Many traditional growth investors characterize the ideal investment as being a company with substantial intellectual property–pharmaceutical research or computer chip designs or proprietary software–protected by patents. This allows them to charge very high prices, relative to the cost of manufacturing, for their products.
Some go as far as to say that the high margins that this model generates are not just the proof of the pudding but also the ultimate test of any company’s value.
As I mentioned yesterday, the two issues with this approach are that: the high margins attract competition and that the price of maintaining this favorable position is continual innovation. Often, successful companies begin to live the legend instead, hiding behind “moats” that increasingly come to resemble the Maginot Line.
In addition, high margins themselves are not an infallible sign of success. Roadside furniture retailers, for example, invariably have high gross margins, even though their windows seem to be perpetually decorated with going-out-of-business signs. That’s because furniture is not an everyday purchase. Inventories turn maybe once or twice a year. Margins have to be high to cover store costs–and, in normal times, to finance their inventories.
Although I am a growth investor, I’ve always had a fondness for distribution companies–middlemen like auto parts stores, or pharma wholesalers, or electrical component suppliers, or Amazon, or, yes, supermarkets (although supermarkets have been an investment sinkhole that I’ve avoided for most of my career). My experience is that the good ones are badly misunderstood by Wall Street, mostly, I think, because of a fixation on margins. In the case of the best distribution companies, margins are invariably low. So that’s the wrong place to look.
Where to look, then?
the three keys to a distribution company:
–growing sales, which will leverage the fixed costs of the distribution infrastructure,
–rapid inventory turns, measured by annual sales/average inventory. What a “good” number is will vary by industry. Generally speaking, 10x is impressive, 30x is extraordinary,
–negative working capital, meaning that (receivables – payables) should be a negative number …and getting more negative as time passes. Payables are the money a company owes to suppliers, receivables the money customers owe to the company. For a healthy firm, its products are in high enough demand that customers are willing to pay cash and suppliers are eager enough to do business that they offer the company generous payment terms.
A simple example: all a company’s customers pay for everything (cash, debit or credit) on the day they buy. Suppliers get paid 90 days after delivery of merchandise. So receivables are zero; payables will end up averaging about 90 days of sales. This means the company will have a large amount of cash, which will expand as long as sales increase, available to it for three months for free.
not just cash generation
The best distribution companies will also have a strategically-placed physical distribution network of stores and warehouses.
They’ll have sophisticated inventory management software that ensures they have enough on hand to meet customers’ needs + a small safety margin, but no more. It will also weed out product clunkers.
They’ll have stores curated/configured to maximize purchases.
…the curious case of Whole Foods.