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How Can The Market be at All time High and There Be a “Freight Recession”? – PART I

The question posed in the title can be a perplexing problem and I am sure is of interest to both those who make a living running trucking companies as well as those who invest in them.  If the market is a forward looking index (like they teach you on school) then the fact it has bid up stock prices would indicate it believes the economy is "booming" and if the economy is "booming" then there must be a lot of freight moving.  I will attempt to explain why this connection (Market to freight volumes) is no longer true. 

There will be two parts to this posting. The first will be to show the macroeconomic data I look at which tells me the freight market is slowing.  The second part will be to show how the stock market could hit an all time high while the freight market slows.

There are 3 real reasons why the market (i.e., the SP500 and the Dow) is disconnected from what we, the "transporters of freight" see in the market:

  1. The alternative investment (i.e., 10yr).
  2. The % of the economy which has nothing to do with "goods". 
  3. The Fed
Before I address each one, let's look at the data which supports why there is a "freight recession".  For this I look at 3 different indices.  First, my favorite, the "Total Business: Inventory to Sales Ratio" (St. Louis Fed).  This measures how much activity is being used just to build inventories and the assumption is companies will not build inventories forever.  When they stop building, the freight stops.  Here is what the graph looks like back to 2015:

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Inventory to Sales Ratio - St. Louis Fed
This graph clearly indicates (looking at the boom and bust cycles) inventories decrease then, in a recession, they increase.  The shaded areas above are key recessions.  You can see leading up to 2016 the economy was slow and it actually was close to the peak of the 2001 recession in 2016.  Then came the "sugar high" of expectations and tax cuts and the inventory was burning down until close to the end of last year.  Since then, the economy has been building inventory.  Not a good sign for the economy overall but more importantly, for this blog, not important for the freight industry.  I feel like I should not have to say this however just to be clear, companies do not build inventory forever.  So, even if freight does not slow immediately there would be a clear expectation from the rational investor that freight will slow.  Freight has slowed. 

Second, let's look at the PMI trends.  As a reminder, the PMI (Purchasing Manager's Index) generally gives you a look at whether the economy is expanding or not.  A reading of 50 or above is generally good and below that is contraction.  The index I like to look at is the MFG PMI:

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MFG PMI - Tradingeconomics.com
I do not think I need to explain what is happening here suffice to say the decrease started around December of 2018 and has accelerated since then.  

Since so much of the freight indices are tied up in hauling manufactured goods it is no doubt looking at this chart that there would be far less freight to haul and far fewer loads per truck then we would like.  

The final piece of economic information is our labor force and the net change for employment.  For this, I like to use a 3 month net change from the bureau of labor statistics.  Why 3 months?  Because BLS adjusts the previous two months as they get better data so by going to a 3 month net change you take into account most of the adjustments. 

While employment is incredibly robust and generally "all is good" there are some signs of cracks:

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3 Month Net Change in Employment - BLS
While there is still net positive adds what this is showing is the net positive is slowing quite a bit.  Could be we have just run out of workers or it could be, based on the data above, employers are starting to be very cautious about adding any more employees. 

To give you an example of this, the last three months (Mar, Apr, May 2019) readings were 521, 433(p), 452(p) (p - preliminary readings) respectively.  All three of those were below the lowest reading measured in 2018 which was 565 (January 2018).  Another indication of a slowing economy.  

Ok, so, the bottom line for this PART I is clearly the economy is starting to slow.  Not in a recession (yet) but clearly slowing.  I have opinions on why and I will leave those to myself but this is why you are seeing the FED not only not increasing rates but the conversation is now about lowering rates. 

Stay tuned for PART II which will discuss the 3 reasons why the market, even though all these indicators show a slowing, hit new highs. 

The Wall Gaming Lounge: An Esports Bar That Cannot Be Missed

Sunday night, I attended the soft launch of The Wall Gaming Lounge inside of the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, NV. The Wall was created in... Continue reading

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Simble

I’ve been distracted by a few other things lately, so my apologies for the lack of posts. I also started a few posts before realizing I didn’t really have much to say about the company. There are certain IPO’s in technical fields where if you aren’t a subject matter expert in whatever area the company operates in its hard to offer much in the way of useful commentary.


As it looks like my investment in Bigtincan is finally paying off, it seemed like a good time to review another SaaS (Software as A Service) IPO.

Background


I’m having a little difficulty properly understanding the history of Simble. The Prospectus states that Simble was created as a merger of Incipient IT, an international technology venture group and Acresta, and Australian Software company. What doesn’t make sense though is that according to the Prospectus Simble was created in September 2015, yet the acquisition of Acresta and Incipient IT only occurred in September 2016. The prospectus doesn’t give much information on what exactly was happening with Simble during the 12 months between being created and acquiring Acresta and Incpient IT, but whatever they were doing they managed to rack up over 1 million in expenses during that time. 

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Just to be clear, these are statutory figures so are actual expenses for Simble, not of Acresta and Incipient IT before they were acquired. One possible explanation is that these expenses could have had something to do with purchasing the two companies, but that seems like an awful lot of money to spend on due diligence, and doesn’t explain the $86,000 marketing expenses. A more likely possibility is that Simble initially had some other business venture that they have since discontinued that the prospectus is neglecting to mention.

After doing a bit of digging around, it does seem that Simble has been involved in a few different areas that they don’t bother mentioning in the prospectus. Type Simble into the Android app store or Google and you find a bunch of results, some a little more hairbrained than others.  There’s Simble Kids, a website for finding children’s activities in the United Arab Emirates (Google that one at your own risk as the website has an expired security certificate), a booking platform for small businesses (this one appears to be functional at least) and Simble Live, which was apparently a social commerce app again based in the Arab Emirates (I still have no idea what a social commerce app actually is). All these businesses seem to have largely been abandoned though, so I guess they decided it made a cleaner narrative to leave them out of the prospectus.

As an outsider, the merger between Acresta and Simble initially doesn’t make much sense. The little information I was able to find online about Incipeint IT shows that it was operating as a software venture capital firm and incubator before being acquired. Incipient IT was Co-founded by Phillip Shamieh, who may be familiar to Australian Small-Cap investors from his Australian stock research company Wise-Owl. (More Controversially, Shamieh was also involved in the now defunct sandlewood company Quintis. Wise-Owl was criticized in Glaucus Research’s now famous short report on Quintis for posting buy recommendations on Quintis Stock without disclosing Shamieh’s involvement in the company).
Acresta on the other hand, are an Australian software company with a focus on providing automation services to government and businesses.

What exactly the synergies are between an Australian Software Company and an Asian Business incubator is not that clear, but it seems that the business has been organized to maintain Incipient IT’s coding and software team in Vietnam, while keeping Australia as the businesses base of operations. Economically at least this makes sense, due to the lower costs of maintaining a development team in a country like Vietnam. I have seen a number of different businesses work with a similar model. The executive structure seems to largely reflect the merger between Incipient IT and Acresta. The CEO Fadi Geha was a co-founder of Acresta, and the next highest paid executive is the Commercial Director Phillip Shamieh from Incipient IT.

Products


Simble has two main business arms. There’s Simble Mobility, a business process automation service largely carried over from Acresta and Simble Energy, a more recently developed electricity management service.


Simble historically has received the bulk of its income from Simble Mobility. A good example of Simble Mobility’s work is the App they developed for Barwon Health’s Cancer Centre for patient registration and booking.

Simble will typically work with an organization to develop an electronic solution for a business process and then develop the software. It is important to note that for a lot of these projects Simble does not actually own the platform that they work on. Instead, Simble has previously used a platform developed and owned by Blink Mobile, another small Australian software company. Simble has an agreement in place to use Blink Mobile’s platform, but is does not look like its exclusive which is a bit of a concern. 

From an investment perspective, this is all pretty unexciting. A large proportion of Simble’s clients in this space seem to be Not-for Profit and government organizations. Having worked previously selling products to local government I know from experience that this can be a slow moving, uninspiring slog with products that are hardly at the cutting edge of technological development. It is also an industry with little prospects for rapid growth, as each organization is likely to want their own customized products that need to be developed individually.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the prospectus spends a lot of time promoting the growth potential of the Simble Energy Platform. This is a recently developed platform for businesses seeking to better manage their energy use. In addition to monitoring energy consumption, the platform is able to remotely turn on and off different circuits and appliances to take advantage of lower energy prices, or sell back surplus energy to the grid when prices spike. This is achieved via an Internet of Things hardware solution that needs to be installed on the relevant appliances and machines on-site. Simble gets revenue both from the initial installation of the hardware and the monthly subscription fee to use their software.

While the Internet of Things element is a recent development for the company, Simble and its predecessor Acresta have been providing energy management services for quite some time. You can old case study for carbon monitoring services that Acresta provided back in mid-2015 to Jurlique here.

On the face of it, the Simble Energy Platform seems like a solid business idea. There’s been an increased focus lately on the variability of energy demand on grids, and the rollout of smart metres presents significant savings for businesses able to match their energy demands to off-peak times. The Internet of Things element makes a lot of sense as well, as it transforms the platform from a purely monitoring service to one that can provide real savings.
On the negative side, it doesn’t look like Simble is the only company operating in this space. Simble seems to be initially focusing on the UK for its energy management business, and the Prospectus lists a few different companies already operating in this market. More worryingly, IBM also looks like they are providing a similar solution, with both an energy monitoring and Internet of Things element. One of the biggest fears for tech start-ups is that some giant company starts offering a similar service before they are able to compete, to the extent that “what happens when Google gets involved in your business” is a standard question Venture Capitalists ask when interviewing start-ups. While IBM doesn’t quite have the reputation of Google for moving into industries and quickly destroying the competition, they are still a pretty formidable competitor for a business barely able to clear $2 million of revenue a year.

Financials



Mid-January is typically a pretty quiet time in the IPO world. It’s an awkward time to list as one month or so later you would be able to include results for the 2018 calendar year, yet as it stands you are left with financial information that is over six months old. This is a particular problem for the Simble IPO, as a pessimistic interpretation of their balance sheet from June 2017 suggests they could be bankrupt by now.


In June 2017, the business had only $182,000 in cash, vs $1,650,000 in payables, $309,000 in employee benefit liabilities, and just under one million in unearned revenue. For a company with negative net cash flows for the six months until June 2017 of -$951,000 this is a pretty major concern. Deloitte seems to have been of the same opinion, as they submitted an emphasis of matter statement regarding the troubling net working capital position when they signed off on the HY16 and and HY17 financial report.



From a revenue perspective the situation isn’t much better. Below is the normalized profit and loss for Simble, which incorporates both Acresta and Incipient IT figures from before the merger.

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The labelling is a bit confusing, but the first three are all Calendar years 2014-16, then HY16 is July-December 2016 and HY17 is January-June 2017. This is due to the business recently changing to a December end of year. It’s a hard table to look at, as it switches from 12 month periods to 6 months. By subtracting the HY16 numbers from the CY16s, I was able to work out the figures for the first half of 2016, giving me 3 6 month profit and loss periods.


$000 jan - Jun 2016 Jul - Dec 2016 Jan - Jun 2017
Revenue  $                1,090  $               1,629  $                1,160
Cost of Sales -$                  340 -$                  810 -$                   359
Gross Profit  $                   751  $                  819  $                   801
Other Income  $                   300  $                  455  $                   348
Operating Expenses  $                      -  
General and Administration -$               2,243 -$               1,823 -$               1,637
Marketing -$                  164 -$                  359 -$                     62
Total Overhead expenses -$               2,407 -$               2,182 -$               1,699
EBITDA -$               1,355 -$                  909 -$                   550
Depreceation and Amortisation -$                  366 -$                  407 -$                   462
EBIT -$               1,721 -$               1,316 -$               1,012

As you can see, there has been a negative trend in revenue from a high of $2.9 million in 2015 (or 1.45 Million every six months) to only $1.16 in the six months to June 2017. The prospectus mentions that the business is currently went through a restructuring period prior to listing, and it seems they are yet to see much revenue growth from their new energy platform. The jump to $2.2 million in operating expenses in the six-month period before the acquisition of Incipient IT and Acresta is also interesting. Around $1 million of these expenses are from Simble’s statutory accounts, so this does seem to confirm Simble was doing something else at that time other than simply getting ready to purchase Acresta and Incipient IT. It gets especially weird when you look further down at the cash flow statements and see that the business capitalized $4.711 million in development costs in the second half of 2016 as well.

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 In total, this means the business spent around $9 million in 12 months on operating expenses and software development, a phenomenal amount for a business this size. This seems to suggest the current management team is not exactly frugal, which isn’t great news considering they will have less than $7 million in net cash to play with post-listing.

Valuation




Simble made a statutory loss before tax of $1.25 million for the six months to June 2017, so any traditional valuation method as a multiple of earnings isn’t going to be possible. Instead, as seems standard for SASS companies, the main metric we can use to evaluate the company is a multiple of revenue.


With a maximum market capitalisation of $17.98 million, Simble is valuing its IPO at 7.75 times revenue. If you subtract the money that is to be raised, the pre-IPO value is $10.48 million or 4.52 times revenue. For a SASS company this is pretty reasonable. Bigtincan, a SASS company I invested in that was at the low end for SASS valuations listed at 6.6 times revenue and is now up over 50% on its listing price. On the negative side, Registry Direct, another SASS company that I invested in listed at 31.7 times revenue and now is trading around 40% lower than its listing price. However, what both these companies had which Simble doesn’t is impressive revenue growth. At the end of the day, the only reason investing in a company currently losing money makes any sense is because you think it is going to grow rapidly. The fact that Simble is currently shrinking makes this a much harder sell. If they had been able to wait long enough to show actual revenue growth from the Energy Management platform the valuation would be much more compelling, but I guess given the dire state of their balance sheet waiting six months probably wasn’t an option.



Verdict


While the idea at least of the Simble Energy Management platform seems compelling, at this stage there is too little actual evidence of real growth of this platform for me to justify an investment. In six months’ time if they can show some revenue growth it might be worth picking up some shares even if you need to pay substantially more than $0.20, but without seeing that growth the investment seems like too much of a gamble. I’ll waiting for something a little more compelling for my first investment of 2018.

Appetise

Appetise are a food ordering website that are seeking to raise between 4.8 and 6.8 million dollars. While they are listing on the ASX, they are so far only located in London, and have no connection to Australia. In a trend that has been growing lately, they seem to have chosen to list in Australia purely due to its lower compliance regulations and associated costs.

Background



By numbers alone, Appetise looks like one of the worst value IPOs I have reviewed on this blog. To explain, let me give a few simple facts presented in Appetise’s own prospectus:



After starting in 2008, Appetise was acquired for only $230,000 in May 2016 by Long Hill, an American investment company. After acquiring the business, Longhill poured $2,260,000 into Appetise to improve the company's website and increase the number of restaurants on the platform. However, despite these investments, revenue decreased from $91,715 in FY16 to $49,172 in FY17. This IPO now values Long Hill’s stake at $9 million, with total market capitallization on listing between 13.8 and 15 million, more than 200 times their 2017 revenue.  If the IPO is successful, this will be a 261% return on investment over 18 months for Long Hill, despite no measurable improvement in Appetise’s performance. If you are getting flash backs of Dick Smith right now, you’re not the only one.


Management




When Long Hill bought Appetise they did the usual private equity thing of installing a completely new management team, getting rid of the original founder in the process. The newly appointed CEO, Konstantine Karampatsos, has had experience both setting up his own online business as well as a stint at Amazon, and the CFO Richard Hately has had a number of senior roles at both start-ups and established businesses. While the CEO and CFO both seem like logical choices, appointing such an experienced management team to a company of this size leads to some pretty ridiculous statistics.

Konstantine Karampatos will have an annual salary of $204,050, post listing, plus a bonus of $122,430. Richard Hately, the CFO, will have a salary of $195,888, and will receive a listing bonus of $81,620. The marketing director will receive a salary of $138,750, though no listing bonus. All up, this is an annual cost of over $700,000 for the three highest paid employees, for a company that had less than $50,000 in revenue last year. Even if Appetise’s FY17 revenue increased by 1000% in FY18, it would still not come close to covering the salary of its three most senior executives.

This is a perfect demonstration of why a public listing at such an early stage is a terrible idea. A $50,000 revenue company should be being run out of a garage or basement somewhere by a few dedicated founders on the smell of an oily rag, not burning through cash on highly paid executives.



This cost has real consequences too. Under their proposed allocation of funds, with a minimum $4.8 million raise, Appetise will spend $1.55 million on executive and head office expenses, vs only $2.15 million on marketing. Given that their primary goal over the next few years is to raise their profile, this seems like a ridiculous allocation of capital.

Product


As Appetise is currently only operating in England, the closest I could get to testing Apetise’s product was spending some time clicking through their website. Overall, it was a pretty underwhelming experience. There are three large tabs that block a significant part of the page, which makes scrolling through options difficult, and the colour scheme and overall design feels a little basic. 


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On the positive side, they seem to have invested some time into making the mobile experience work well; if anything the site actually seems to work and look better on a mobile phone. It is also worth mentioning that while the prospectus mentions that the business has a national footprint on numerous occasions, their coverage in London is pretty minimal, and at this stage they seem to be focused solely on the city of Birmingham.



The company’s social media presence is similarly disappointing. The prospectus talks a lot about social media engagement through their loyalty scheme, where users can get credit by sharing Appetise on their social network but so far they have failed to get much traction in this area. The Appetise Facebook page seems to only post bad food puns, and each post gets around 2 to 7 likes on average

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(I also noticed that a company director and their marketing executive are two of their most common Facebook fans.) Compare this to Menulog’s page, an Australian food ordering and delivery service, where you’ll see content featuring available restaurants, slightly funnier puns, and as a result much higher engagement with customers. While Facebook posts might seem like a trivial thing to be hung up on in a company review, one of the key things that will affect Appetise’s success is how easily they can build an online following. The fact that so far they have demonstrated little nous in this area is definitely a cause for concern.

Market


Online food ordering is an industry with massive growth potential, and this is probably the main reason Long Hill felt they could get away with the prospectus valuation they have gone for. Appetise has a different model to the likes of Menulog or Deliveroo though, as Appetise does not take part in deliveries, instead, restaurants featured on the Appetise platform need to deliver the food themselves. The idea is this will allow them to scale more easily and not get bogged down with logistical complexities. While I don’t doubt this approach might work in the short term, (and Just Eat, a successful UK company with the same model as Appetise has proven that it can) in the long run an Uber Eats type model of flexible contractors, that can be sent wherever there is demand seems much more efficient. As websites like Uber Eats become more popular and economies of scale start to kick in, I feel there would be an incentive for restaurants to fire their delivery drivers and move from an Appetise type platform to an Uber Eats one.

Appetise makes the argument that their patform is currently cheaper, as Uber Eats charge delivery fees to customers, but just like with Uber, you would assume that these charges will eventually decrease as the site grows in popularity.


Verdict


Appetise’s response to a lot of what I’ve said here would be that the company is uniquely placed to experience explosive growth in the near future. They have a workable website platform, and their only major competitor in the UK Just Eat has demonstrated that there is money to be made in this market. While a $50,00 revenue company with a board of directors looks ridiculous now, if in 12 months’ time their revenue is closer to $1,000,000 no one will be complaining. The problem I have with this argument though is it requires a lot of faith with not much evidence. If Appetise is really uniquely placed to grow so quickly, why not hold off on the prospectus for a few months so they can demonstrate this? Appetise runs on a March end financial year, so their first half FY18 figures should be available now. Once again, the cynic in me thinks that if revenue was actually growing, these figures would be included in the prospectus. 

Even in a growing industry you need to be ahead of the curve and have a clear point of differentiation to succeed, and after reading the Appetise prospectus and looking over their website I simply don’t see this for Appetise. In one of the easier decisions I’ve had to make with this blog so far, I will not be investing in the Appetise IPO.



The GO2 People

GO2 is a WA-based labour hire company raising between 10 to 12 million, with a post listing indicative market capitalisation of 23 to 25 million. The offer closes this Friday.
The first thought I had when looking at the G02 IPO is that investors should be getting a great deal. GO2 owes 3.8 million owed to the ATO, has working capital issues with increasing receivables, and is set to make a loss for FY17. If the IPO doesn’t go ahead there seems to be a real possibility the company could be out of business in a few months. With that in mind, you would think the IPO would be priced low enough to ensure that the offer doesn’t fall through. Unfortunately for investors, this doesn't seem to be the case.

Company outlook

G02’s revenue has been on a bit of a roller coaster over the last few years. After only 20 million of revenue for the 2015 financial year, the company revenue shot up to 26.5 million for the first half of FY16 before falling off a cliff. Getting your head around the company’s revenue numbers is harder than it should be thanks to sloppily labelled profit and loss table in the prospectus. In the below table, the December 15 and 16 columns are half year figures, despite the profit (loss) label being “for the year.” Given this is probably the most important table in the prospectus, you would think someone would double check these things.

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To get a clearer picture than this table provides, I graphed the revenue below in six-month blocks for the last two years. Numbers for july 2017 have been extrapolated from the provided 30 April figures. 

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GO2 blame the downturn both on depressed market conditions and a preoccupation with getting ready for the IPO. It doesn’t seem like a great reflection of management that they could become distracted enough to lose half their revenue, but then again what do I know?

Valuation

I struggled for a long time to get an understanding of what I thought of the IPO price. GO2 is going to get a significant cash injection of 10 to 12 million if the IPO goes ahead, increasing the company’s net equity from just over half a million to around 10 million. This will have a significant effect on the company’s operations, which means it seems unfair to use their pre-IPO revenue to value the company.

One way to look at it, is to look at the value that has been assigned to the company before the cash injection of the IPO. As the company is being valued at 25.6 million with a 12 million dollar IPO, this means the pre-IPO company is being assigned a value of 25.6-12 = 13.6 million. For a company that made a profit after tax of 1.229 million after tax last financial year but a loss of $421,696 in the most recent reportable 12 month period, this doesn’t seem like a great deal. Even if we ignore the recent downturn and use the FY16 numbers, we get a P/E ratio of 13.6/1.229 = 11.065. By way of comparison, NAB shares are currently only trading marginally higher at a P/E ratio of 13.85, and a 41% dip in revenue for NAB would be almost unthinkable. You could argue that the potential upside for a company like GO2 is much higher, but I still think given the marked drop in performance, the valuation placed on GO2’s current operation is a little high.

While 95% of revenue so far has come from the recruitment business, 72% of money raised from the IPO after costs and ATO debt reduction are subtracted will be invested in thebuilding side of the business. GO2’s founder Billy Ferreira has a background in construction, and the prospectus argues that given they already have access to a workforce through their labour hire business, they are well placed to succeed in this area. It is this element of the prospectus that makes me second guess my opinion that the IPO price is too high. The company has a signed Memorandum’s of Understanding with property investors, and could potentially grow this side of the business very quickly.

Escrow

One of the good things about this IPO, is that basically all shares other than those bought in the IPO will be held in escrow. This means there is no short-term risk of pre-IPO investors offloading their shares and hurting the share price. If you are a short-term investor, this may be significant for you, but as the goal of this blog is always to identify long term opportunities I do not put too much weight on this point.

Summary

This is probably the IPO I have been most indecisive on. GO2 have managed to grow very quickly, and it looks like one of their main barriers to growth has been managing their working capital, a concern that should be eased thanks to IPO funding. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that the seemingly distressed nature of the company means that investors should be given a slightly better price to invest. Somewhat reluctantly then, I will be giving this IPO a miss.


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Croplogic

When I first saw the Croplogic IPO I was pretty excited. Lately ASX IPOs seem to have been an endless list of speculative mining startups and suspicious Chinese organizations, so its nice to see a company that seems genuinely innovative. Based on technology and crop management techniques developed by the New Zealand government research institute Plant & Food Research, the company is looking to revolutionize the agronomics sector with various technological and modelling-based solutions. This includes both patented electronic monitoring devices that provide live soil moisture levels from the field, as well as sophisticated modelling that allows farmers to predict moisture levels and show optimal times for watering and fertilizer application. The idea is that this technology will allow agronomists to spend less time driving from field to field taking samples, while giving farmers a higher level of service at the same time. The company has been around for five years, and has completed a few trials with large multinationals. While they claim these trials have been promising, they haven’t really amounted to much revenue as can be seen by the meagre profit and loss report.

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Croplogic is seeking to raise up to 8 million, with an indicative market capitalization of $23.9 million based on a maximum subscription.

Strategy

One interesting things about Croplogic is that they have decided to grow by acquiring established agronomy businesses rather than organically (if you’ll excuse the pun.) This is based on the idea that the agricultural market is suspicious of new entrants and values existing relationships. Croplogic therefore intends to purchase traditional agronomics businesses then slowly introduce Croplogic’s various innovations to their customers. While I understand the thinking behind this (at a previous role I saw first-hand a European fertilizer company fail spectacularly in their expansion into Australia due to difficulties selling to suspicious Australian farmers), there are a few factors that make me worried this strategy won’t work. Post listing, Croplogic will have only around 8 million dollars with which to buy the very specific type of company they are looking for (they are specifically targeting potato agronomics companies) in the limited amount of time they have before shareholders start getting impatient. With such specific criteria and a limited amount of time, it seems a real risk they will be forced to pay above market prices for the first suitable company they find.

Croplogic’s most recent acquisition doesn’t really inspire confidence either. On the 28thof April 2017 Croplogic acquired a company called Proag services, an agricultural consulting business based in Washington state USA. Croplogic paid $1.4 Million AUD, with another $1.25 million to be paid over the next few years provided Proag’s revenue does not decline sharply. As a test case for Croplogics acquisition model, the Proag purchase does raise a few questions.

While in the financial year ending March 2016 the business made a profit of $140,000 AUD, in 2017 this had reduced to a loss of $24,650 (to make things simpler, I am using AUD for both the revenue and purchase price, despite Proag being an American company). This loss was caused mainly by small a decrease in revenue from 2.24 million to 2.14, and an increase in operating costs from $580,000 to $690,000. To be clear, the FY17 financial year ended before Croplogic bought the business, so these costs cannot be easily attributed to acquisition expenses. While there could potentially be other factors that explain the 2017 loss, 2.65 Million seems hugely unreasonable for a company that lost money last financial year, and even seems on the steep side if you just take the FY16 numbers into account.  Were Croplogic so desperate to secure an acquisition before the IPO that they ended up paying more than they should have for a struggling company? As an outsider it certainly looks like that.

Management

One of the things I look for in an IPO is strong founder with a real passion for the company. Bigtincan’s David Keane and Oliver’s Jason Gunn are two great examples of this. In addition to being good businessmen, both founders seem to have a real passion for their respective companies and expertise in their specific industries. You get the sense with both Jason and David that they have invested personally in their companies, and will stick by them for as long as it takes.
In contrast, the managing director of Croplogic Jamie Cairns has only been with Croplogic for just over a year and has a background in internet companies. The CFO James Jones has been with the company for even less time, and last worked at a private equity firm. While they both seem capable enough, they don’t seem to be experts in agronomics, and it’s hard to imagine either of them sticking around if they were offered a more lucrative role at a different company.
Powerhouse Ventures

The largest Croplogic shareholder is the ASX listed Powerhouse Ventures, owning both directly and through its subsidiaries roughly 20% of the Croplogic stock post listing. I like to think of Powerhouse Ventures as New Zealand’s answer to Elrich Bachman from Sillicon Valley. The company invests in early stage New Zealand companies, most typically those that use technology developed in connection to New Zealand universities with the hope that these can eventually be sold later for a profit.

To put it mildly, Powerhouse Ventures has not been going that well lately. Listing originally for $1.07 in October 2016, the company now trades at around $0.55, following problems with management, higher than expected expenses, and difficulties with a number of start-up investments. 
This is a concern for any potential Croplogic investor, as one of Powerhouse Ventures easiest ways to lock in some profits and generate cash would be to offload their Croplogic shares. Considering the size of their stake in Croplogic, this would have disastrous effects on the Croplogic share price.

Summary

As you can probably guess if you’ve read this far, I will not be investing in Croplogic. While the shares are undeniably being sold for a pretty cheap price, their chances of success seem so small buying shares would feel more like getting a spin on a roulette wheel than a long-term investment. When you read through the prospectus, you get the feeling that the company is a weird miss-match of various technologies dreamt up in Kiwi research labs that some over-excited public servants felt would be a commercial success. Considering the minimal progress that has been made in the last five years, they probably should have stuck to writing journal articles. 

Why I’ve sold my Oliver’s Real Food Shares

I hadn’t intended to write an update on Oliver’s so quickly, but on Friday I sold my shares at 30 cents each, clocking a 50% return in two days.

Notwithstanding the money I’ve made, I’m a little disappointed to have gotten out so quickly.  I liked the idea of being an Oliver’s shareholder and I was looking forward to justifying forking out the ridiculous mark-ups on a cup of green beans by thinking I’d getting it back in dividends one day. However, a 30 cent share price puts the market capitalisation of Oliver’s at just under 63 million dollars, which seems exceedingly generous for a company projecting revenue of only 21 million this financial year.

Oliver’s originally tried to list at a market capitalisation of 50 million, yet failed to find sufficient support from institutional investors at that price. To be trading twenty percent higher than this just two days after listing does not make much sense. My best guess is the increase in share price is being driven by overly enthusiastic retail investors rather than larger institutions, and we all know how quickly this type of sentiment can change.


I will keep watching Oliver’s from the side-lines, and may even buy back in if the share price looks attractive again after their FY2017 numbers come out, but as far as this blog is concerned my investment is over. This is the first IPO recommended in this blog that I’ve sold. I can only hope my investments in Tianmei and Bigtincan end up being as profitable.

Oliver’s Real Food

I've changed jobs recently which has kept me busy, and with the Oliver’s Real Food IPO only open for two weeks I thought I would have to publish my review after the offer closed. It was with some relief then that I checked my email Friday night and saw they had decided to push things out by a week and reduced the share price from 30 to 20 cents in response to limited interest from institutional investors. The reduction in the share price isn’t as dramatic as it initially looks. Oliver’s has increased the number of shares at the same time, so while under the original offer the maximum subscription was to sell 30% of the company for 15 million at 30 cents per share, this has now been adjusted to 35.8% for 15 million at 20 cents a share. Although the share price has gone down by a third, the actual reduction in pre-offer valuation has only gone down by 25% thanks to the increase in the number of shares.

This last-minute drop in price and wrangling of share numbers puts you more in mind of a fishmonger trying to move some dodgy prawns than a multi-million dollar IPO offering. Pricing an IPO is meant to be a precise and scientific exercise, developed through numerous meetings with fund managers and other institutional investors to accurately gauge the market. Wesfarmers recently put a pin in their Officeworks IPO plans precisely because they failed to hear much enthusiasm from institutional investors at this stage of the process. For Oliver’s to be forced to drop their price at the last minute suggests that they either their fund manager skipped this step, or that Oliver's management didn't listen to the advice that was given to them.

Overview

Putting this last-minute price drop aside, Oliver’s Real Food is one of the more interesting IPO’s of 2017. The business runs a chain of healthy fast food options on major arterial roads on Australia’s eastern seaboard. While healthier fast food chains have been around for a while (Sumo Salad are rumoured to be planning an IPO of their own), Oliver’s is the first healthy fast food business that is targeting the highway service station market. As anyone who has ever tried to get a meal on a freeway can tell you, your meal choices are typically restricted to KFC, Mcdonalds, or a dodgy cafe with burgers and chicken wings sitting in bain-maries, so there does seem to be an opening for a healthier and more expensive alternative. 

Management

Jason Gunn, the main founder of Oliver’s is your classic new age guru. You can watch videos of him online talking earnestly about his love of transcendental meditation (17% of Oliver’s staff apparently are now practising transcendental meditation thanks to Jason, one statistic that was left out of the prospectus) and one of his go-to quotes is that Oliver’s is the first business that he has run that “satisfies his soul.” He also seems to have gone all-out on the photo shop options for his Prospectus photo.

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While it might be tempting to dismiss Jason as some snake oil peddling charlatan, he does seem to genuinely believe in the stuff he talks about, and he has successfully built a business around a set of values that seem to work for him. He also is balanced out by his co-founder Kathy Hatzis, who has held senior marketing positions in the finance sector and seems to the more down-to-earth of the duo. The only thing I could find by her online was a much more mundane article about managing brands that manages to not mention meditation, vaccines or enlightenment. Overall, they seem like a good pair of founders, and exactly the sort of people you would want to be leading a health food chain with a new age vibe.

Growth plans

One potential cause for concern is that growth has been slower than originally planned. In March 2015, Jason Gunn told The Australianthat he expected revenue to grow to 30 million per year within 12 months, yet even the projected figures for the 2017 financial year show revenue of only 21 million. More interesting still, is that in the same article Jason stated that he was aiming for an annual revenue of 30 million before proceeding with the IPO. I’m not really as concerned about this as I perhaps would be in other cases. After reading and watching a few videos on or by Jason, overestimating growth rates in a conversation with a journalist seems to be exactly the sort of thing he would do. As long as there are more sober minds around him this potential character flaw shouldn’t really be a problem. What’s more, Oliver’s growth is largely a factor of the number of stores they open, and this seems to be pretty reliant on when the big petrol stations have leases coming up. Store growth seems to have stagnated somewhat in late 2015/early 2016 with the number of company owned stores going backwards in the first half of FY2016 from 8 to 7. However, more recently things seem to have gotten going again, with 12 company owned stores at the time of the prospectus, and firm plans to increase this to 19 by the end of FY2017.
Longer term, Oliver’s have 60 sites in total they have identified for potential store locations in Australia for the next 4 years, which indicates the business has a lot of room to grow.

Financials

One of the things I like about the Oliver’s prospectus is the lack of massive pro forma adjustments to the financials. Too often, you flick through pages of rosy pro forma figures in the financial section of a prospectus only to find a few brief lines of statutory figures that show the company has actually been making massive losses. With Oliver’s the first figures presented in the financial section are the statutory profit and loss statements, and the only pro forma figures I could find were in the balance sheet. The numbers also seem to stack up pretty well. Margin over cost of sales has been steadily in the mid-thirties, and margin plus labour expenses has been consistently around 75%. While Oliver’s did make a small loss in the first half of 2017, for a company going through an IPO and growing this quickly it’s actually impressive the loss is this small.

In order to get a sense of what Oliver’s could look like as a more mature business, I projected two scenarios of a future Oliver’s profit and loss based on 40 stores here. In the first more conservative scenario, I projected that Oliver’s revenue per store would be the same as in 2015 at just under 1.6 million per year (I didn’t want to use the 2016 numbers as I wasn’t sure who store openings affected the figures), and that labour and cost of sales would stay steady at 75% of revenue. I increased the head office and general administration budget to what I feel is a generous 4 million and all other costs were simply based on the 2015 figures increased to reflect the higher number of stores. With these rather conservative estimates, the business would make just over 2.6 million per year after tax.

In the second more optimistic forecast, I projected a growth in sales per store by 20% to just over 1.75 million based on the assumption that increased brand recognition and familiarity would lead to more customers per store (Mcdonalds in Australia apparently averages over $5 million in sales per store so this is far from being unrealistic). I also used a lower cost of sales + labour to revenue ratio of 65% on the assumption that the higher revenue per store and supply chain efficiencies of having a larger business would help drive these costs down. With a slightly more optimistic leaner head office budget of £3.5 million, this shows a projected profit after tax of just under 9 million.

The indicative market capitalization based on a maximum subscription is $41.9 million at the revised offer price. The fact that a business like this has such a clear path to a profit of 9 million, while at the same time a more pessimistic model still shows profitability is a promising sign.

Food

You can pore over the financials until you are the blue in the face, but at the end of the day if you are thinking of investing in a restaurant chain It probably makes sense to actually eat in the place. For this reason, I drove down to the nearest Oliver’s to me in the Melbourne outer suburb of Scoresby last Sunday afternoon. The Oliver’s was located in a BP service station on a freeway next to an business park, with a KFC and Mcdonalds for competition. At 3:50pm on a Sunday Trade wasn’t exactly brisk. In the 20 minutes or so I was there only three other customers came into Oliver’s while the other two fast food restaurants probably served around 12 people each.

My meal of a chicken pizza pocket, one of Oliver’s trademark cups of green beans with salt and an Oliver’s brand non-alcoholic Organic Tumeric Beer came to a pricey $22.75 (the organic turmeric beer was an amazing $6.95 for 350mls, if Oliver’s can sell enough of them they should have no issues hitting their profit margins).
Pricing aside, I was pleasantly surprised with the food, the Pita wrap was fresh and tasty, and a cup of green beans flavoured with nothing but a little bit of salt is less boring than you’d think. I wouldn’t get the turmeric beer again, but I’m sure it is to some people’s taste.

Conclusion

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the Oliver’s IPO. While the last minute price change does potentially reflect badly on management, the rare opportunity of listing in a business that has both a proven track record of achieving profitability and great growth potential is too good for me to give this one a miss.





Moelis Australia

Overview

Moelis Australia is the Australian offshoot of Moelis & Company, an American investment bank founded in 2007. Moelis and Company have made a name for themselves as one of the leading “Boutique investment banks,” smaller specialised investment banks that have become increasingly popular since the GFC largely thanks to their perceived ability to give more independent advice. In one of their most impressive wins to date, Moelis and Co was recently announced as the sole lead on what will probably be the biggest IPO in history, the giant Saudi state owned oil company Aramco.

In Australia, Moelis has been similarly successful, though not without controversy. While they have been involved in numerous successful IPO’s, they were also the lead manager for the botched Simonds Group IPO in late 2014, with shares now trading at less than a quarter of their floating price. More recently they have made the news for apparently buying up Slater and Gordon debt at significant discounts, supposedly for some debt for equity scheme they are planning.

After the IPO, Moelis & Co will retain a 40% stake in Moelis Australia and a partnership between the two entities will remain with Ken Moelis himself, the founder of Moelis and Co taking a seat on the board.

IPO details

25 million of a total 125 million shares will be sold through the IPO at $2.35 per share, raising $53.8 Million once the costs of the offer have been taken into account. The Market capitalisation at listing price is $293.8 million, making it one of the biggest Australian IPO’s this year to date.

CEO

The CEO of Moelis Australia is Andrew Pridham, more famous for his role as Chairman of the Sydney Swans and his occasional spats with Eddie Mcguire than for his career as an investment banker. Pridham’s career has been impressive; he was appointed the Managing Director of Investment Banking Australasia for UBS at only 28 and has also held senior roles at JP Morgan before helping start Moelis Australia in 2009. He has been less successful in his ventures into the art collecting world though, making headlines a couple of years back when he purchased what turned out to be a forged painting for 2.5 million dollars. When Melbourne radio hosts started making fun of him about this, Pridham’s response somehow managed to go from victimhood to snobbery in one sentence.



However, as long as Pridham doesn’t decide to turn Moelis Australia into an art gallery, his dubious taste in Australian art shouldn’t trouble potential investors, and overall he seems like a pretty capable and intelligent guy. Also, for the CEO of an investment bank worth nearly three hundred million dollars his salary is quite reasonable, at only $450,000 a year plus bonuses. That he is looking to make most of his money through performance bonuses and increases in the share price is a positive for investors, and something that other recent listings (Wattle Health anyone?) Could learn from.

Expansion plans.

One of the things that worries me about the Moelis Australia IPO is the 44.2 million of the total 58.8 million raised  that will be set aside for the vague purpose of “growth capital.” This is expanded upon in another section of the Prospectus with the below statement:

"Moelis Australia is actively assessing a number of strategic asset and business acquisitions. None of these opportunities are certain of proceeding at the date of this Prospectus. Any one of, or a combination of, these acquisitions could result in Moelis Australia applying a substantial part of the Offer proceeds to fund the acquisitions of potential assets or businesses being assessed."

While some investors will see this as a growth opportunity, something about the combination of a CEO with no shortage of self-confidence, a professional services business and statements like this make me a little nervous. As any financial academic or Slate and Gordon stockholder will tell you, business acquisitions by listed companies have a tendency to destroy rather than create shareholder value, and I doubt Pridham is going to be able to sit on his hands for long with $54 million in his pocket. While it’s possible he might make the deal of the century, it’s also possible he might end up biting off more than he can chew.

Significant Investor Visa Funds Program

Another thing that concerns me with the Moelis IPO is its involvement in the Significant Investor Visa Funds Program. This is a program the federal government introduced a while back where Investors who invest over 5 million dollars in approved Australian investments are able to gain an Australian Visa.
These sorts of visa programs have come under a lot of criticism both in Australia and internationally, and in the USA in particular have become a target for fraudulent activities.

Canada cancelled their own program after finding it delivered little benefit and an Australian productivity commission report in 2015 advocated scrapping the program as well, arguing that it led to too many visas being granted to elderly people with limited English skills.

 While the current Liberal government appears to be committed to the scheme, you would imagine that all it would take is a change of government or a few highly-publicised scandals for things to change. Moelis themselves appear to be well aware of the risks this would pose to their business, as evidenced by this detailed response of theirs to the 2015 productivity commissions report.

Moelis does not break down the revenue for each separate sector, though the prospectus does state that average assets under management grew from 161 million to 624 million in 2017 largely thanks to this program, so we can assume that if this program was to be cancelled it would have a significant impact on the business.

Valuation

Looking around at most investment banks, they seem to cluster around a P/E of just under 15. Goldman Sachs is currently at 13.96, JP Morgan Chase is at 14.1, and Morgan Stanley is at 14.53. The big four Australian banks have similar P/E ratios. Moelis Australia are no doubt aware of this, and have presented an “adjusted” Price to Earnings ratio of 14.6 in the prospectus. On the surface this makes the valuation seem like a pretty good deal. As a relatively small player, their growth prospects are more significant than the larger banks, so to be priced at the same discount rate would represent a great opportunity. However, this is a good example of when it pays to do your own research before trusting adjusted ratios cooked up by investment bankers. When I divide Moelis Australia’s profit from the 2016 calendar year (9.8 million) by the post-listing market capitalisation of 293.8 million I get a price to earnings ratio of 29.97, more than double the ratio quoted in the prospectus. Although you might think this is because my calculator isn’t as fancy as the ones used at Moelis Australia’s head office, Moelis have actually made two rather questionable adjustments to get this lower ratio.

To start with, while P/E ratios are almost always calculated using previous earnings (trailing twelve months). in Moelis Australia’s adjusted P/E ratio, they have instead used their forecasted Pro Forma earnings for the 2017 calendar year of 16.8 million. While for a small growing company it may make sense to use forecasted earnings in a P/E ratio if the business is just starting, I fail to see how it is justified for an established investment bank with a proposed market capitalisation in the hundreds of millions. Moelis Australia are not planning to change their operations significantly in the next twelve months, so their reason to use forecasted earnings simply seems to be so they can get a more attractive P/E ratio.

The other adjustment they have made is to the price side of the P/E formula. Moelis Australia have taken the odd approach of subtracting the net offer proceeds of 57 million from the market capitalisation for the adjusted formula. This is supposedly justified because their acquisition plans are not included in their projected earnings, though as a potential shareholder, the actual market capitalisation is how the market will evaluate the stock, and the total shares outstanding will determine your share in any future earnings. While P/E ratios are based on earnings from the past and the market value today, by some odd form of wormhole accounting Moelis have ended up presenting a ratio based on future earnings and a market value from the past. 

Of course, I’m sure Moelis Australia could wheel out to a batch of highly paid accountants who would explain why the adjustments they made are reasonable and their P/E ratio is accurate, but then again Goldman Sachs had maths PHDs that could explain how CDOs were a great idea in 2006 and we all know how that ended up. I would argue that any future investor would be much better served using the 29.97 figure I calculated when deciding if Moelis Australia is a good investment, as this is how P/E ratios for other companies are quoted.

Verdict

When you use the actual P/E ratio of 29.97 to evaluate the deal, the Moelis Australia IPO looks reasonable, but hardly exciting. If you think that Moelis Australia is a great up and coming Corporate Investment Bank with a proven track record and that Pridham is a genius who will be given the new freedom of 50 odd million dollars in free cash to launch some amazing acquisition, then a P/E ratio double that of the larger investment banks is perhaps reasonable. From my perspective though, the Significant Investor Visa Program is not something I would want any investment of mine relying on long term, and with what I know about the track record of acquisitions, I would probably rather have the cash on the balance sheet invested in an index fund than whatever plan Pridham has cooking up.

BigTinCan

Overview

As someone working in business development, I’m used to being called into a room by an executive or manager for a presentation of the new sales tool that is going to reduce our admin/allow us to accurately forecast sales/provide quality leads. 9 times out of 10 it’s a bit of a let down. The tools are rarely demonstrated in a live environment, the data is often inaccurate, and the supposed insights with “machine learning” seems to be nothing more complex than a couple of if arguments in an excel cell. It is for this reason that I was a little sceptical when picking up the prospectus for Bigtincan, a content platform for sales people on mobile devices.

The Bigtincan hub allows companies to selectively push sales content to the mobiles and tablets of sales staff. The idea is that instead of sales people having to hunt through different emails or folders for the presentation or collateral that they need, all content can be accessed from the one hub, with both offline and online capabilities. Bigtincan is seeking to raise 26 million for a fully diluted market capitalisation of 52.34 million once all the various options and are taken into account.

Financials

BigTinCan is currently burning through a lot of money. The total loss in 2016 was nearly 8 million, and based on their own forecast figures they will lose another 5.2 milllion in 2017. In any other sector, trying to argue a company with these sorts of losses is worth over 50 million dollars would be ridiculous but in the tech space this is pretty standard. Any successful tech company you can think of lost huge amounts of money during their growth phase, sometimes for a long time. To use the most recent example, Snapchat’s market capitalisation post listing was around 29 billion dollars, despite losing over 500 million dollars last year.

Taking a closer look at the numbers, the extent of the loses seem more strategic than involuntary. In FY 2016, BigTinCan spent just under 9.5 million on product development and marketing, or 135% of their total revenue, and they plan to spend another 12 million in FY 2017. They could have easily reduced their loses by cutting back in these areas, but as every other tech company knows, the real key to success when you are selling software is scale. It costs nearly the same amount of money to sell a product to a million-people compared to a thousand, and you only get to sell to a million people if you have a great product. The key metric for any young software company is growth, and here Bigtincan does not disappoint. Total revenue was 5.17 million in 2016 and grew 35% to 7.04 million in 2016, with projected revenues of 9.7 million for FY2017.

The one potential problem I found regarding Bigtincan’s financials is whether there is enough available cash to sustain the future losses the business might make. BigTinCan will have 14.421 million dollars cash immediately after the IPO. Given their current and projected loses, there is a reasonable risk that they may need to refinance before they get into the black, which needs to be taken into account when deciding if purchasing these shares make sense.

Product

As someone who is often on the road presenting to customers in my day job, I get the appeal of the Bigtincan Hub. In sales, you are constantly searching through folders and emails for the right presentation or tool that suits the customer you are dealing with, and when you have to do it all on an Ipad it becomes even harder. A centralised hub that can deal with a range of different file types, allow commentary and collaboration, and let managers push files to different users has definite appeal.

What’s more, from all the research I have done, it seems the BigtinCan Hub has delivered as well. Most reviews they have received are pretty positive, and they have received some impressive testimonials from large customers.

Perhaps the most impressive write-up comes from Bowery Capital, a venture capitalist firm that publishes an exhaustive summary of all software tools for start-up sales organizations every year. In their latest piece, Bigtincan receives the best rating out of the 13 other companies in the “content sharing space.”

The only reservation I have with the Bigtincan hub is that it is targeted to address a very specific need. What happens if in a couple of years’ time, Google, Apple or Microsoft release something that can do everything that Bigtincan can do and more? Given the natural advantages these larger companies have, it would probably be the end of Bigtincan. Of course, the more palatable outcome is one of these companies deciding they want to acquire Bigtincan by buying out shareholders at a healthy premium over market price, so there is upside to this possibility as well.

Past court cases

Buried in the financial section of the prospectus is a small note that there were two court cases that had an impact on the Statutory profit and loss for the last two years. As investing in a company with a troubled legal history is an alarming prospect, I decided to do some digging to see if I could find out more about this.
The first court case was a dispute with an early director called David Ramsay. From what I can understand from Bigtincan’s version of events, David Ramsey was given money to develop software for Bigtincan which he then used instead to develop an app for his own company. It appears Bigtincan won this case and Ramsey had to pay $300,000 in damages as a result. While Ramsey has tried to appeal this, it looks like his appeal to the high court was rejectedso it seems this chapter at least is closed.

The second case was with an American Software company called Artifex, which filled a lawsuit against Bigtincan over the use of technology that let users edit Microsoft office documents on their smart phone. Bigtincan reached a confidential settlement with Artifex over this matter, so we do not know the exact outcome, but as Bigtincan has continued to grow since then we can assume that whatever concessions were made did not have a major impact on the Bigtincan business.

I don’t really see any major cause for concern with either of these court cases. Given the potential money at stake, it seems inevitable that software companies get into squabbles about proprietary technology, and most successful tech companies have a story of some estranged director or other in their past, if only to give Aaron Sorkin and Ashton Kutcher material.

Price

Evaluating Bigtincan’s listing price is a more complex than for most companies, as I was unable to rely on a basic Price to Earnings ratio to get a feel for what would be reasonable. Instead, I decided to use price to revenue as an alternative as nearly all software companies list at a loss.

Based on these figures, the Bigtincan valuation seems pretty reasonable. Total revenue from the 2016 calendar year was 7.934 million vs a fully diluted market cap of 52.34 million, giving a Price to Revenue ration of 6.6. Linkedin’s initial listing was at a Price to Revenue ratio of 56 and Salesforce’s was around 11 (this was back in 2004 when internet companies were viewed with suspicion). Closer to home, Xero the New Zealand based accounting software company listed on the ASX in 2012 with a price to revenue ratio of 25.

In addition to comparing Bigtincan to other technology IPOs, I have modelled the next five years after 2017 to try and get an idea of where Bigtincan could end up, assigning different growth rates to their main revenue and expense areas.

Based on the assumptions I have made (and I accept that many will disagree with a lot of these) the company will have an EBITDA of 4.4 million in 2022. To me this is very compelling. I do not think I have been overly optimistic with the growth rates I have used, and you do not have to be Warren Buffett to know that a fast growing SaaS company earning 4.4 million dollars a year will be closer in market capitalisation to 150 million than 50 million.

Verdict

There are significant risks with this IPO. Bigtincan is still a young company operating in a competitive environment, and all it would take is a change in industry direction or a better product from a larger tech company to end their prospects completely. However, the potential upside if things go to plan is pretty substantial, and for me the price is low enough to justify getting involved.

Tianmei Beverage Group Corporation Limited

Overview

Tianmei Beverage Group Corporation Limited is a Chinese company based in Guangzhou with two arms to the business. The first is as a distributor and promoter of packaged food products, placing different suppliers’ goods at convenience stores and supermarkets. The second is a bottled water company that sells water produced by a Chinese water processing plant they have a contract with. They are using the Prospectus to raise 10 million dollars, selling 25% of the company in the process. The money will be used to buy the water bottling plant they currently source their water from and to start importing Australian food products to China and promoting it at their contracted stores.

Valuation

From a pure valuation perspective, Tianmei China is a fantastic deal. According to the Prospectus they made a profit of over 4.3 million dollars in the first half of 2016, and the IPO values the company at 34 million, meaning the Price to Earnings (P/E) ratio is well under five if you annualised those earnings. On top of this, both arms of the business are in massive growth areas: The bottled water market in China has seen double digit annual growth due to pollution concerns and the growth in demand for Australian food and health products in China has been astronomical. You can see this in the impressive premiums that the market places on any Australian company that is exposed to Chinese consumers: Bellamy’s was trading at a P/E of 40 a little while ago, and even after sacking their CEO and concerns about their accounting, the share price has only shrunk to a P/E of 10. The A2 Milk company is trading at a massive P/E ratio of 68 and Blackmores is trading at a P/E of 20 largely thanks to growth potential in China.

It’s basically impossible to come up with a valuation that isn’t higher than Tianmei’s listing price using a discounted cash flow analysis. Even if you put a ridiculously high discount rate of 20% and assume a conservative growth rate of 6% for the next 8 years before levelling off to 1%, you still end up with a company value of over $40 million. The way I see it then, if you are evaluating this stock, investigating the exact growth rate of the bottled water market or Chinese supermarket conditions is a waste of time, as whatever you come up with is going to show the stock is a good buy. Instead, the simple question for any potential investor is can we trust this company? As a relatively unknown company operating in a country that doesn’t exactly have a spotless reputation for good corporate governance, it is hard not to be suspicious. The story they are selling through their accounts is one that anyone would want to invest in. The question is, is this story true?

Personnel

According to John Hempton, a role model of mine and someone who inspired me to start this blog, the best way to find out if a company is dodgy is to look at the history of the key management personnel. Hempton’s hedge fund Bronte Capital does just that, following people who they believe have been involved with companies that were fraudulent for potential targets to short sell.


Unfortunately, it’s hard to find nearly any English information on most of the key people in the company and I don’t speak Mandarin, so the only person I can really look into is the chairman, an Australian guy called Tony Sherlock. Tony Sherlock has been around for a long time in the M & A and finance world. He was the chairman of Australian Wool Corporation, worked at PWC in the risk division for ten years and co-founded Bennelong capital, a boutique corporate advisory firm. Judging by his Linkedin profile he looks like he is in his late sixties at the youngest, as he finished a Bachelor of Economics in 1969. Would a guy nearing the end of a successful career working risk his reputation promoting a company that wasn’t above board? It seems unlikely. He’s built up a solid reputation for himself over the years and it would be strange for him to risk it that late in his career. Of course nothing is certain, and it’s possible he’s got some secret gambling condition that makes him desperate for cash or simply doesn’t know that the company is fraudulent, but overall it seems like a positive sign that he is the Chairman.

History

One of the initial things that made me suspicious of Tianmei is its age, as according to the prospectus the company only started in 2013. Trying to unpick the exact history of Tianmei China is a painstaking undertaking, as there are a ridiculous amount of holding companies that have been created along with business name changes. As far as I can understand it though, it looks like the Tianmei business was created in 2013 by Guangdong Gewang, a Guangzhou based business started in 2010 that sells supplements of selenium, a chemical element that Guangdong Gewang claim is vital to human health. While I was initially suspicious of a company selling a supplement that I’d never heard of, after doing some research it actually looks legitimate. Although selenium deficiency is very rare in the West, apparently it is a problem in some parts of China due to crops being grown in selenium deficient soil. During a restructure in 2015 Guangdong Gewang separated the selenium supplement business from the water and FMCG businesses, and as a result created Tianmei. Interestingly enough, Guangdong Gewang is applying for admission to the Nasdaq for their own IPO currently. Guangdong Gewang still hold 22.5% of Tianmei through Biotechnlogy Holding Ltd, a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. (Both these companies seem to have a real love of the British Virgin Islands, Tianmei’s ownership also is funnelled through a British Virgin Islands company.) While the history isn’t exactly stable, there are no obvious red flags I could find to turn me off investing in Tianmei.

Ownership

One of the things I like about this IPO is that the initial listing at least isn’t just a way for the owners to cash in. As a jaded, though still cautious believer in the theoretical benefits of capitalism, it’s nice to see an IPO doing what a stock market is meant to do; allocating capital to a business that wants to grow.
A strange thing about the ownership structure is that the equal largest shareholder with 22.5% ownership is a woman called Han Xu, an Executive Director who from her photo looks to be in her mid-twenties. How does someone who finished their bachelor’s degree in 2011 and a Masters of International Finance in 2013, afford 7.2 million dollars’ worth of shares in the company? Perhaps a more basic question is how can someone who left university three years ago and never studied law end up as the ‘legal expert’ and executive director of a soon to be publicly listed entity, when fully qualified lawyers of her age are still working 70 hour weeks as Junior Associates? The most obvious explanation would be she is the daughter of someone important. After doing some digging around I found that one of the co-founders of the original Selenium supplement company was a guy called Wei Xu. While I don’t know how common the Xu last name is in China, it seems reasonable to assume that they could be related.
Is this potential Nepotism enough to be a concern? I don’t really think so. While she might not be the most qualified person for the job, If anything it’s reassuring that the co-founders of the company are maintaining their holdings. The third largest shareholder of Tianmei is a guy called Mengdi Zhang, whose father Shili Zhang was another initial co-founder of the Selenium business according to Guangdong Gewang’s filings for their Nasdaq IPO.

Verdict

Overall I think this looks to be a pretty good IPO. While of course there are always risks with investing in a company this young and especially one operating in a foreign country, the price is low enough to make it worthwhile. It seems the listing is about both raising capital as well as creating a link with Australia so they can start importing Australian foods, which perhaps explains why they have listed at such a low price; the benefits for them isn’t just the capital they intend to raise. If the market gains confidence that Tianmei is legitimate, the company could well double its market capitalization in the next 12 months and I will definitely be along for the ride. 


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