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Mergers need a sober approach

The world of business can learn a lot from beverage manufacturer SABMiller, a company that has been an acquisition machine in the world’s beer sector, writes Ted Black

A GOOD prophecy does not have to be right, but it should alert you. On these pages a year ago, we looked at the relationship between ROAM (return on assets managed) and market capitalisation —or value of the firm (VOF) — on the JSE.

It shows a clear, positive correlation between ROAM performance and the VOF. As ROAM rises, so does the perceived value of the sector and the companies in it. The drivers of ROAM are revenues, margins and asset productivity. They result in the three most important financial measures of operating management’s competence:

  • Profit margin (operating profit divided by sales multiplied by 100) multiplied by;
  • Asset productivity, or asset turnover (sales divided by assets), which give you; and
  • Return on assets managed (ROAM) — the total operating profitability of the business.

Managing revenue and margins are both critical tasks, but asset turnover is the most important one of the three. That is why we also took a peek at SABMiller through the asset turnover (ATO) and ROAM lenses last year.

We can learn a lot from a firm that has been an acquisition machine in the world’s beer sector.

First, what governs top management ’s behaviour? It has given up using EVA™ as a measure. It uses total shareholder return (TSR) instead. This combines share price growth and dividends over time.

However, there is a danger when you measure management with share price movements. The late Peter Drucker once said: “Stock option plans reward the executive for doing the wrong thing. Instead of asking, ‘Are we making the right decisions?’ he asks, ‘How did we close today?’ It is encouragement to loot the organisation.”

EVA™ is driven by productivity, but growth is one of the drivers of the share price and therefore TSR. That is why it makes sense for managers to go for mergers and acquisitions to accelerate growth and reward.

According to I-Net Bridge’s analysis, SABMiller directors’ remuneration in rand value has gone up 814% over a five-year period — not a bad return for their efforts.

SABMiller1SABMiller ’s market capitalisation has grown roughly in line with the growth of the asset base through 2004 to this year —about 190%. Exhibit 2 shows the effect of this over the past 10 years on asset productivity — a steady fall from right to left. You could call it “brewer’s droop” after SABMiller’s involvement in the consolidation “beer bust” of the past 10 years.

Mergers and acquisitions are management’s “Sun City” gamble —the big bet with high hopes that are seldom met. Statistically speaking, they seem doomed to mediocre economic performance. There is a reason for that: the sellers walk away with the value, leaving the buyer with a huge cost.

InBev is the latest example of that. It has offered $52bn for Anheuser-Busch’s asset base of $17bn —a premium of $35bn.

Accountants call it goodwill, but it does not generate a return and is bad for ROAM and the VOF. Today, Anheuser has aROAM of 17,3% on total assets. That means each year management will have to generate an additional $6bn operating profit out of the tangible assets to pay for the “opportunity cost”. It is the “winner’s curse”.

Few changes are as complex and challenging as acquisitions. The closing of the deal marks the end of a job well done. Top management celebrates victory and moves on. Making them work is someone else’s task.

That is when large numbers of people from two organisations plunge into the deep, cold waters of a new working environment. After the excitement of the courtship and consummation of the marriage, the offspring can be a big disappointment. The question becomes, how do we turn this unhappy product of a happy moment into a success? Miller is a case in point for SAB.

Despite some impressive productivity programmes described in annual reports, the acquisition seems to have put SAB management onto a permanent learning curve. You never, ever generate high productivity and cash when you learn.

Given the generally accepted 70%-80% failure rate of mergers, SABMiller ’s expansion through foreign acquisitions was seen as high risk at first. To lower the odds against it, the strategy, like all good ones, was simple and based on SABMiller’s strengths.

Its experience curve, a hugely profitable one, is anchored firmly in SA — especially Soweto. That’s not a good address by international standards. So to achieve the vision of becoming a major global player, the mission was clear and brilliantly simple: move the head office to London —a good address —and then: “Buy good beer firms at bad addresses.”

Like everything in life, it was not so simple to execute. Profitability fell steadily as the comp a ny grew in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Far East and Latin America, where it now has a big stake.

The share price languished for a while, but improved results changed capital market perceptions and doubled the VOF over a couple of years.

However, in 2002, management turned its successful formula on its head. It bought a bad beer firm at a good address — Miller in the US. In one move, it jumped onto a long, steep learning curve in a complex, highly fragmented market with a big, hostile gorilla in it.

The results since show that it cannot make the breakthrough onto a US experience curve even with highly competent operating management. The great lesson from SABMiller’s North American experience is to match opportunity with strength —not weakness.

Could that insight have prompted its decision to merge its US operation with Molson Coors and let them manage it?

The beer business is mostly a good one to be in —it has high operating margins and even the worst performers have a return on sales of about 10%. However, most of the well-known players who have been involved in the consolidation “beer bust” now have serious “hangovers ” – an intangible asset burden of around 50% of their total asset base. This causes low ATO and the effects are shown in Exhibit 2.

SABMiller2Low ATO companies rarely see good returns, but high margins compensate for it in the beer sector. The highest ROAM is Modelo’s 20,6% in Mexico — its return on sales is 28%. Unless you have “orderly market arrangements” as most big South African firms seem to, or you have a monopoly, low asset productivity means trouble.

Exhibit 3 shows what can happen. It looks at geographic market segments and InBev. First, compare SABMiller and Molson Coors with Anheuser- Busch’s US beer interests. It is like taking on SAB in SA.

SABMiller3Once the InBev deal is consummated, and $35bn is added to its asset base, Anheuser Busch will collapse in a heap in the left-hand corner along with its Chinese interests. Its ATO will be about 0,2.

That is what Bavaria’s was before SAB bought it, and why the Latin American segment also languishes down the bottom of the left-hand corner.

In last year’s article, the Molson Coors deal was being mooted. The warning given was to be wary of adding low productivity assets to low productivity assets. Rainbow Chickens tried it by acquiring Bonny Bird and Epol from Premier and took many years to recover. As Molson is already reporting poor results, will the US become SABMiller ’s Russian Front, or is this merger part of a withdrawal and regrouping strategy? In SA,Heineken ’s entry pulled SABMiller’s operating margin down to 24,3% from 27,3% and ROAM from 50% to 44%. Competition gets prices down. The very thought of it will change behaviour, which ra i s e s the final issue.

What should shareholders demand from SABMiller today? After the latest frenzy of acquisitions, they must stay sober. With rising input costs and the huge hangover of intangible assets, now is the time to focus on the VOF. The VOF is key to all management interventions. It is not growth, not revenues, not market share, not size; except to massage the VOF.

The VOF is governed by volatility and uncertainty. Volatility equals uncertainty, and uncertainty equals risk. To reduce risk, get managers to focus on economic profit and follow Warren Buffe tt’s advice. Build a crocodilefilled moat around the fortress: “Widen the moat: build enduring competitive advantage — delight your customers, and relentlessly fight costs.”

It means that productivity ratios become the only valid measures of management intent and results —not the share price. Productivity is units sold: resource units used. Improving productivity will reduce risk by influencing price recovery, which is the ratio sales price:resource price.

If you use a high selling price to make money without keeping product costs down, you increase the risk. This is price over recovery. It typically arises from sales price growing faster than resource price.

That is the basis of the information I would seek from management if I were a shareholder —or say Maria Ramos — who has just joined the board. Coupling a productivity focus to Heineken’s presence here would be good news indeed for long-suffering South African consumers. We seem to pay huge premiums for everything we buy, whether it is from the private or public sector.

Ted Black (jeblack@icon.co.za) coaches and conducts ROAM workshops that help managers design results-driven projects.