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Why company management matters

Jun 07 2018 13:46
Gustav Schulenburg

Gustav Schulenburg is an equity analyst at PSG Asset Management. (Image supplied.)

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Every day a company’s management team makes decisions to allocate capital and resources to specific projects, divisions and expenses – and by default, not to others. This critical decision-making process – which is at management’s sole discretion, with oversight by boards of directors – carves out a company’s future business path and subsequent cash flows. Since this ultimately dictates shareholder returns, management is one of the key components we evaluate when investing.

As stewards of our clients’ capital, we also recognise that management teams act as secondary custodians. We believe we can tilt the odds of generating appropriate returns on client capital in our favour if we partner with strong, proven leadership teams.

There is no perfect way to evaluate management or to distinguish easily between good and bad teams. In addition, companies aren’t static: management teams and operating environments change.

We focus on factual, historical footprints and try to remain impartial by considering:

Resource allocation (financial and human)

Arguably, this is any CEO’s most important task. However, very few of those new to the role of CEO will have any experience or training in resource allocation.

Return on capital employed

This will drive long-term shareholder returns and should be the key consideration in any management team’s decision-making process, above other factors such as growth, diversification and margins.

Management’s focus on cash profit

It is often said that the top line is for vanity and the bottom line for sanity, which speaks to the flawed focus that some management teams have on business growth, as opposed to profitability. Another common saying states that “net income is an opinion, while cash flow is a fact”. This alludes to the variability of accounting profits and management’s ability to influence these – flexibility that cash flow reporting does not allow for.

Alignment through ownership

Over and above these criteria, we strongly prefer to invest with management teams who are directly aligned with us (and our clients) through meaningful ownership in their own businesses. Aligned management teams think like shareholders: they prioritise growing per-share value over growing the size of the business.

Ownership is not always a foolproof assessment metric – “empire building“-type CEOs may well view size, and not shareholder value, as success, even if they do have ownership stakes. It is therefore critical to assess capital allocation track records.

This is especially true in cyclical industries, as these businesses are cash flush with strong balance sheets at the top of a cycle. Good management teams will resist the urge – and often also pressure from institutional shareholders – to spend this money on seemingly attractive acquisitions or growth ventures that could cost shareholders once the cycle turns. Rather, they will recognise the importance of keeping cash on hand to weather the inevitable downturn and potentially deploy in an environment where prices are depressed.

The construction sector example

Consider the shareholder returns of two construction companies with management teams that have meaningful ownership stakes compared to the industry average: WBHO and Raubex. In an industry that is challenging at the best of times, these returns are not necessarily impressive in isolation. However, the benefit to shareholders is illustrated by the difference between the returns of these companies and those of their peers, where management teams are less aligned.

In tough cyclical industries, consistency often matters just as much as growth. However, this is hard to achieve: it is much more difficult to maintain profit in a downturn than it is to grow profit in an upcycle. It is therefore significant to observe the difference in volatility of reported profit margins between WBHO and Raubex and their peers. Further, in aggregate, WBHO and Raubex have had uninterrupted positive net profit margins in both favourable and challenging cycles, while the sector has collectively had multiple periods of net losses in the last 15 years.

The importance of a long-term mindset


A long-term mindset helps to resist the urge to “swing for the fences“ on transitory ideas or to grow at any cost to impress short-term market commentators. Since we view investments on an absolute basis and define risk as the potential for permanent capital loss, this offers an additional line of defence in protecting our clients’ savings.

Gustav Schulenburg is an equity analyst at PSG Asset Management.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of FundFocus. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

investment  |  shares  |  management
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