Friday, April 19, 2013

My biggest mistake in the last 12 months

It was a mistake of omission.

There is this startup with a promising but unproven technology. I spent weeks searching the business and the market. I got to point of pulling the trigger. It was at a price that I was comfortable with to put in a small stake based on my calculated risk/reward, knowing I could lose it all. I literally had my finger on the "buy" button when I hesitated, wanting an even cheaper price. The next week, price started running away from me and has never returned. If I'd bought it, it would've been a 3-bagger in less than 3 months and would've taken care of my 2013 return single-handed.

It's been really painful watching the price running further and further away from me on a daily basis. Trust me. It's painful. Even having reflected on the lessons learned, knowing probability plays a role here and drilling on it does me no good, I can't help agonising about it.

Emotion can kill an investor.

Another lesson: net-net mentality is sometimes wrong.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Is HGL Limited a cigarbutt?

HGL Limited (HNG) is an Australian microcap listed on ASX with a market cap of $22m. Its current share price is $0.44. It has virtually no debt. Insiders own about 40% of the company. Its history traces back to First World War. It was originally founded in 1898 as Hancock & Gore, a timber mill operator.

Between 1985-2010, it was under Kevin Eley's leadership. Without a better word to describe it, I would call it a "micro-conglomerate". Eley copied Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway model with 2 distinct operations: (1) investing in public listed companies and (2) buying and operating a group of private businesses. However, since 2009, HGL has shifted strategy and gradually exited its equity investments. In 2010, Eley stepped down and was replaced by then COO Michael Mahoney. HGL is now a pure operator of a bunch of unrelated businesses. (Eley remains to be a board member.)

While its businesses are largely unrelated with no syngery, they all follow a common theme: they are branded products and services operating in their very narrow niches. These niche markets are usually fragmented and allow HGL to exert some pricing power. HGL don't manufacture their products. Effectively, It is an importer/distributor.

HGL's wholly owned businesses (sale figures are FY2012's, in AUD):
  • SPOS - point-of-purchase marketing services ($23m)
  • JSB Lighting - high-end lighting ($15m)
  • Leuteneggar & XLN Fabric- fabrics for home sewing and craft ($17m)
Businesses with 50% ownership:
  • Anitech - large format printer products and services ($29m)
  • Mountcastle -  school uniforms and headwears for police and defence forces. ($12m)
  • BOC - ophthalmic equipments ($7m)
  • BLC Cosmetics - skin care ($10m)
  • Biante Model Cars - collector model cars ($5m)
Business was tough in 2012. Persisting high Australian dollar caused price deflation and consumer sentiment was the worst since GFC. Both SPOS and JSB suffered huge setback. Management at SPOS had misjudged demand. It suffered large writedowns and impairments. HGL's revenue fell 28% and its net profit was negative. Excluding the writedowns and impairments, EBIT margin was 0.3%, effectively breakeven, while historically it was in the range of 7-9% in the previous 5 years.

Our investment thesis is based on a simple idea: reverse to mean.

Between 2008 and 2011, HGL's average ROE was about 10%. However, HGL has goodwill from its past acquisitions on its book. Use HGL's own preferred measurement, EBIT / Capital Employed averages close to 20%. HGL has never lost money in the past 10 years. HGL is an above average business. If HGL manages to control its costs and achieve a typical 5% net margin, using the 2012 trough revenue of $118m, it can achieve a net profit of $5.9m. With a conservative P/E multiple of 8.5x, each share will be worth $0.68, 50% above the current price. If revenue returns back to historical average of $160m and net margin 6%, with a more "normal time" multiple of 10x, it will be worth $1.3 per share, 200% above the current price.

(HGL has non-controlling interests on its book who have a claim on HGL's profits and assets. All the above figures except EBIT and Capital Employed have been adjusted to reflect what equity holders get. All figures are in AUD.)

How likely can HGL turn around its business?

The catalyst that is helping us out is a swift improvement of consumer sentiment in the first 3 months in 2013.

(source:, Westpac Bank, Melbourne Insititute)

The chart below shows HGL's share price against 2 Australian retailers, Harvey Norman and Myer. (Harvey Norman is comparable to Best Buy in US. I'm not too sure what the US equivalence of Myer is. Maybe JC Penney?) You can see the dramatic recovery of HVN and MYR in the last 3-6 months, coinciding with the improvement of consumer sentiment. You can see HGL is lagging behind because improvement of its profitability is not yet in sight.

(source: Google Finance)

After deducted the minority interests, HGL has a net tangible asset (NTA) value of $0.41 and a net current asset value (NACV) of $0.35 per share. While the current share price is very close to NTA, HGL is definitely not a net-net. We have some safety from the value of the assets, but it's not bullet proof.

The opportunity here is the possibility of a quick turnaround. We are relying on its operating leverage to propel its profit (and share price) quickly when sales volume picks up.

Make no mistake. Turnarounds are risky businesses. Besides, there are few things I don't like about HGL:
  • Since each subsidiary operates independently with its own CEO, HGL has effectively 2 layers of management. It made sense when Eley was still around acting the capital allocator. But it's no longer the case. I think it's redundant and wasteful. (The corollary is: HGL will be worth more if it's broken up. The main it'll lose is the access of the capital market.)
  • The non-controlling interests act like preference shares: always standing in the front of the queue to take a cut before the equity owners.
  • Mahoney stepped down as the CEO because of "ill health" a few months ago. One got to wonder if HGL's poor result took a toll on his health.
On a balance, my view is the potential of a swift realisation of the upside is enough to compensate for the negatives. And I think HGL is qualified as a "cigarbutt". You quickly take your puff and then move on.

(Disclosure: Long HNG.AX)