be a great example of “resulting” (measuring success based on results as opposed to process). Further, your manager believed, and still believes, he probably sold too early. So, why sell? The answer is duration risk.

At this valuation, Apple is valued at roughly a 5% free cash flow yield. That valuation implies the company has to exist for 20 years and the company must generate this level of cash flow for an investor to extract the cash flows from the business. Importantly, Apple is repurchasing shares at an impressive pace. However, those repurchases do a lot less for investors at this valuation than they did at our purchase valuation.

Perhaps the error of commission, by Akre standards, was purchasing Apple given some of our business durability concerns. That said, if Apple isn’t quality what is? Ultimately, our read of Apple’s “tea leaves” is less optimistic than our perception of the market’s read. More importantly, we were offered our perception of a healthy price for the business. Thus, we exited the position despite seeing a plausible way for Apple’s price to increase at least another 40%. Note, our strategy does not, and will not, depend on selling shares to buy them at lower valuations. When we sell we intend to move on. Apple presented a unique opportunity in a short amount of time, it was an asset we understand, and we thought the probability of permanent capital impairment was low given the valuation and buy back pace.

Was that a mistake? Perhaps. In retrospect it was definitely a mistake from a tax perspective. That said, selling is a “mistake” we anticipate making over and over again. However, your manager is committed to working harder to find businesses we can hold for the long term regardless of valuation. Said differently, you can expect your portfolio to get more expensive but also more durable over the years to come.

Zuora: A Tax on Subscriptions

Subscription business models are the future. Or so we are told…

To be sure, subscription businesses have inherent advantages. They “know” how much they are going to sell next month. Therefore, they can plan their cost structures around fairly predictable anticipated sales. Further, they are more durable than many business models because inertia/switching costs tend to result in subscription renewals. Importantly, software subscription services should benefit from operating leverage at scale. Thus, they are potentially desirable investments. Hence the current research project: Zuora.

Zuora provides a software billing solution to companies that are launching subscription services. Scuttlebutt suggests the offering is quite good and customizable. Customers see value in Zuora’s offering because subscription services have billing nuances that most billing systems aren’t equipped to handle.

Think of the NY Times as an example. There are many different customers, all subscribing to a number of products, signing up at different times. Traditional billing solutions, designed for discrete transactions, cannot handle that load. Zuora built its business specifically to address these issues and remains focused on them. As a complimentary offering, Zuora also offers a revenue recognition software solution that helps customers accurately account for the revenues they earn (which isn’t always easy given length of terms, renewals, changes, etc).

The company’s sales strategy involves “landing and expanding.” That means they try to acquire a customer and then (a) sell that customer a more robust billing solution, (b) try to cross sell the revenue recognition solution to customers using Zuora’s billing solutions (or vice versa), or (c) a combination of the two. Importantly, this strategy requires large upfront investments. Sales cycles are lengthy, the product must be designed and tested for specific use cases, and good sales reps cost a lot of money. Therefore, sales efficiency and distribution are key to scaling quickly and obtaining a defensible position in the market. While there are less expensive billing solutions on the market, Zuora’s product has proven to be a good fit in the enterprise market.

Importantly, it seems as if Zuora’s product is sticky among the larger customers they serve. The company consistently increases the amount of customers billing over $100,000 in annual recurring revenue. That said, the company’s sales growth has slowed this year and there are questions around how quickly the product will scale.

Zuora seems to have a realistic, forward looking vision about future business models. Their theory of the case is businesses, enabled by IoT, will collect data on how their products are used. Those businesses will then offer users of their products subscription services as supplements to existing business lines. The theory is supported by a recent Barron’s article featuring Honeywell. See Footnote 1. Zuora will also benefit from increasing subscription businesses such as DAZN, FT.com, the Guardian, etc. See https://www.zuora.com/our-customers/ for a list of customers and case studies. But can Zuora serve these customers profitably?

Historical Financial Results

Zuora’s CEO, Tien Tzuo, recommends benchmarking SaaS businesses by subtracting cost of goods sold, general & administrative, and research and development costs from sales in order to determine “Recurring Profit.” Then, he suggests viewing sales and marketing expenses as “growth.” Using his own suggestion, Zuora’s historical financials don’t show recurring profit margin expansion:

Admittedly, there are timing differences between the costs Zuora incurs and the revenues it recognizes. For instance, the company has been growing revenues in excess of 30% per year until this year. Undoubtedly, they hired expecting more robust growth than they achieved. Therefore, their existing cost base is almost certainly too bloated relative to their revenue base.

Moreover, the company is highly likely to be erring on the side of over hiring so they don’t hinder growth. As of today, the perceived appropriate strategy is to acquire as many customers as fast as possible. Therefore, Zuora would be foolish to forego sales because of insufficient support. That said, it’s not certain that Zuora’s anticipated growth materializes and/or the cost base “right sizes.”

An Accounting Tangent

Accounting under GAAP penalizes enterprise SaaS businesses relative to traditional capital intensive businesses. Traditionally, a growing company in a capital intensive business would capitalize a portion of its growth spending. Only later would that company depreciate the spend on the income statement. Consequently, a traditional income statement did not capture “growth” capital spend.

Conversely, enterprise SaaS businesses have the opposite problem. These business are capital intensive, but they require human, not physical, capital. GAAP does not allow companies to capitalize human capital expenditures. Consequently, the current cost structure is fully captured but the revenue stream associated with these costs is not. SaaS income statements are further penalized because revenues are recognized as they are earned. This puts more pressure on the income statement relative to traditional businesses.

For illustrative purposes, let’s assume Zuora was selling a discrete product for $100 with 70% gross margins. The income statement in the quarter of sale would capture revenues of $100 and gross profit of $70. However, Zuora is actually selling that $100 product for $8.33/month. Thus, a quarterly income statement shows sales of $25 ($8.33 * 3) and gross profit of $17.50. Therefore, the entire cost to support and implement the product sale is in today’s income statement but only a fraction of the product sale is captured.

All that said, the income statement is not useless. At a minimum, it’s a relatively reliable picture of how Zuora’s costs have grown as the business grew. These dynamics have led to a cash flow negative company, despite $19.6mm of stock based compensation over the past 6 months.

The Future, Not The Past, Is What Matters

All of the above is interesting. Zuora’s vision of the world is interesting. It’s interesting to think of the potential business lines a connected world could create. It’s also interesting that a public company, with an allegedly incredible business model, continues to lose cash despite ~7% of its expense base being non cash share based compensation. Further, it’s interesting that the company has generated larger and larger losses as its business grows. But, what’s more interesting is Zuora still trades for $1.5Bn, or ~48.1x “recurring profit” before sales and marketing expense. Why?

The answer lies in the market’s expectation that this business is scaleable, has a long runway, and will generate predictable cash flows over time. If that happens, Zuora is going to be a cash machine in the future. Therefore, Mr. Market is assigning a high valuation because he believes Zuora is on the left side of the image below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCBccKfG9U0&list=WL&index=6&t=0s @ 4:37

Mr. Market may be correct. That said, it’s difficult to handicap the odds because searching historical transcripts, presentations, and filings for “unit economics” and “contribution margin” returns no results. More importantly, the historical income statement doesn’t show evidence of R&D or G&A leverage. Therefore, Zuora’s ability to scale is more theoretical than tangible.

Further complicating the equation is every period showing “recurring profit” growth (though at a lower margin) corresponds with an even larger increase in sales and marketing costs. Bulls will argue the sales and marketing ramp is rational because this is race to get an installed base. Skeptics will argue it’s a structurally cash flow impaired business model. What is the truth?

Grow Now, Prosper Later

There is merit to the strategy of racing to acquire customers in an enterprise software business. Thus, the bull argument cannot be summarily dismissed. That said, the bear argument also cannot be summarily dismissed; Zuora not only hasn’t generated cash but also supports a healthy valuation. See Footnote 2.

As discussed, enterprise SaaS companies benefit from switching costs. What is the probability that a company is using Zuora to run its billing for a successful subscription business line? In order to make that decision a company like the Financial Times would need to:

  • (a) have enough pain with the current billing solution to consider switching,
  • (b) get comfortable with a competitor’s product,
  • (c) be willing to migrate billing systems and risk some sort of customer disruption (remember, the hypothetical company invested a lot to acquire those customers so disrupting the experience is a serious potential risk); and
  • (d) actually make the switch.

It’s obviously possible for companies to switch, but it isn’t easy. Moreover, Zuora charges ~50bps on transaction volume. How much savings can a company capture by switching to a competitor? That competitor would need to be able to economically offer savings, guarantee a seamless transition, and close the sale. That is a tall order. So, grow now and harvest later!

Growing now and harvesting later is exactly what Zuora is trying to do. So it continues to aggressively pursue deals that look like:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCBccKfG9U0&list=WL&index=6&t=0s @ 3:20ish

A problem, however, is Zuora’s “recurring profit” margin, coupled with its sales cycle leads suggests the business economics are closer to the orange line below than the green line. And that matters. A lot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCBccKfG9U0&list=WL&index=6&t=0s @ 13:13

For illustrative purposes, lets compare the Run Rate 7/31/19 financial results (above) to the year ended 1/31/19. Zuora discloses a net revenue retention rate of ~112%. Therefore, company’s 1/31/19 sales base of $168.8mm would result in $189.1mm of sales. The $100.8mm of sales and marketing exepenses deliver the “growth” of $13.6mm of new business. That $13.6mm generates ~$2.0mm of “recurring profit.” That is not an incredibly exciting return on sales spend. Please note that the actual run rate business at 1/31/20 should be substantially larger than the run rate business at 7/31/19 and this example is very imperfect. However, the example directionally demonstrates that Zuora’s business is not growing like a weed and realizing incredible unit economics. It must be noted the time period in this example also covers some sales execution issues. But, the example is useful to show this business, while priced like a Ferrari, may actually be a Honda.

Growth Persistence

Justifying Zuora’s current valuation requires a long time horizon and some creativity. In the words of Shomik Ghosh:

“In enterprise software, valuations are mostly quoted as revenue multiples. Companies are said to be valued at 15x NTM revenue or 10x NTM ARR. These again are proxies for eventual free cash flow generation. However, they’re necessary because building a discounted cash flow analysis early on in many of these company’s lives would have so many assumptions on it that the analysis would effectively be useless.

So what are the proxies commonly used for valuation? They include revenue growth, gross margins, LTV/CAC ratios, S&M efficiency, churn, upsell, runway, TAM, market share, etc. An exact same business with the exact same metrics will be valued more highly if it has 2 years of runway versus 1 year as the longer runway allows more time for growth and eventual higher free cash flow generation at steady state.” See Footnote 3.

Zuora is almost certain to continue growing sales given the business model and infancy of the product offering. As shown below, ~50% of firms with sales between $0-325mm can grow at or above 10% per year for 10 years (note there is some survivorship bias as some firms don’t last 10 years).

https://research-doc.credit-suisse.com/docView?language=ENG&format=PDF&source_id=csplusresearchcp&document_id=1065113751&serialid=f2q0vtKOQ202cwIOt6b1kRL6U91EC1rK7zBkPzU1tjI%3D&cspId=&toolbar=1 @ pg. 31

That said, other than faith, it’s hard to see how Zuora’s sales growth results in operating leverage. Further, the speed of growth over the long term and capital allocation is questionable. There’s something offensive about an organization spending $75.0mm of run rate R&D to support $202.7mm of run rate sales (regardless of how understated sales are). How does a company with only two real products need that kind of R&D investment? And, with $139.9mm of R&D investment over the past 4 years shouldn’t Zuora have more than 112% revenue retention if their end market is growing so much? While Zuora needs to iterate its product, this R&D spend (a) seems extreme and (b) could be better spent on an even bigger sales team to accelerate scaling.

Conclusion: Too Hard

Given concerns with Zuora’s capital allocation, it’s very difficult to determine the company’s steady state economics and the path to get there. There are so many intertwined variables that a model does more to serve as confirmation bias than an objective forecast of the future. Moreover, there’s nothing tangible that shows this business and/or management team is scaling.

There’s a strong desire to assume all this spending is rational. After all, very smart people (a) work at Zuora and (b) support the company as investors. Moreover, Zuora has a visionary concept of the future. Further, scuttlebutt suggests the product is good. All that said, investing isn’t rooting for a sports team. There is real money on the line. Given the lack of visibility into terminal economics, this business is better to let others wager on. Some bets are best observing from the sideline.

  1. https://www.barrons.com/articles/honeywell-is-a-growth-company-again-as-it-taps-the-power-of-big-data-51573227342
  2. According to Bloomberg there are 4,371 companies in the US and Canada that are classified as communications, consumer discretionary, consumer staples, and technology. Of those only 731 have a market cap in excess of $1.5Bn. Of that 731, 602 are free cash flow positive. Those sectors were chosen because they have reasonably good businesses in them (as opposed to energy and materials). Within the technology subset, there are 1,530 companies, of which 272 have market caps equal to or greater than Zuoras. Of those 272, 221 are cash flow positive. None of these numbers mean anything, per se. However, they do demonstrate that Zuora is among the most highly valued companies in the investable universe. That said, this is a pond worth fishing in because successful tech companies tend to produce the preponderance of value within the sector.
  3. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/aligned-cost-structures-switching-costs-distribution-valuations/

Realized vs. Theoretical Gains

There’s a big difference between a company I am researching and one I have actual money on the line with. Perhaps I am flawed and need to intensify my emotional state when I research. But, I think the more likely explanation is real money intensifies the analysis/emotion. It’s one thing to see a historical operational hiccup, subsequent recovery, and determine “I can live through that.” It’s quite another to live through the hiccup and wonder whether the recovery will happen.

Similarly, it’s quite easy to say “This company is way too cheap!” I strongly believed Nordstom, Inc. was too cheap in August when the stock sold off in conjunction with Macy’s results. So I bought.

But here’s the problem: Nordstom faces structural headwinds, may or may not be innovative enough to grow its business long term, and has a lot of fixed costs embedded in the business. Therefore, if things unravel at Nordstrom they could unravel quickly.

So, why did I buy? I bought because I discussed the brand with a group of women who provided me with some comfort about Nordstrom’s brand equity. Moreover, I pay enough attention to retail to know the management team is attempting to transition the company to a modern retailer (unlike Macy’s). Further, I interviewed employees that told me the culture at Nordstrom is the best in the industry. Finally, the Nordstrom family (a) owns a large block of stock, (b) tried to take it private two years ago at near 2x my purchase price, and (c) committed to returning ~$5Bn to shareholders over the next 5 years (vs. a ~$3.9Bn mkt. cap at the time). Note – Family is italicized above because I think there’s a lot more pride on the line when the store bears the name of major shareholders than there is in most situations.

The “opportunity” presented itself because Nordstrom has not executed well over the last 3 quarters. I believe Blake Nordstrom’s death (Blake was a Nordstrom family member, co-President, and largely responsible for running Nordstrom Rack) was a very difficult event for the family/organization and sometimes life gets in the way of optimal business performance. Part of my belief stems from reading about Blake. Moreover, when I spoke to investor relations the woman I spoke to choked up a bit when I offered my condolences. Given everything above, I believe the market sees a potentially broken business with headwinds and I see a business that is facing headwinds but isn’t broken (though the business quality is clearly deteriorating from what it once was).

Despite the risks, I made the bet and was ready to collect dividends, watch share repurchases reduce the dividend obligation, and collect subsequent increased dividends (dividends per share would increase as shares outstanding decreased assuming the dividend payout remained the same). I “knew” the risks I took/am taking. I understand there is a path to failure in this investment. But, at the price I purchased the equity I thought the market was emphasizing the failure potential too much and missing a lot of the good the entity has going for it.

Shortly thereafter, the stock increased almost 40%. At that point, the decision to hold became a bit more difficult. The risk of failure also felt more acute because now Mr. Market was pricing in a more rosy scenario. Importantly, risks that lived on a spreadsheet or in a writeup now actually presented potential loss of real money and the odds had changed. At this valuation, the proposed share repurchases don’t accomplish as much. Moreover, the business risks haven’t changed. That said, if Nordstrom can accomplish their goals there is still quite a bit of value in the entity. Therefore, I decided to sell half my position to reduce some portfolio risk (Nordstrom was a ~5% portfolio weight at cost).

On the other hand, my second largest position (13% current portfolio weight) is in cable companies (Charter and Comcast). These have meaningfully appreciated. However, I haven’t even considered selling either because I fundamentally believe in owning broadband infrastructure for the long term. Thus, it would take a pretty egregious price to have me sell either position at this point. NOTE – I am not saying to buy cable company stocks right now! Nothing here is investment advice.

So, while a spreadsheet may produce similar IRRs for those two investments, the experience of owning the assets is quite different. The obvious response to what I am writing is “Retail investors should require a higher IRR to enter positions than cable company investors since there is less business risk in a cable company.” First, I agree. But more importantly, the right behavior/stomach is necessary to realize the theoretical IRR. And, that behavior can be difficult to handicap until the asset resides in an investor’s portfolio.

Generally speaking, I’ve found assets purchased because of valuation are much more difficult to hold because there is usually some element of business risk attached to them. Consequently, my focus has morphed to higher quality businesses trading at reasonable prices. However, I can’t help but look at my perception of mispriced assets. After all, I am trying to buy more value than I am paying for.

That said, the real gains are made from holding. And holding business risk is a lot tougher than it looks on a spreadsheet. Which is probably why the opportunity exists for those that are (a) right and (b) selective on price.

Recommended Reading

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/style/nordstrom-family-department-stores.html

Know What You Own

Andrew Rangeley recently wrote about sharing his investment ideas. The full post can be found at http://yetanothervalueblog.com/2019/07/some-things-and-ideas-july-2019.html. In the post, Andrew wrote “…the longer I invest, the more I think the most important part of this job / doing the work around this job is developing the conviction to hold an investment thesis.” I couldn’t agree more.

When I started investing I would look at what other people were doing and try to back into why they owned what they owned. I still think that’s a useful, and interesting, exercise. However, you must make sure you don’t rely on the conclusion of the person you are researching. Instead, research the idea in order to determine whether that particular asset is right for your portfolio.

The world has many potential outcomes. Unless you know why you own a position how will you know when to sell? Which path of outcomes bothers you and which paths are you OK with? I guess you can follow some famous investor’s SEC filings and sell when they sell. But, if you implement that strategy I would strongly advise against checking stock prices in between filings.

What happens if you follow your favorite blogger/Twitter account into a position? How will you know if they’ve changed their minds? You probably won’t. And they probably won’t think to tell you when they exit. You have to know what you own and why.

A recent example from this blog is Ryanair (RYAAY). I highlighted RYAAY as an interesting investment idea on May 22, 2019. As a quick aside, this is a good time to remind everyone reading this post that nothing here is investment advice. Anything SCG writes about is meant to highlight interesting things to research and/or look into for learning purposes only.

Anyway, the stock traded at ~$68/sh when we wrote about it. A mere 3 months later the stock traded at ~$57/sh. A 17% “loss” in 3 months (aka -68% annualized return). Impeccable market timing! Was I concerned? Not even a little. Would I have been concerned if I followed someone else into the position? Heck yes! SCG probably would have sold.

Furthermore, I worry that someone may have followed us into the position and sold at the wrong time. I implore anyone reading this not to buy anything I write about. If it interests you then please do your own research. Develop your own conviction so you know when to worry and when not to. Otherwise, you’re just donating money to people that did their work.

Unexpected Lessons

This site’s goal is to become a resource for people interested in investments. Therefore, almost all posts will be investment specific. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Arnold Van Den Berg’s life lessons are one of those exceptions.

Last week I attended an investment event organized by MOI Global. I enjoy those events because the community of investors is a truly amazing group of people. Therefore, I was intrigued when I saw a group of people gathered around a table at a cocktail hour. I figured some investing legend was waxing poetic about the merits of his/her investments. Naturally, I went to the table.

When I got to the table I saw Arnold Van Den Berg. I liked Mr. Van Den Berg’s talk at Google so I was excited to hear what he had to say. I was mesmorized the minute I sat down.

Mr. Van Den Berg was telling stories about his parents surviving Auschwitz. The most memorable story described his father surviving death marches. A death march was a 24 hour hike through deep snow. The participants had “normal” clothes on. If someone’s knee touched the snow, the Nazis beat them. If the person didn’t get up, the Nazis killed them.

Mr. Van Den Berg said his dad survived by focusing on locking his knee the second his foot touched the ground. Why? Because that was the only way to:

  • keep his knee high enough out of the snow, and
  • support his body weight given how depleted his body was.

His father attributed his survival on his ability to singularly focus on that task. His ability to focus was driven by his will to survive. And, his will to survive existed because of his family. Regardless of his circumstances, he focused on his wife and children.

Throughout his time at Auschwitz Mr. Van Den Berg’s father would see young, able bodied men come into the camp. Almost all of them withered away within 6 months. Arnold’s father said many of them lost the will to live because they didn’t have a larger purpose. Once they lost the will to live, death was inevitable.

I tried to absorb everything I could from Mr. Van Den Berg. Some lessons include:

  • When your life is more important than your principles, you sacrifice your principles. When your principles are more important than your life, you sacrifice your life. Mr. Van Den Berg is alive today because a young woman valued her principles enough to risk her life in order to smuggle him out of Amsterdam.
  • Never underestimate the power of the subconscious mind.
  • Focus is key to success.
  • Never give up. Whatever failure brought you to the point where you’re considering giving up also took you closer to success.
  • In order to be successful you must:
    • (a) be totally honest with yourself,
    • (b) repeat the actions necessary to become who you want to be,
    • (c) do good (the universe rewards those that legitimately add value),
    • (d) believe in yourself and your life direction.

Some of this advice may sound like self help BS. But, it’s coming from a man that grew up with a father and mother that survived the Holocaust. Moreover, he survived being in an orphanage while his parents were in Auschwitz. He lost 39 family members over that period. Therefore, I think his perspective on life is one worth taking seriously.

This post isn’t going to help anyone outperform the market. It won’t bring anyone back from sizing a position too big or making some analytical mistake. But, hopefully it keeps the world in perspective and helps someone realize how lucky they are. There’s a lot to be grateful for. Take a moment, remember that, call your loved ones, then get back to trying to outperform.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Mr. Van Den Berg at Google

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/think-and-grow-rich-napoleon-hill/1116671906#/

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mans-search-for-meaning-with-new-foreward-viktor-e-frankl/1028813627#/ – Haven’t read this but @jerrycap recommended it and his book choices are pretty solid.

Beta is Risk

Yes, you read the headline correctly. The academics got it right. Sort of…

Public market investing rewards those who can identify assets trading at discounts to what they will be worth in the future. But what about the time in between initial purchase and the future? That’s where Beta comes in.

Beta, for those that don’t know, is the measure of a stock’s movement compared to the market. So, if a stock has a Beta of 1.25 a stock holder should expect to see 1.25x the volatility (good or bad) of the market. That volatility can cause some pretty costly errors.

Many, if not most, people have the capability to pick businesses that make sensible investments. Many, if not most, people have the ability to decide a sensible price to pay for an asset. Few people, however, have the ability to consistently see how assets are trading and remain rational. Moreover, the faster the prices move, the less rational people are. Why?

Upside volatility in stocks people don’t own causes FOMO (fear of missing out). This can lead to investors chasing stocks that run at exactly the wrong time. Downside volatility in stocks people own cases the flight response nature ingrained in our psyches. This can lead to people bailing on stocks they own at exactly the wrong time. Joel Greenblatt summarized public investing well when he said he gets paid more to have a strong stomach than for his analytical ability. See http://cfany.gallery.video/fullconference/detail/video/6053271135001/joel-greenblatt—keynote-presentation:-ben-graham-vi at 17:20 and 21:00ish.

So yes, Beta is risk. To the investor’s behavior. Beta, however, is not investment risk. Nor is it business risk. Thus, the academics got it right. Sort of…