Category Archives: Investing Lessons

Why I Sold MUEL

I recently sold Paul Mueller Co. I thought I would go into a little detail on the decision. The decision relates to how I have evolved as an investor. For those who want the history, please read my previous post.

Paul Mueller Company is a provider of manufactured equipment and components for the food, dairy, beverage, transportation, chemical, pharmaceutical, and other industries, as well as the dairy farm market. Overall I think that the company has done a decent job running the business. Of the four segments (Dairy Farm Equipment, Industrial Equipment, Field Fabrication and Transportation); Dairy and Industrial make up the majority of the top line for the consolidated company.

MEUL_segment_split

Dairy has been stable  since the acquisitions post 2007-08. I was hoping for the Industrial segment to post some sort of turnaround in 2015. That has not happened.

MUEL_dairy_and_ind

The company’s valuation is still quite cheap without any contribution from the Industrial (or Field Fab and Transportation) segments.

MUEL_valuation

So there are a few questions to get comfortable with the company as an investment:

  1. Does the Dairy segment continue to do well?
  2. Does Industrial turn around?
  3. If yes to the first two, does the valuation of the company improve?
  4. And aside from all 3 of those, is this a business run by quality mgmt?
  5. Lastly, does the pension liability on the balance truly reflect reality?

I honestly can’t really answer any of the above. I never really could. My original thinking was that if I buy shares cheap enough, I don’t really need to answer any of these questions. That’s not a bad way to invest, it’s just not the way I have gotten the most comfortable with.

When you buy a business like MUEL, you are buying a business with low(ish) product differentiation, capital intensive, and the business is subject to shocks that are beyond the control of the current management team. As well, you aren’t getting a ton of communication with the outside investor world. When buying microcaps, you hope for a business that is somewhat nimble, you aren’t getting that with MUEL.

It should be mentioned that MUEL has recently announced a share buyback. With such low volume on the stock, it could really move the stock higher.

In order to properly accommodate all the specific risks with MUEL you would need a portfolio that has 20-30 names. As well the amount of churn in the portfolio would have to be high. Something I don’t have time nor the personality for.

You may think that I will shun commoditized businesses or a business with little product differentiation to end users, that is not entirely correct. I have been putting a lot of thought into whether or not you buy companies that are part of a market that is commoditized or with little barriers to entry, and the answer of course….it depends. I’ll try and get some thoughts down to encourage conversation.

Thanks,

Dean

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Evolution of a “Value Investor”

This post will not involve in depth company analysis, instead I wanted to catalog some things that have changed with my philosophy when it comes to picking stocks to invest in.  Recently, some good news was released on one of my top holdings that clearly displays my change.

I started purchasing Pivot Technology Solutions (PTG.v) in the summer of 2014.  The idea behind the investment was a cheap company with decent ROIC (though admittedly low margin), capable management and a large overhang in the capital structure.  There was a large amount of preferred shares outstanding that I felt were preventing the company from being properly valued by the market. The common shares are illiquid and well under $1, making it something that many institutions would ignore. Given who owned the common and preferred shares, it would make sense to do some sort of conversion of the preferred to common to clean up the capital structure. Management had mentioned several times that they had intended to do so.

I continued to purchase shares throughout the fall of 2014 as the company executed on operational promises to investors. There was still mention of some sort of conversion in the future. I was happy with management running the business and the focus on operations. I figured the conversion eventually happened whether organically or being forced by some sort of activist once the value of the business was made apparent.

At the beginning of March 2015, the company announced some good news:

  • company officially initiated a process to convert the preferred shares to common shares
  • announced a normal course issuer bid to repurchase. though many company’s announce this and don’t follow through
  • initiated a quarterly dividend starting in Q3 2015, annual yield at today’s price is around 10%

Old vs. New

The previous version of myself would have simply sold the shares on the good news and likely plowed the winnings into something that was “cheap” (likely one of my losers). I would put money into something the market doesn’t understand and likely a dinky little company that abuses the share price and struggles to execute. I would expand the numbers of company’s I own, which has two effects on the portfolio.

  1. Another company for me to keep tabs on, therefore increasing the demand on my time to maintain an understanding of yet another business with yet another management team.
  2. Increasing the number of company’s in the portfolio reduces the effect that the winners have on the portfolio as a whole.

The new version of me took a few days to reflect and reassess. I reviewed the business, the management team and what I see as the market’s expectation going forward. I have concluded that shares are still cheap, and I have recently increased my position.

Why would I sell a cheap company that is growing and shouldn’t need to dilute shareholders in the future?

Dean

Disclosure: The author is long PTG.v

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Finding the right Net-Net

I would assume that the majority of the followers of this blog understand what a net-net is and why investing in them is supposed to generate superior returns. The theory is easy to understand, at least the way I interpreted it anyway. Buy something no one else wants (based on a discount to some sort of liquidation value) and wait patiently for “something good” to happen to sell your shares into. Risk is low as valuation is already so depressed, that all the “bad news” is supposed to be factored in.

I have not had great luck with net-nets. Maybe it’s because I try to take a look under the hood rather than just mechanically buy shares based on valuation. I am going to profile a few net-nets I have held. It should be noted that it may be too early to call each example a winner or loser, but all of them have tested my ability to remove emotions from investing. The real test with any net-net is likely patience, as they tend to be dinky little businesses with no real competitive position. As the market grinds higher, you have the sense that you are missing out and hold an illiquid little company that no one really cares about. It’s certainly not sexy.

To be clear, I have nothing against net-net investing as I continue to hold shares in companies that trade at a discount to NCAV. I am just stating some of my experiences.

ADDvantage Technologies Group, Inc. (AEY)

I bought AEY way back in Q2 & Q3 2011. I sold over 6(ish) months in 2012. Average performance was a loss of 16%. To be fair I bought mostly at NCAV, not at a discount to NCAV (which is what Graham was doing and is recommended). A quick summary of the stock at the time:

  • about 50% of assets were in inventory
  • major debate as to true value of inventory as they carried quite a bit and sales were weak
  • heavy insider ownership
  • working towards a net cash position (cash – debt)
  • end users (major cable companies) were hesitant to engage in major projects
  • recent change in agreement with Cisco was likely negative and creating uncertainty
  • Family owned and controlled, though compensation was reasonably fair and insiders where incentivized to realize larger profits

All of these factors led to a stock at NCAV. FWIW management seemed to “get it” for the most part as far as executing a business potentially in decline and one that definitely that had a ton of uncertainty in front of it.  They made a small acquisition to push some slow moving product through, they mentioned not chasing revenue but profit, and paying down debt. What they didn’t get (as is true with most net-nets) is capital allocation. No desire to buy back shares below NCAV, no special dividend, no marketing of the story to increase valuation.

After a few painful conference calls, I decided to sell. I have moved on and haven’t really looked back until today. I was sure that the top line wasn’t going to move anytime soon and figured the inventory would eventually be written off, which would remove my margin of safety. The inventory has not been written down since I let go of the shares, but the top line has struggled.

Here is what it would have looked like had I held onto the shares since my original purchase or if I had bought (and held onto) an ETF that tracks the S&P500.

AEY_vs._SPY

LGL Group (LGL)

I still own a small position in LGL Group. As with AEY, I bought most of my shares at NCAV, not at a discount to NCAV. This sums up the stock at the time of my original purshase (Q3 2012):

  • discount to NCAV
  • stable backlog, dropping top line
  • major markets for products were soft
  • 30% of total assets in cash
  • 13-15% of total assets in accounts receivable
  • 18-20% of total assets in inventory
  • some PP&E on the books that may hide additional value
  • significant owners of the stock that may pressure for management action
  • CEO that owned very little of the company

Since purchasing there were some positives to show that management was willing to right size the organization to survive. A reorganization was done to reduce costs, a strategic review was conducted, and moderately stable gross margins.

The issue was that the continued weak top line and small reduction in what was likely a very bloated expense line has led to operating losses. I am currently underwater by about 20% on the name and undecided what to do. The strategic review did nothing to close the gap between the share price and liquidation value. The following chart sums up the recent poor performance.

LGL_asset_values

The valuation has bumped around 1x NCAV, while NCAV has fallen. My margin of safety continues to erode. Recently the CEO resigned and there have been some board changes. Maybe this will be the catalyst to unlock value, but I am considering this one an (expensive) lesson.

Bri-Chem (BRY.to)

I had watched BRY for about a year or so before taking the plunge after a 30% drop over the course of a year, (I still own). Here’s a summary:

  • CEO owns about 5%, about 2 years salary
  • Director & former President to a subsidiary (Brian Campbell) owns 25%
  • Essentially 2 companies: one fast growing (fluids) and majority of revenue and one slow growth (steel pipe) and dragging down consolidated results
  • high debt load, no cash
  • 45-50% of assets in inventory
  • 30% of assets in accounts receivable

Since my purchase I am down about 8%. Several things have happened to change the story. First of all due to them being debt heavy and light on cash, they issued shares (fairly dilutive) at a discount to NCAV. A couple of things have brought encouraged a more scrutinized look at the balance sheet (strategic review and LOI to purchase the manufacturing facility of the steel pipe division) have brought down NCAV from almost $2/share to just over $1/share now. Yikes.

BRY_asset_value

I also bought the shares with an idea that they were trading at a discount to the sum-of-the-parts. The fast growing fluids division was growing steadily with increased oil & gas activity in the US and steady activity in Canada. There was some organic growth and some acquisitions. Both seemed to require capital and I never paid attention to how cash strapped the company was.

The steel division consisted of manufacturing and distribution. I didn’t pay enough attention to how poorly the business was performing and how little management (or analysts) seemed to care. Here are the last 9 quarters of sales versus production.

BRY_steel_production

They obviously overestimated the likelihood of success with this venture and were slow to respond to lack of demand for their product. They stated a 25-30% gross margin target in late 2012, then 20-25% in Q3 2013 and 15-20% now.

There may still be value here. The fluids division has a current run rate of about 10 mil in EBIT vs. the enterprise value of 100 mil. As mentioned there is a LOI to purchase the steel manufacturing division, but not the distribution part of the steel pipe division. Though management was confident both would go in the sale. Depending on the price, we could see some cash freed up for further fluids expansion and a re-rate in the company valuation to peer level. Even though the top line is extremely seasonal, I am holding my small position until there is some more color on the steel pipe division sale.

Sangoma Technologies (STC.v)

I wrote up STC here. Currently I am up about 40%. Most of this is due to the recent attention the company received from this blog. Here is a quick summary:

  • 23-25% of total assets in cash
  • 25-29% of total assets in accounts receivable
  • 17-18% of total assets in inventory
  • former CEO owns 20% of company
  • current CEO (from Q2 2011 until present) owns very little
  • transitioning from old legacy product to new products. split between revenue 50-50
  • CEO made it apparent that top line growth is priority 1
  • revenue is lumpy
  • small player in a large market
  • at the very least they have been break even from a cash flow standpoint over the last few years if you just include maintenance capex

STC_TB_&_Rev

They actually took a large write-down since I purchased shares, but it was all Intangibles and Goodwill, so my margin of safety was never compromised. I continue to hold and might even add as I think the lumpiness in revenue has the market spooked. But they are slowly executing on transitioning to more and more “new products” and with 65% gross margins, there is quite a bit of operating leverage.

Conclusion

What seems to be a large disconnect between investors and management in the land of asset based investments is timeframe. The CEO should be looking out several business cycles and making strategic business decisions based on all sorts of inputs. What levers to pull are more important than the markets current perception of the organization. Investors (generally) want to make a quick buck. They seem to be more interested in liquidating or putting lipstick on a pig to sell to an institution. Which isn’t a bad thing per se, it’s just a different set of priorities. The CEO is losing his source of income and I don’t think it would look good on his/her resume or LinkIn profile to say that the last job was something that was pressured to break up or liquidate because even after 10 years at the helm, the company was worth more dead than alive.

Many times these net-nets are family controlled and have been in the family for several generations. They are more precious to this family than a 1963 Corvette in mint condition. It’s their legacy.

So whether it’s right or wrong to try and cherry pick net-nets, I will be at least putting even more time to do some detailed research on them. I should note that I haven’t mentioned all net-nets I have interacted with, but just pointed out 4 examples of what you could be getting yourself into if you purchase a net-net.

So far I would like to see at least:

  • growing sales or at least flat sales
  • some cash position (preferably the largest current asset)
  • no cash burn from operations

Anyone have any thoughts on net-nets they would like to share?

 

Dean

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New Page…Investing Lessons

In an attempt to post more regularly, I would like to start doing a better job of sharing my (many) lessons learned.

Check out the new page Investing Lessons. It is inspired by Saj Karsan over at http://www.barelkarsan.com/.

The first one will be regarding a cyclical.

I owned WJA.to around $10-14 in late 2006 and early 2007.The company did have some trouble slowly passing on rising fuel prices to customers, but their largest competitor (Air Canada) was, well… a bumbling idiot. WJA was stealing market share and there wasn’t much Air Canada could do about it.

WJA_buy_and_sell

It was actually one of my first success stories as shares quickly approached $20 (I had a fair value placed at $20-22) a year after I bought. I remember analysts tripping over themselves to raise target prices. I was caught trying to catch the last 5%.

WJA was still a company with a fair amount of debt and in major expansion mode in a capital intensive business. A friend of mine asked me about WJA after shares went from $20 to $17 about how you get comfortable with a cyclical. I brushed off the concerns as a futile effort to predict the future.

Fast forward 5 years and WJA has now just broken through $20 again. I did end up averaging down somewhat and didn’t loose money on WJA overall, but I still failed to realize how cyclical WJA is. As a capital allocator, this was a major fail.

This post has been moved to the Investing Lessons page.

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