24 March 2013

Week ending 22nd March 2013

The budget dominated the business, economic and political news last week.  You will be pretty fed up with reading about it by the time this week’s TWb4TW is published.  So apart from a small mention at the end this is a budget free zone.

Cunning Foxtons

One positive sign that maybe an economic recovery could be stirring is a revival of interest from investors in Initial Public Offerings (IPO) or “floating a company on the stock market” to you and me.  Investors are encouraged that both Esures and estate agents Countrywide’s IPOs got away smoothly last week and have even begun trading above their float price, which is a first for some time.
This has prompted reports that another high profile firm of estate agents, Foxtons, are considering a potential £780m IPO.  You may remember Foxtons prospered during the London property boom and became famous for the brightly painted Minis it provided to its staff which promoted its brand as they hurtled round the streets of London.  Foxtons expanded rapidly on the back of the London property boom.  However, whilst it was high profile it was not very highly thought of by people who had bought or sold property with them.  Over optimistic valuations and putting sold signs on properties that were not yet sold to boost their apparent sales success were just two examples of practices their clients complained of.
In 2007 BC Partners (BCP) paid £375m for the business of which £300m went to Jon Hunt the founder.  Then the London residential property collapsed and so did Foxton’s profits.  The deal had loaded the company with debt and initially the banks involved took control with a debt for equity swap and BCP writing off a significant proportion of their investment.  However, surprisingly BCP then decided to buy back both the debt and the equity.
Perhaps not so surprisingly.  The buy backs were achieved at an advantageous price as the banks were happy to get rid of the problem.  The timing was good as the London residential property market recovered and Foxton’s high market share enabled them to deliver record sales and profits.  So it would not be surprising if the next stage of BCP’s cunning plan for Foxtons is an IPO.  If they were to achieve £780m this would be a pretty good return despite the earlier problems.  But what would investors be getting?
Now even my dog knew that the first property market to recover would be London.  So, on the face of it you would be investing in the dominant player in a resurgent London property market which sounds pretty good.  However Buzzel and Gale in their book “The PIMS Principles” demonstrated that whilst high market share is indeed highly beneficial to profitability, it depended on “how” that market share had been achieved as to whether that profitability could be sustained.  Market share achieved through delivering “superior relative quality” of product and service to the customer would sustain high profitability.  Market share achieved through other means, such as opening lots of estate agent offices, contains inherent weaknesses which eventually become detrimental to profits.
This was backed up by Zook and Allen in their examination of the long term performance of over 2,000 companies in 2001 and then repeated in 2011.  They concluded that:
“A common misconception is that rapid, sustainable growth can only occur in “hot” markets—markets that are growing rapidly—and that being in a hot market is the best way to generate high profit levels. Our data refutes that. A variance analysis of our database demonstrated that relative competitive position within an industry is more than four times more significant than the choice of industry in determining the economic returns of companies. In other words, it’s how you play the game that matters, not which game you play”.
All the commentary around the possibility of a Foxtons IPO centres on the “hot” London residential property market as the key to success.  If Foxtons have also upped their game on the quality of service they provide their clients, the acid test being would most of their clients definitely recommend them to others, then you would have the best of both worlds, a quality company dominating a currently hot market.  However if not much has changed at Foxtons then an IPO would be no more than an opportunity to have a punt on the London residential property market.  Each is a valid proposition provided it is clear which one you are being offered.  Is it real "competitive strength" or just high and possibly temporary market share advantage?  So beware the cunning Foxtons and look carefully at the other IPOs being lined up for launch this year.

ARM – keeping cool in a hot market

In case anyone has not heard of ARM they are a Cambridge based company that designs microchips and generates its revenues from licensing these designs to those that wish to incorporate them in their products.  Its chip designs are used in nearly all the world’s mobile phones and you won’t find a hotter market than that.
ARM was created from a spin off from Acorn computers, a company that prospered for a while but just could not keep up with the big boys in PCs.  However what they did know was that could design better micro chips than Intel and others.  Because they did not have experience or facilities for manufacturing they came up with the licensing model.  This has proved to be spot on and so resilient that ARM safely worked its way through the dotcom boom and volatility in semi-conductor markets.  In 2012 they achieved £577m of sales and £221m of profit.
ARM is an outstanding example of how "competitive strength" creates the "changeability" that delivers even more "competitive strength".  They demonstrated this again last week when their CEO Warren East announced he would be leaving after 12 years in charge, handing over to Simon Segars who has been with ARM even longer than East.  Given that the opportunities for ARM to go for another major phase of growth have never been better it is perhaps surprising that East has decided to go now.  His reasoning is that as it will take 6 years for ARM’s next design blueprints to be in products and with the company being in a strong financial and market position now is the right time to make this change.
This is a superb example of clear thinking and the understanding that it is not the “hot” market that really matters but the company’s ability to successfully exploit the opportunities.  East has ensured ARM can do this in every respect, right down to deciding that a change of leadership was required.  We don’t have enough people like him in top positions in UK businesses.

Italian Job

The financial crisis in Cyprus was a big economic and political story last week.  The Cypriot government is trying to raise the €6bn it needs to secure an EU bailout and proposed to do this by taking a slice out of citizens and exp-pats’ bank accounts.  Tactically actually having a government is where the Cypriots may have put themselves at a disadvantage in their negotiations with the EU.  Let me explain.
By contrast it is now more than a month since the Italian elections and they still haven’t actually got a government.  In fact as 25% of the vote went to a party that said it would not be part of any government Italian voters in effect voted not to have government and that’s what they got, or didn’t get.  This confirms the observation of a previous UK ambassador to Italy that “it is not difficult to govern the Italians, it is simply unnecessary”.
So Italy is probably a country that can get by perfectly well without a government. When it comes to negotiating with the EU (or Germany to be more accurate) this puts them at an advantage as the Italians have contrived a situation where there is no one for the EU to talk to.  This leaves the EU with little choice but to carry on as before which suits the Italians, both voters and politicians perfectly.  Cyprus and maybe Spain take note!

Rhyming slang

Briefly on the budget I was struck by George Osborne’s little catch phrase, “aspiration nation”.  This sounded like a trial run for the Tory election slogan in 2015.  Ed Milliband countered with “a degraded budget from a degraded chancellor”.  However without the little rhyme it isn’t memorable enough to be an election slogan.
However the overall reception from UK business to the budget was that we are an “anticipation nation”.  In other words we are still waiting for George Osborne to redress the balance between just making announcements and actually doing something.  Even some of the things that sounded like they might be about to doing something are not planned to happen for 12 months or more.  A bit less of the politics and a bit more focus on the day job of getting the UK economy moving is what business is still looking for.

So that was some of the week before this week. We hope you found some of the above thought provoking and useful for you and your business. We trust you had a good weekend and hope you have a great week this week.

No comments:

Post a Comment