DISCLAIMER: The stock which is discussed in this post is an illiquid micro cap stock. The author will most certainly have bought it before writing the post and will not necessarily tell you when he sells. This is not an investment advice. Please do your own research and never rely on stock tips without carefully scrutinizing th motivation and assumptions behind them.
Bouvet ASA is a small Norwegian IT consulting company operating almost exclusively in Norway.
The company is the result of a merger of several smaller Norwegian IT consulting companies and, after a management buyout went public in 2007 on the Oslo stock exchange. Current market cap is around 850 mn NOKs or ~ 100 mn EUR, so it is really small.
Valuation wise, the traditional metrics are OK but not spectacular (at 83 NOks):
Dividend yield 7,2%
No debt, the company has net cash of ~15 NOK per share.
Clearly the dividend yield looks attractive but P/B for instance looks quite expensive, so it’s definitely not a Graham cigar butt.
Consulting business itself is a relatively straight forward business. You hire bright young motivated people and “sell them” on a daily basis to companies at a higher price. In between you have to train and motivate them. This business requires very little capital, mostly it is the receivables from clients and some office supply in a small company office. You don’t need big offices anyway as the consultants are usually at the client’s site.
In my opinion, barriers to entry and therefore competitive advantages in consulting can be achieved via:
1) “Brand name”
The brand name is important for two purposes:
a) For clients: Hiring a “famous” consultant is more expensive but also lowers the “reputational risk” for a project sponsor. If “xyz consulting” is screwing up a project, then the project sponsor has a problem because he hired and unknown consultant. If McKinsey screws up, than it’s not his fault. Achieving a brand is not that easy, so entering the market on the “High end” is not that easy either. It needs time to build up the reputation, although in IT consulting the brand name is a little less relevant than in typical management consulting.
b) For employees: In order to get the best employees, you must have a good reputation with Students, MBAs etc. Without good people you cannot charge high prices, so this is a self-reinforcing cycle once you are on the list of the “High potentials”. High potentials these days have many options, consulting companies, start-ups, investment banks, Google, brand companies etc.
2) Existing client list
It is always easier to pitch “from the inside” than from the outside. Once you are inside a company as consultant, you have access to decision makers which is essential to sell new projects. If you do a good job, many managers will think twice to go through an official bidding process and give the follow-up work to the consultant who is already there. Even for projects with a competitive bidding, it is always better to have some “Inside” knowledge, especially about the client company culture etc. The bigger the client company, the better the chances to get additional projects. Large companies have a surprisingly large “thirst” for consultants.
3) Network effect of “old” consultants with important function
Consulting is not a job to get old. Most young employees will switch to a “normal” job at some point in time. If you treat your employees well, they will be proud of having worked there. Often consultants switch to relatively senior jobs or get hired straight way by clients. If they then search for consultants, they will often give the first shot to their former colleagues (and friends…). This is even more important in management consulting but also important for IT consultants. Good consulting companies “groom” their network of ex colleagues via regular “off site” meetings in nice location.
So how does Bouvet score on these 3 categories ? From my armchair perspective, it is clearly difficult to judge. With regard to attractiveness to employees; Bouvet seems to do some things right, as they are regularily among the “top places to work” both in Norway and Europe. Employee reviews are generally good, although I found one comment that the atmosphere might be a little bit “too relaxed”.
I cannot judge how good their network is, but at least the “Brand” seems to be good in Norway. The client list seems to be as good as it gets in Norway, with Statoil being a big client as well as the Norwegian Government.
Additionally to their consulting (or as a result of it), they also seem to develop some specializes software, for instance this one which measures electricity consumption of trains.
Financial track record
The easiest way to look how Bouvet is doing is of course to look at their financials
Them most remarkable part is clearly that they managed to grow EPS by 10,5% p.a. and distribute 100% of their profit as dividend. This shows that consulting can be really good business if done right and Bouvet at least in the past seems to have done a lot of things right.
Let’s look at a quick peer group comparison:
Interestingly, payout ratios are in all cases around 100%. However margins and especially return on equity are very different. Clearly US behemoth Accenture shows outstanding ratios in any category, but the stock is also priced a lot higher than the competitors. The comparison in my opinion shows that Bouvet is cheap compared to how good the business look. Bouvet has at least double the profit margins and multiple time ROE compared to those peers and still trades as the cheapest stock in this group.
Management / compensation
This is CEO Sverre Hurum, who owns 4,9% of the Bouvet SA:
He earned around 330k EUR total comp in 2013. This is actually slightly less than what he earned as dividend on his ~5% stake. So at first sight, comp seems to be reasonable and aligned with shareholders. One has to mention that he seems to have sold 1,4% some years ago, he used to own 6,3%.
Other than for instance the Akka CEO, he is not into motor racing but seems to enjoy cross-country skiing. The CFO Erik Stuboe owns another 2,35% in the company.
Analyst coverage /shareholders
Only 2 analysts are covering the stock according to Bloomberg and only one analysis is actually from 2014 (ABG, price target 110 NOK).
No dominating shareholders, mostly Nordic pension funds and asset managers. The biggest shareholder is Varner Kapital, the investment arm of a rich Norwegian textile family, followed by Stenshagen, another Norwegian investor with 8%, Interestingly, none of the big international investment companies is invested, this seems to be a “Local” stock.
Stock price & performance
Shareholders who bought Bouvet at the IPO and held the stock, will be very happy. They made 21,9% p.a. or 320% in total compared to only 3,9% p.a. for the Norwegian Stock index.
Despite the stock price increase, the valuation of Bouvet stayed mostly in the 11-13 P/E range as profits rose proportionally to the stock price. The stock has a very low beta to the stock market (0,38). That is not terribly important but good for my nerves especially in volatile markets….
“Flying under the radar” or why is the stock cheap ?
Bouvet is a micro cap stock. Most of the stock is held by pension funds etc, so although free float is theoretically there, trading volume is very low, around 60k EUR per day. So for many small cap funds, this is not interesting as they want to be able to move in and out of a stock relatively quickly. On the other side, this is also a potential “double upside” for investors who are able to invest “under the radar screen”. If the company continues to grow, at some point in time the market cap, free float and trading volume get so big that smaller funds become interested. In such a case, multiple expansion is often very likely. So as an investor, investing in a small, unknown grwoth stock the upside is much better than compared to an “established” stock with a relatively big free float
- expansion outside Norway difficult. Norway is a high cost country, exporting Norwegian consultants to other countries will most likely not work that well
– CEO is 57, how long will he continue ?
– cost structure most likely not as flexible as in an US style company
– consulting is to a certain extent personalized business. If employees are unhappy they can leave the firm but keep the client
Valuation / return expectation
Instead of coming up with a valuation, this time I make an even simpler case. I want to earn 15% on this investment p.a. With the 7,2% dividend yield, I am almost half way there. In order to earn another 8% p.a. over 3-5 years I need either:
- a multiple expansion. Based on the current cash adjusted multiple of ~10xP/E, it is not unreasonable to expect a 12-13 multiple at some point in the future
– or, based on the same multiple ~7% p.a. which is slightly below the CAGR since IPO (around 8% pa.a.)
I am willing to “bet” that it ois likely that one of those 2 scenarios will happen. If both happen, then my upside would be much higher.
Bouvet in my opinion is the perfect “boring” small cap company I am looking for. Although it is neither terribly cheap nor having a big moat, it is a very good business at a reasonable price. It is pretty much neglected from analysts and the shareholders seem to be “strong hands”. The company is very shareholder friendly and has good growth potential in a normal environment. There is no “catalyst” event around the corner, but I still think that it is a very good complimentary position to my current portfolio, adding some Norwegian exposure along my mostly continental Europe /UK stocks.
I will therefore establish a “half position” (2,5%) at current prices of ~85 NOK per share. My target would be a 50-75% gain within 3-5 years including dividends.