Brief Portfolio Update Q2 2019 and Greystone Capital Commentary
During the second quarter of 2019, Greystone Capital returned 16.5%, bringing year to date returns to 58%, which compares favorably to both the S&P 500 and the Russell 2000, up 18.5% and 16.8% YTD. The portfolio benefited most from holdings in CRH Medical, The Joint Corp., Rimini Street, and SharpSpring Technologies. I’m happy with the returns achieved throughout the first half of the year, but will refrain from patting myself on the back for six months of solid performance, as the end of 2018 is all too fresh in my mind. In my view, the positive year has been the result of mean reversion, some of our businesses executing well, sticking to my process, and adding to what’s working. In addition, Greystone has been provided strong tailwinds in the form of a rising overall market. I continue to like our positioning as a differentiated, uncorrelated strategy, highly concentrated and driven by fundamental research. With that said, to expect this type of performance in any future period would be unreasonable.
The quarter was a relatively quiet one, with one new investment made, consisting of the re-initiation of a position I have successfully been long twice (maybe I should stick around this time?). I became familiar with this business years ago, and have seen no decline in operating performance preceding a large drop in the share price due to what I believe can be characterized as non-economic selling activity. While there is a bit less margin for error given the slightly higher valuation from our first purchases, the company remains in better competitive and financial position today, and the growth runway remains long.
I’d like to touch on a few general ideas below before diving into portfolio commentary. As always, this quarter and moving forward, my goal has been to compound your capital at the highest possible rates, and I believe the businesses in our portfolio remain in a good position to do so; differentiated, undervalued, and executing well.
Moving away from deep value
I spent some time during the quarter looking at both deep value opportunities as well as businesses outside of my normal comfort zone, such as a few retail and consumer facing companies. I wrote up a few on the blog, and although I didn’t buy any of these businesses for partner accounts, the exercise was anything but a waste of time.
With that said, I will probably be spending less time on deep value investment type of opportunities, and more on attempting to unearth businesses that meet my criteria which includes higher quality businesses that are misunderstood, with solid management teams, long runways for growth and widening competitive advantages. Without digging into the data, it’s my view that the investment strategy of finding and purchasing ‘statistically cheap securities’ just because they are cheap, and waiting for the market to ‘re-rate’ them with no regard for business quality or any catalysts in place, may be fading away.
The reasoning behind this stems from looking at some historical market valuations, and noting the differences (in prices and strategies) between today, and just 10 years (or so) ago. While you’ll never hear me make ‘market calls’ or try to predict the general direction of things as it relates to our goals, it’s no secret that market valuations today are quite different than they were in 2009, or even 2002. Despite what we hear in the financial news media everyday, this seems to be a period of increased confidence as the economy has recovered from the financial crisis, and most meaningful discounts that existed back then have probably closed, save for some individual opportunities. Aided by the Fed, low interest rates and the rise of passive investing, the market has been driven in large part by multiple expansion, as investors in these passive vehicles continue to purchase stocks regardless of fundamentals, in order to achieve the holy grail of low fee investment management.
The rise of passive investing or ‘indexation’ has had two dramatic effects on the market overall, one of which bodes well for Greystone Capital, and part of the reason for our existence in the first place. One, there is now a tremendous amount of capital being concentrated in the most large, liquid securities. Think Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, JP Morgan etc. That of course leads to a smaller amount of capital chasing smaller, less liquid opportunities such as the small and microcap securities in which we frequent. It also leads to a smaller amount of capital chasing statistically cheap businesses simply because they are statistically cheap.
So how might this affect deep value opportunities?
As mentioned above, the rise of passive investing, couple with the slow death of active managers who a.) can’t outperform passive vehicles after fees and b.) have to scale (by growing assets under management) in order to compete with low-fee advisors or indexes, has led to the majority of capital moving away from these statistically cheap securities. As a result of this – as well as recent mistakes – I’ve learned that there is less of a chance that we are ‘bailed out’ of a cheap name due to reversion to the mean or multiple expansion. While this phenomenon isn’t true for all stocks – Google trading at 5x cash flows would certainly ‘mean revert’ very quickly – it’s mostly true for the businesses I’m studying and interested in owning. It’s still very possible to find value-based small and microcap stocks, but I now have the issue of wondering if the idea of just finding value is enough to earn an acceptable rate of return moving forward. I’ve certainly owned these types of businesses in the past, but sacrificing business quality for cheapness has led to some of my biggest mistakes as an investor.
Said another way, one of the first things you learn as a value investor is the idea of buying businesses that are ‘ugly’, ‘cheap’, ‘out-of-favor’, and waiting until human psychological biases clear up so that the market will realize that things aren’t that bad, thus bidding up the price. Buying pessimism and waiting for optimism. This ‘mean-reversion’ effect, which can also happen market-wide, was a more than acceptable way to earn solid rates of return for very long times for many investors. It still works for some. Today, however, it’s not as clear to me that identifying cheap securities is enough to earn an acceptable return without a catalyst in place or the presence of some actual business quality to move them to fair value. I’m just not sure if there is any ‘interested capital’ coming in to do that.
While it’s never a waste of time or bad thing to study all types of businesses, as it relates to our portfolio and new investments, I will, moving forward, place extra caution on owning deep value names, being careful not to totally sacrifice business quality for the sake of cheapness. I need to see a clear path toward generating suitable returns organically, as opposed to just hoping the market will ‘bid up’ the share price because a particular name is cheap.
“Professional investors who are obsessed with money – or the idea that it makes life secure – are often less likely to succeed. When they are wrong, they have a hard time cutting their losses. Those who realize that investing is a game have the edge. They know that they cannot be right all the time. The future, by definition, is unpredictable. This makes it much easier to ride a bull. They know that from time to time, they will be tossed over the horns and gored. It’s part of the game.”
From Bull, by Maggie Mahar
In my pitchbook for Greystone, in the portfolio management section, it states something about low turnover and how I attempt to hold businesses for the long term. While I aim to have long holding periods for most of our businesses as the effort required to find them and size them appropriately necessitates this, recent experience has forced me to change my thinking about this topic in two ways:
I will no longer sit around and wait things out if I’ve been given evidence that I’ve made a mistake evaluating the economics of the business or industry
Large returns in single securities within short periods of time, given the uncertainty of the future, often necessitate reducing the position size, often at the expense of additional compounding (see our commentary on JYNT)
This thinking is mostly a result of years of investing and portfolio management mistakes (which are the best teachers, if you pay attention) but also a result of conversations with other investors, an improvement in my portfolio management approach, and my willingness to continue to learn how to do things better for my partners, including how to better manage risk. I’ve spent the majority of the past year attempting to improve my decision making abilities – an ongoing process – and outlining a process to avoid subtle errors in judgment or thinking (such as loss aversion, endowment affect, recency bias, anchoring) that could have out-sized effects on our investment results (please feel free to reach out for more on the specific steps I’ve taken to achieve this).
With that said, moving forward, if you read about a new position in the portfolio during one quarter, and a few quarters later read that we no longer own it, remain calm. I have not morphed into a day trader or statistical arbitrage investor. In fact, be glad. It will most likely be a result of the realization of a mistake, or the understanding that a particular thesis rests on something I’m no longer willing to underwrite at the current price. I don’t expect the above to be a normal occurrence, but given the frequency at which I exited more than two positions in the last few months (and re-entered one), I felt the need to address my actions.
During the quarter, I added to positions in Burford Capital, Ecology and Environment, Rimini Street, and sold the remainder of our position in The Joint Corp. above $19/share, bringing the total return from that position to well over 200% in 10 months. I am now holding a near 14% weighting in cash. That, combined with a large watchlist and some interesting opportunities that recently came across my desk will hopefully lead to a busy and profitable second half of the year.
SharpSpring Technologies (SHSP)
Following the selling out of our position from the low $9/share range as the stock approached $20/share last quarter, we are now owners of SharpSpring Technologies once again. The decision to re-enter into a position was made following the sale of nearly two million shares of common stock by large shareholders, including North Peak Capital, and Evercel, as well as a secondary offering of stock at a price of $13.00. Shares were hammered 16% in one day of trading activity, and if we were to believe that the announcement of shareholders selling shares (after the stock has appreciated considerably) as well as a secondary offering that will be used to fund the business plan and marketing spend moving forward should knock around $20mm of market value off the business, in one day – despite continued positive growth momentum and favorable customer acquisition – then we wouldn’t have been ready for the opportunity as it arose, quickly. As a long term investor, I don’t love the idea of ‘trading’ in and out of the stock, but the opportunity to purchase SHSP shares at what appears to be a favorable valuation once again was attractive. I’ve seen some comments regarding selling shareholder activity being a negative, as well as the business being a ‘busted’ growth story, but I don’t buy into those notions. Trying to figure out why a fund, and public company that owns a large stake (Evercel) might sell their shares following a near triple in the share price makes my head hurt, but non-economic selling, (SHSP just reported a great quarter, growing revenues just below 30% and adding a record number of new customers) usually leads to favorable opportunities, and that’s what I believe we have here. The markets view of the selling activity and rights offering is negative. My view is that we once again own a high quality business with a long runway for growth, a high quality management team, being run the right way with a long term focus on further penetrating the marketing agency vertical. One doesn’t have to look far to get a sense of how egregious many SaaS valuations have become, but purchasing a business growing their top line at 25%+ routinely, with untapped pricing power, for less than 6.5x revenues, seems like a favorable setup. I feel confident investing alongside this management team who treats our capital like theirs, because it is.
CRH Medical Corp. (CRHM)
Sometimes in investing, no news is good news, and as someone who prefers to sit back and watch (I add a lot of value around here) our portfolio companies execute from quarter to quarter, a quiet couple of months can be a relief from the daily barrages of market news, press releases and updates. Fortunately, CRH had anything but a quiet quarter, hiring a new CEO, Dr. Tushar Ramani, in the early part of April, and making another small acquisition (South Metro Anesthesia Associates) to bolster their GI presence in the state of Georgia. The market had somewhat of a muted reaction to the company’s Q1 results, as well as the new CEO hire and acquisition.
My reaction is anything but muted, as Dr. Ramani comes to CRH with an outstanding pedigree, including 30 years in the anesthesia business, including a President role at Team Health Holdings for nearly a decade where he helped grow revenues to a $300mm per year. Prior to that, Dr. Ramani co-founded and operated Anesthetix Management in order to provide comprehensive anesthesiology and pain management solutions to hospitals and surgery centers. Following a tripling of revenue in just three years, and growth from 22 providers in 5 states to more than 180 across 10, Anesthetix was acquired by Team Health Holdings in 2010. Publicly available calls as well as our own conversations with Dr. Ramani indicate nothing but enthusiasm for the opportunities ahead, as CRH looks to accelerate growth within anesthesia and continue to push the legacy product.
On the acquisition front, the company has claimed that they will reach another $30mm or so in acquisition spend this year, but as of June, and with only a few million of that target reached w/ two acquisitions on the year, I will be watching closely the purchase activity for the rest of the year, as well as have periodic update calls with the management team regarding the strategy. There remains a few small hurdles for GI docs to step over regarding the education about CRH’s business, an acquisition proposal, and gaining awareness (we can refer to this as the ‘sales cycle’, for which there are longer lead times) of the benefits of a joint venture, but I believe that’s precisely what Dr. Ramani was hired to help remove, and the company still has a large pipeline of potential acquisitions to tap into via previous relationships through their network of thousands of O’Regan hemorrhoid customers. Although there’s no indication that the business is heading in this direction, my belief is that they have the capacity, processes, and expertise to handle another ‘GAA’ size acquisition, which would meaningfully improve revenues and cash flows. It remains to be seen whether these small fish acquisitions will aid in helping CRH reach their spending goal.
As of now, the business continues to execute extremely well, with low single-digit organic growth due to an increase in colonoscopy procedures, complemented by acquisitions that help boost shareholder EBITDA and free cash flow meaningfully. A large acquisition pipeline, secular tailwinds, a solid new management team, and a cheap valuation (less than 6x my estimate of 2019 free cash flow) is why CRH remains a to five position. I’m hopeful that Q3 and Q4 will be nice and ‘loud’, full of acquisition announcements and other positive developments.
The Joint Corp. (JYNT)
As mentioned above, I liquidated our remaining position in The Joint Corp. during the second quarter due to an additional 26% gain on the remaining 3rd of the position. Our investment in The Joint Corp. was a home run, returning over 200% in less than one year, led by a phenomenal management team that has exceeded all of my expectations in a short period of time. Using generous forward valuation estimates, over 50x earnings and 30x EBITDA (if EBITDA were to triple), there seems to be plenty of optimism surrounding the business. In line with my process, The Joint Corp. is no longer misunderstood nor going through temporary but fixable business problems, and one poor quarter or lower than expected growth will most likely do some damage to the current valuation.
As a long-term investor who enjoys ‘doing nothing’ with our portfolio companies and favors low turnover, it pains me at times to sell a quality business sooner than I would have liked, even after experiencing a nice gain. However, when I initiated the position about a year ago, we aimed to do one thing, and that thing was accomplished. Just sooner than expected.
My original price target or intrinsic value estimate for The Joint before I purchased any shares was in the $25-35 range. This may still hold true longer term, but that estimate was based on earnings and free cash flow projections I didn’t (and still don’t) expect to materialize for years to come. But in the second quarter, the share price reached nearly 80% of the lower end of my (5-10 year) value range without those fundamentals to accompany it. My pie in the sky scenario when purchasing any stock is for the share price to increase a lot, shortly after we initiate a position (this is why I’m here, to add this kind of value). Luckily, that’s exactly what happened.
On occasion, the stock prices of some of the businesses we own will run wild (in both directions), forcing me to re-evaluate the investment thesis. Also on occasion, a move too far in one direction may no longer justify underwriting that same thesis. I often talk about making portfolio decisions based on the story or thesis changing for a particular investment. Sometimes price and valuation can be the cause of that change. I still love the business, still love the management team, and will always take another look at a lower valuation. I’ll continue to follow the business closely.
Burford Capital (BRFRF)
During the quarter, I added to our position in Burford Capital during periods of continued volatility. Given that Burford only reports semi-annual results, the next report date for the first half of 2019 should be out within the next few months. I welcome the lack of guidance and quarterly updates, as this is a business that functions best by taking a long-term view of results (years, not quarters) and has a management team that wholeheartedly buys into this notion.
Ecology and Environment (EEI)
I purchased EEI for partner accounts as a special situation over a year ago, and it now sits in the portfolio as a top five position. This is a result of additional share purchases throughout the course of the year during periods of volatility. During the quarter, EEI finally released their long overdue 2018 10K, as well as a follow-up releases of their quarterly reports.
Here’s what came out of that:
The current cash position makes up nearly 25% of the business
Backlog still shows mid-single digit growth despite plenty of South American weakness
Efforts are in place to grow the US business by implementing key hires across the sales team
There still remains a group of founder/owners incentivized to see the maximum possible value for their holdings
Mill Road Capital, an activist group that made an offer to take the company private for a 20% premium to the current share price still owns 15% of the business
The current chairman and interim CEO is a former investment banker
Trading at 5-6x pre-tax income following cost reduction initiatives
A large amount of synergies exist for a strategic buyer able to eliminate additional costs
Overall, while a little worse than expected, EEI’s results were somewhat favorable, with a slight decline in YoY revenues due to increased competition in the government business, as well as weakness in their Latin American segment, namely Peru. This was offset by improved US and Brazilian revenues, and a slightly increased backlog of work which should bode well for future revenue generation. In addition, large audit costs, restatement expenses and employee severance costs resulted in one-time expenses of nearly $2mm, without which EEI would have posted profitable YTD results, and a slight increase in earnings per share.
EEI is now focused on the restructuring of their operations to improve profitability, and I would expect the next few quarters to reflect positive results from those efforts. EEI would still have tremendous value to an acquirer from a strategic standpoint, and what was once partly an acquisition based thesis has now become a turnaround story, where EEI is a $37mm EV business capable of earning $4-6mm in EBIT with additional cost savings coming.
With tangible book value per share in the $8-9 range, we are well protected to the downside, earning a 3.6% yield, and with any positive operational improvements moving forward likely to provide a nice boost to the share price.
I like the setup here, and will continue to monitor the situation closely, but I’m comfortable continuing to hold our position, basically at cost, given the strong balance sheet and clarity surrounding operational results.
I spent the quarter evaluating some interesting opportunities in retail, among other places, including an outdoor clothing brand, a fitness equipment manufacturer, a leather-crafting business, and a small furniture company. On my desk now along with a large cash position, sits an asphalt industry equipment provider, a metal cutting machine manufacturer, a manufacturer of marine components, a holding company made up of cash and securities, and a microcap litigation finance business. I’ll look forward to providing updates after Q3.