Economic uncertainty generally steers investors toward steady eddy businesses such as foods, consumer staples, healthcare and utilities. However, what investors should be seeking is recurring revenues, predictable and stable revenues with a high degree of certainty.
Recurring revenues are highly desirable and frequently carry a higher level of margin than capital equipment businesses. Even industrial companies can demonstrate a high level of recurring revenue and a fairly low level of capital intensity, both very desirable qualities for these times.
Manufacturing in the U.S., largely as a function of the weak dollar continues to progress at a fairly decent pace, especially for export related manufacturing. However, industrial distributors can also greatly benefit from this strength. Uniquely, most distributors end up as significant beneficiaries of inflation on two fronts.
Unlike many manufacturers who largely pass on cost increases dollar for dollar, distributors typically have been able to pass on gross margins on top of cost increases, meaning that these companies don't lose their margin percentage. The second point related to inflation is that distributors can sometimes be fortunate enough to get ahead of the curve in dealing with higher costs. These companies can obtain a shorter-term benefit in terms of a one-quarter or longer pickup in their gross margins if lower cost inventory is sold at the higher price points.
I think one of the better opportunities in industrial distribution exists in MSC Industrial Direct (NYSE:MSM), a company I recently reviewed in Marketthoughts.com
MSC Industrial is one of the nation's leading industrial supply distributors. With a network of 4 regional Customer Fulfillment Centers and over 90 branches nationwide, the company assures its customers same day shipping, at no extra cost, with over 99.99% availability. The company truly recognizes the importance of satisfying its customers' needs. If they fail to meet the service deadline standard, they send their customer $100.
The company's history dates back to 1941 but became a more significant factor as a direct sales organization with the publication of its first catalog in 1964. In 1994, the company began to expand into maintenance, repair and operations [MRO] products, which provide a more stable demand stream of sales and cash flow for the business. In addition to its master catalogs, the company also publishes 123 specialty catalogs tailored to specific industries or products.
A couple of years ago, in the Wall Street Transcript (TWST.com) (subscription required), MSM's VP of Finance described the steady demand for this business:
...we have the ability to reduce the total procurement cost of MRO (maintenance, repair and operating) supplies for our customers. Every business uses MRO. It encompasses everything from abrasives and cutting tools and measuring instruments to lubricants, sanitary supplies, cleaning supplies, chemicals, solvents, hand tools, power tools, hardware, electrical supplies, plumbing supplies, HVAC and more; essentially, if you can think of an MRO item, it's likely that we have it in our catalog.
This is a highly fragmented industry. Again from the interview:
Why do we grow and why have we grown so fast? Well, the industry that we compete in, the one for industrial supplies, is very, very fragmented. The total MRO marketplace in the United States alone is approximately $300 billion. If you exclude the demand from original equipment manufacturing, you probably have a $150 billion marketplace. that $150 billion represents what we call semi-planned and unplanned needs. Unplanned needs are pretty much self- explanatory ' something breaks and you need to replace it. So you call a distributor and they have the part and you get it.
Semi-planned are those things you know you are going to use up over time; you just don't know when you are going to need it and how much you are going to need. Generally, these are things that people stock in tool cribs or in supply rooms and historically they keep large inventories of these items just in case they need them. They are not things you want to be out of, because you can shut down a machine or a line or an entire factory.
I mentioned the industry is very fragmented. There are approximately 150,000 distributors that share the $150 billion marketplace and they employ a sales force somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million sales people. Most of those distributors are very small and have very few SKUs (stock keeping units) on hand. And they generally are niche players. So they may be a safety distributor or an electrical distributor. These people play in a very small marketplace and historically, since MRO in any one particular business has not been paid a lot of attention, people are doing a lot of manual sourcing of MRO supplies and dealing with a lot of different distributors.
MSC is a superior business model because we have 590,000 SKUs in stock compared to the 15,000 or so a small distributor stocks. this allows an individual or a business or an educational institution or a government agency to consolidate their buying to one very reliable vendor that has it in stock and can get it to them quickly.
The company has a particular competitive advantage in its extensive e-commerce abilities that enable customers to lower their procurement costs. This includes many features such as swift search and transaction abilities, access to real-time inventory, customer specific pricing, workflow management tools, customized reporting and other features. The systems can also interface directly with many purchasing portals such as ARIBA and Perfect Commerce, in addition to Enterprise Resource Planning [ERP] Procurement Solutions such as Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), SAP (NYSE:SAP) and Infor. Consequently, the firm offers its customers inventory management solutions that reduce sourcing costs, out of stock situations, and inventory investment, all of which become even more important when business slows.
MSM's valuation has contracted significantly of late; likely discounting further manufacturing and economic weakness, yet investors may be ignoring the potential benefits from share gain trends. On a trailing P/E basis, the company is as cheap as it has been in the last decade:
The company is currently trading at an EV/EBITDA of about 8 times despite earning 20% return on invested capital last year. In the last five years, ROIC has averaged better than 15%. Here's a look at the ratio analysis courtesy of tenkwizard.com:
Check out the relatively low level of capital intensity that this company has demonstrated over time. The company has generated over $700 million in cash flow from operations since 2000 and has spent only $128 million in capex over that period. As well, the company has treated shareholders as partners. Share buybacks have returned over $280 million to shareholders. Here is a look at the deployment of cash flow and returns to shareholders since 2000 courtesy of Reuters Knowledge:
Dividends, which were instituted in 2004, have grown steadily from an initial rate of $0.32 per share annually to a current annual pace of $0.72 and have returned $231 million to shareholders. The current yield is about 1.9%.
In January, the company announced that it has authorized an increase in its stock repurchase plan to 7.0 million shares, which includes the approximately 1.9 million shares remaining under the previous authorization. The company has shown steady improvement in working capital utilization and currently operates on a cash cycle of 98 days versus 113 days three years ago. Effective voting control of the firm is held by the founder and his sister who cumulatively hold 63% of the vote. Lone Pine Capital, run by Steve Mandel, a well-known hedge fund manager holds about 7.9% of the company.
Overall, this is a high ROIC business with a reasonably steady growth in recurring revenues. It is a business that seems to becoming more important to its customers and is grabbing market share in a very fragmented industry of mom and pop shops. Its competitive advantages come from scale and technological prowess as well as logistics. Some slowdown will occur in economic times such as we have but the valuation appears to compensate adequately.
Disclaimer: I, my family, or clients have a current position in MSC.