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.

 

 

operating leverage (III)

You may notice that I’m working my way down the income statement in discussing operating leverage.  Yesterday I wrote about the leverage that comes from product manufacturing.  The key to finding this leverage is identifying fixed costs.

All the profit action takes place between the sales and gross profit lines.  This is also the most important place to look for operating leverage for most firms.

operating leverage in SG&A

Today’s topic is the operating leverage that occurs in the Sales, General and Administrative (SG&A) section of the income statement.

The general idea is that large parts of SG&A expense rise in line with inflation, not sales.  So if a company is growing at 10% a year while inflation is 2%, SG&A should slowly but surely shrink in relative terms.  And the company will have an additional force making profits grow faster than sales.

For many non-manufacturing companies, this is the major source of operating leverage.

why this leverage happens

There are several reasons for SG&A leverage:

–most administrative support functions reside in cost centers, meaning their management objective is to keep expenses in check.  Employees here are not directly involved in generating profits, so they have no reason to demand that their pay rise as fast as sales.

–as a company gets bigger and gains more experience, it will usually change the mix of administrative tasks it performs in-house and those it outsources, in a way that lowers overall expense.

–a small company, especially in a retail-oriented business, may initially do a lot of advertising to establish its brand name.  As it becomes larger and better-known, it may begin to qualify for media discounts and be able to afford more effective types of advertising.  At the same time, it will be able to rely increasingly on word-of-mouth to gain new customers.  In addition, it will also doubtless be shifting to more-effective, lower-cost internet/social media methods to spread its message.

negative working capital

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a form of operating leverage.  It has its effect on the interest expense line.  And in today’s near-zero short-term rate environment, it’s not as important as it normally is.  But, on the other hand, one day we’ll be back to normal–when being in a negative working capital situation will be more important.  It’s also one of my favorite concepts.

If a company can collect money from customers before it has to pay its suppliers, it can collect a financial “float” that it can earn interest on.  The higher sales grow, the bigger the amount of the float.  If the company is big enough (or, sometimes, crazy enough) it can even use a portion of the float to fund capital expenditures.  The risk is that the float is only there if sales are flat or rising.  If sales begin to decline, either because of a cyclical economic downturn or some more serious problem, the float begins to evaporate, as payments to suppliers exceed the cash inflow from customers.

Lots of businesses are like this.  For example, you eat at a restaurant.  You pay cash.  But the restaurant only pays employees and suppliers every two weeks.  And it pays is utility bills at the end of the month.

Hotels are the same way.  Utility companies, too.  Amazon and Dell, as well.