Whole Foods (WFM) and Amazon (AMZN)

Most of the talk I’ve heard about AMZN’s acquisition of WFM revolves around the idea that AMZN plays a long game.  That is, the company is willing to forgo profits for an extended period in order to achieve market share objectives–which will ultimately lead to an earnings payoff.  After all, it took eight years to get its online business into the black.

What’s being lost in the discussion, I think, is the present state of WFM.  It’s not a particularly well-run company.  Analyst comments, which have surfaced publicly only after it became clear that WFM would be acquired, suggest the company has antiquated computer control systems.  It has waffled between emphasis on large stores and small.  We know that it needed a private equity bailout during the recent recession.    It has begun a down-market expansion through “365 by Whole Foods” stores; in every case I can think of, except for Tiffany, this has been a sure-fire recipe for destroying the upmarket main brand.

The easiest way to see management issue, I think, is to compare WFM with Kroger (KR), a well-run supermarket company.  Their accounting conventions aren’t precisely the same, but I don’t think that makes much difference for my point.   (Figures are taken from the most recent 10Qs.).  Here goes:

–gross margin:  KR = 19.7%;  WFM = 33.8%

–pretax margin:  KR = 1.2%;  WFM = 4%

–inventory turns/quarter:  KR = 5.8x; WFM = 7.7x.

What do these figures mean?

–WFM turns its inventories much faster than KR, which should give WFM a profit advantage

–WFM marks up the items it sells by an average of about 50% over its cost of goods;  the markup for KR is half that.

–the combination of faster turns and much higher markup should mean a wildly higher pre-tax margin for WFM

–however, 14 percentage points of margin advantage for WFM at the gross line almost completely evaporates into 2.8 percentage points at the pre-tax line.

–this means that WFM somehow loses 11.2 percentage points in margin between the arrival of goods in the store and their delivery to customers, despite the fact that stuff sells significantly faster at WFM than at KR.

my take

Yes, AMZN can expand the WFM customer base.  Yes, it can cross-sell, that is, deliver non-food goods, like Alexa, through the WFM store network and the 365 brand through the AMZN website.  Yes, using the Amazon store card will likely get customers a 5% rebate on purchases.  Yes, WFM’s physical stores may even serve as depots for processing AMZN returns.  That’s all gravy.

But if AMZN can eliminate what’s eating those 11.2 percentage points of margin (my bet is that it can do so in short order) it can lower food prices at WFM by a huge amount and still grow the chain’s near-term profits.  This is what I think activist investor Jana Partners saw when it took a stake in WFM.

 

high margins vs. low

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.

Monday

…the curious case of Whole Foods.