Vossloh (DE0007667107) – another potentially interesting “Fallen Angel” with an activist angle ?

Vossloh AG is a mid-sized German company and calls itself “a leader in the rail infrastructure and rail technology”.

Looking at the stock chart we can clearly see that not everything is going well there:

Vossloh lost almost 50% from their peak 3 years ago. If we look at some profitability measures of the past 10 years we see an interesting pattern:

EPS Profit Margin ROE
30.12.2004 3,91 6,2% 18,5%
30.12.2005 3,08 4,8% 13,3%
29.12.2006 2,98 2,0% 5,7%
28.12.2007 4,26 7,0% 18,2%
30.12.2008 6,30 11,5% 31,1%
30.12.2009 6,57 7,5% 18,5%
30.12.2010 7,32 7,2% 19,0%
30.12.2011 4,32 4,7% 11,0%
28.12.2012 4,15 4,8% 12,4%
30.12.2013 1,00 1,1% 3,1%

Vossloh showed only little impact during the financial crisis but then results deteriorated. They showed a small profit for 2013, but for the first half-year 2014, they shocked everyone with an “Accounting Bloodbath”, showing a loss of ~12,20 EUR per share, wiping out all profits for the last 3 years and some more.

So what happened ?

This is a quote from the CEO letter of the 2010 annual report:

For the years ahead, we intend to accelerate our growth while sustaining the rate of profitability. It is especially in the international markets that we will be amplifying our presence and we will be scoring in particular with the new products. For 2011, we are targeting group sales of €1.4 billion and an EBIT above €160 million.

This is from the 2011 CEO letter, where profits already declined:

Dear Stockholders:
Following a series of very successful fiscal years marked by above-average growth rates Vossloh suffered setbacks in 2011. Contrary to our expectations, Group sales and earnings declined. The chief influencing factors were the slowdown in the progress of Chinese rail projects, which only became evident as the year proceeded, the suspension of shipments for a major project in Libya and, from the summer onward, weak demand in key European rail markets. Under these circumstances, the Rail Infrastructure division’s sales, which at around 65 percent of the Group’s continued to contribute the lion’s share of revenue, dropped for the first time in years, by some 13 percent. The sales shortfall at Vossloh Fastening Systems was especially severe at the Chinese location and could not be offset by business elsewhere. The Switch Systems unit also performed below expectations due to the military conflict in Libya, which prevented the planned extensive shipments to that country in 2011. In addition, in several European countries demand slackened and price pressure stepped up.

In 2012, the outlook for 2013 was not that good but still “solid”:

However again, they disappointed, as stated in the 2013 annual report:

There were two significant reasons for the downward development in 2013: For one, we were confronted with extensive non-recurring charges that were due to expenses for the final out-of-court settlement of a dispute in the Transportation division in an amount and extent that was not to be expected. For another, there were additional expenses in this division in connection with the processing of several projects, which entailed additional and unexpected losses of earnings. In contrast, the Rail Infrastructure division performed significantly better than expected, and revenues as well as the result increased significantly. The Fastening Systems business unit primarily contributed to this positive development.

Not too surprisingly, both, the CEO and COO stepped down in February making way for a new management. Normally, CEO hate to step down even after management disasters so what happened ?

The activist angle:

Vossloh had been more or less controlled by the founding Vossloh family for more than 100 years although they only owned around 34%. Since 2011 though, another strong shareholder emerged: Hermann Thiele, the owner of German unlisted company Knorr Bremse who had built up a stake of close to 30 % from 2011 to 2013.

Although Thiele is not widely known and keeps a low profile, he is one of the most succesful German entrepreneurs of the last 30 years. He bought Knorr Bremse in 1985 as one would call it a “leveraged management buyout” and then grew the company by a factor of 15-20 times over the last 30 years. Despite being a non-listed company, Knorr Bremse issues a relatively good annual report where onr can see that the company is spectacularly profitable. Net margins of 8-9% and cash adjusted ROICs of more than 30% are clearly an indicator that this guy seems to know what he is doing. Besides that, depending on how you value Knorr Bremse, he is also one of the richest persons in Germany.

A little side story: World famous BMW AG once was the engine subdivision of Knorr Bremse until 1922 when it was sold to an investor as they didn’t find the engine business interesting enough……

In 2013, he finally succeeded in being elected as boss of the supervisory board against the explicit wish of the founding family. The founding family finally sold most of their shares in late 2013. It was him who kicked out the old management and brought in 2 new guys, among them the new CEO Hans Schabert who used to run the rail operations of Siemens.

In one of Thiele’s rare interviews in 2013 he stated that Vossloh is his private investment. Although he likes the business, he doesn’t want to take full control and leave Vossloh listed.

As a supplier to the rail industry, he knows the sector pretty well. I could imagine that long-term this might help Vossloh to get back on track. However I do not believe that he will remain a minority shareholder for ever. I do think that sooner or later he will try to take control. There would be clearly synergies between Knorr Bremse and Vossloh as both have the same clients and Knorr is even a supplier to Vossloh’s locomotive unit.

The 6 months 2014 “accounting massacre”

If you ever want to see a “how book as many losses as possible” financial report then look at the recent 6 month report from Vossloh. The new management wasted no time and did not even wait until year-end in order to write down everything they could.

Even in the investor presentation, they don’t make the slightest attempt to normalize the result.

Digging deeper into the report, you will find among others:

– goodwill write offs
– inventory write downs
– extra provisions against “risks”
– and even a charge because they did an early retirement of a higher coupon debt facility, which is clearly earnings accretive in the future.

In their outlook the state that one can expect some more losses in 2014 but from 2015 on Vossloh will be profitable again. But they did not specifc how profitable. Operationally they made already some significant changes. So overall this looks a little bit similar to the Van Lanschot story. The new CEO (with the support of the Supervisory Board) has written off whatever he could in order to show increasing profits going forward.

However there could also be a problem here. At some point in time, Thiele could decide that he doesn’t want to share the upside of a turn-around with the other shareholders and try to take Vossloh private as cheaply as possible. Other than Cevian at Bilfinger, Thiel has no track record with capital markets and many “old school” German business tycoons do not care very much about minority shareholders. This is clearly a risk to be considered

What could be a “turned around” Vossloh be worth ?

This is an overview of average margins (10/15 Years) of Vossloh and its 3 listed European “pure play” competitors:

Avg NI Margin  
  10 Y 15 Y
Vossloh 5,67% 5,19%
CAF 5,40% 6,46%
Faiveley 6,50% 5,00%
Ansaldo 5,98% n.a.

Overall, I would say a 5,5% net profit margin on average is not unrealistic. Based on 2013 1.325 mn sales and assuming no growth, this could mean that Vossloh at some point in the future makes ~ 73 mn EUR profit or ~5,5 EUR per share If we assume a 12-15 P/E range, this would mean that a target share price of 66-82 EUR would be realistic.

Based on today’s price of ~49 EUR this would mean a potential upside of 35-68%. However one should assume that this turn-around needs at least 3 years. For a turn around, I personally would require a higher return than for a normal “boring” value stock as there is clearly a risk that the turnaround does not work out as planned.

If I assume a target return of 20% p.a., i would need to be sure that the price of Vossloh is in 3 years at around 85 EUR. This is clearly at the very upper end of my target range. So I would either need to have more aggressive assumptions or I would need a lower entry price. As a value investor, I would not want to bet on growth or on a shorter time frame for the turn around, so the only alternative is to wait for a lower entry price.

Taking the midpoint of my range from above at 74, I would be a buyer at ~42 EUR per share but not before.

How does this compare to the Bilfinger case ?

A few weeks ago, I was looking at a similar case, Bilfinger. Similar to Vossloh, an activist investor (Cevian) managed to get rid of the CEO and tries to turn around the company after mutliple earnings disappointments.

At a high level comparison I like Vossloh’s underlying business better. Bilfinger clearly has some structural issues especially with its power business where the underlying market (electrictiy) is undergoing a big fundamental change whereas the railway business to me seems fundamentally intact. On the other hand, Cevian as “activist” has a very good reputation and is easier to “handicap”. They will most likely treat minority shareholders fairly and do some kind of spin off etc. So the risk of getting screwed by the activist is lower.

In a dirct comparison however I would prefer the “activist risk” at Vossloh against the fundamental issues at Bilfinger. Additionally, the real “accounting bloodbath” at Bilfinger hasn’t happened yet.


In general I think Vossloh could be an interesting turn around story, especially considering the involvement of German self-made billionaire Hermann Thiele. I do like the industry better than for instance Bilfinger. It is clearly cyclical but I don’t see any structural issues. On the other hand, the current price is too high with regard what I would expect for such a relatively high risk “turn around” investment. The “Mean reversion potential” at the current price is not high enough, I would need a ~20% lower share price to justify an investment.

Looking at the chart, this might not be unrealistic as the stock price is still in free fall and any “technical” support levels would be somewhere around 39 EUR per share if one would be into chart analysis. In any of those “falling knife” cases, patience is essential anyway.

Vossloh will therefore be “only” on my watch list with a limit of 42 EUR where I would start to buy if no adverse developments arise. Additionally I will need to check Vossloh against Alstom once


  • Equity Investor

    Well, there it is again: the falling knife. As I like the business (so I have a bias here!), I watched the stock two years ago, but never got so comfortable with my “personal price/risk-feeling”, that I really bought some stocks in this time. Maybe it was a mistake, due to the fact the stock rose more than expected now for over a year.
    But I felt comfortable with the decision not to enter a stock-engagement…until now. I didn’t lookup the last reports yet, but what I heard/read that far, there were big changings/ progresses at Vossloh in the last two years, which are maybe not fully reflected in the results yet. One example: In my view, selling some activities and creating a very clear core-competence / -market is on of this steps in the right direction. (–>If somebody disagree with it, please give counter-arguments to me. As I am not an expert, you can probably easily convince me!)
    And from a perspective view: I’ll agree with MMI’s supposed risk-reward of ~20%. That means from the view of a fair price of around 42€ the fair stock price should be around 55€ after this 1,5 years now. This is just a very, very rough tumb-calculation, but to argue the other way round: I think the stock today with 48-49€ is cheaper than 1,5 years ago with 42 Euros. But that’s just my view!
    Is anyone else still interested in this stock? I’ll be excited to hear from your view and get some arguments for staying at the sideline..So “shorters” are welcomed the most 🙂

  • their French “competitor” Faiveley is being bought out by US co Wabtec.
    And China Railway Signal is planning an IPO…
    What’s next?…

  • Well done. I had long determined that they had $100m or more in goodwill to write down ,but the former CEO refused to take writedowns on anything, anywhere. The company has a number of divisions which, on the surface seem to fit as they serve the rail and transport industry. However, they have no real or significant synergies with each other. Vossloh is a second or third tier player in most of its markets. This opens the other option – a break up. The divisions are mostly stand alone and could be nice bolt on adds for a big firm or in some cases an aquisition for a PE firm. Not sure what the value would be and German law may discourage breakups.

    • #rail guy,

      thanks for your comment. Do you think on of the bigger guys might want to take them over ?


      • I don’t think anyone would want the whole company. You could sell the transportation units – switching locomotives, light rail coaches, tram & bus electrical systems to the tier 1 firms in those lines – Siemens, Bombardier, Alstom, even the Chinese. Too small to upset the antitrust regulators. The rail grinding (Rail Services unit) should go to one of the large firms in the outsourced on track services area – maybe the Swiss. The switch systems unit is capital intensive and has small, non-synergistic units all over the world that they have aquired in last ten years. They can sell most of those to strategic or financial buyers in their regions. This leaves the rump of old Cogifer – the Western European units which actually do need each other. Sell it to a PE firm or someone who wants the revenue volume. Any strategic buyer would raise antitrust hackles in Europe. The fastening division mints cash faster than a central banker. Either keep it as the remainder of Vossloh and enjoy the dividends or complete the break apart and sell. A sum of the parts analysis would be interesting, but I haven’t seen enough details on the write downs.

  • I asume that they also pay for inventory etc. with prepayments.

  • Nice write up. I noticed their receivables from construction contracts (113) are significantly lower than their liabilities on construction contracts of (291). Any insight into what is going on here?

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