EVS Broadcast Equipment SA is a Belgian company developing and selling state-o-the art equipment mostly to broadcasters and TV production companies, enabling them to store, edit and broadcast live camera images on a fully digitalised basis. They are especially strong in the area of live sporting events.
Growth and profitability
Looking at the current valuation multiples:
P/E (2013) 13,0
Dividend yield 7,0%
we can see that EVS is not super cheap. However if we look at past profitability and growth numbers numbers, we can see that EVS is still “super profitable” at levels which only can be explained by significant competitive advantages:
|5 y avg||10 y avg|
However, if one looks at the growth figures we can clearly see that the “High growth” phase seems to be clearly over, but they are still incredibly profitable.
Why are they so profitable?
This is a quote from the 1999 annual report (which is by the way a very good report):
The EVS Group sells its equipment to radio and television channels as well as to people providing services to these channels. This is a professional market where quality and technical performance of the equipment is often more important than its price.
Plus another quote from the 2002 annual report:
Production of the equipment manufatured and marketed by ECS and NETIA does not require important tangible investment. Nor does R&D require any considerable investments, since engineers and programmers work directly on the machines to be sold or on PC type equipment for the sftware developement.”
So building “mission critical” equiment with low price sensitivity combined with low to no physical capital needs sounds like a pretty good business case. But how do you get into such a desirable position ?
Again, the best explanation is given in the 1999 annual report:
In 1994, most recorders used by television channels were tape recorders, although hard disks already had replaced tapes for recording purposes in the
computer area. Three factors have since then influenced the use of hard disks rather than tapes for professional video recording :
• the increased capacity and higher performance of hard disks,
• their lower cost,
• considerable progress has also been made in compression : for example, the JPEG system allows an average compression ratio as low as 5:1 in the memory space required to record a picture.
EVS strategy on the huge professional recorder market has been to pinpoint those applications for which hard disks would offer the user a substantial competitive advantage over tapes. By the end of 1996, the number of professional recorders installed throughout the world was estimated at about 352 000 units, for 60 000 users.
Among these, tape recorders accounted for about 340 000 units, compared to 12 000 disk recorders.
So what EVS did in the mid/late 90ties was a classical “disruption”: At that time, most broadcasts were recorded on physical tapes which had a lot of disadvantages. In sports for instance if you wanted to show a replay, the recording had to be stopped, rewinded and replayed. In between, no recording could be done,so often the consequent action on the field was unrecorded. EVS as one of the first companies offered a digital solution, which allowed continuous recording and easy access to slow motion etc.
The second boost came in the mid 2000s with the introduction of full HD and HDTV which sped up the change from tape to digital and required new generation of servers.
EVS became the defacto industry standard for most of the digitalised live TV production around the world, especially for sports. Somewhere I read that they claim a 95% market share in certain areas. With all the money pouring into professional sports these days, it still looks like a pretty good place to be a “niche market leader”.
Will EVS stay so profitable ?
This is a much harder question to answer compared to “why are they so profitable”. The question boils down to: Are the obvious competitive advantages sustainable ?
According to theory, two potential competitive advantages could e relevant for EVS: Size advantages and the network effect.
As far as I know, EVS did use mostly open source and industry standards, so in theory it should be relatively easy to replace EVS’s equipment. It seems however that the software implies a certain way to do things that doesn’t make it that easy to simply copy the stuff. EVS equipment seems to define work processes and many people in the field might prefer a known, working process to a new one even if its cheaper. The technicians are trained on the gear and might prefer this to any other gear. Nevertheless I would argue that there is no strong network effect at work here but maybe a “soft” one.
Although EVS is still a relatively small company, within its niche, it is huge. They had a big headstart into the current technology and have built up significant technical knowledge which is not easy to copy. Any small competitor who wants to compete with based on the same technology will have a big issue. Even if they would be able produce slightly better gear, they would still need to build up a sales and service organizition and spend a lot of money on getting access to all those potential clients. This would be different if a competitor would be coming into the market “vertically”, for instance guys like Sony who produce the cameras etc. but for some reason that didn’t happened. Maybe the niche overall is too small to justify a big investment by a “vertical” competitor.
For me, the biggest issue might be that once again the technology will change and allow another disruptor into the business. A small hint could be seen in a interesting research report from media technolgy research company Devoncroft (report is free but registration required).
For EVS, one of the most “dangerous” developments could be what is described on page 36: The move from specialised IT gear for real time processing to “generic” gear. EVS delivers “spezialised” gear and software. This is how a typical EVS “box” looks like:
I am not sure how solid their business would be if the “Boxes” were seperated from the software and this would clearly open the door for disruptors.
Limits to Armchair Investing
At this stage, there are clearly limits to Armchair Investing. With the time available for me, it is impossible to judge for me if EVS will be able to keep its high margins or not. If margins “normalize”, then the current price for the stock might be still high. If margins remain high and the market still grows then the stock would be a “high quality” bargain. However I do not feel comofrtable to make any judgement here.
Some other observations
– Founders sold down early, only one remaining (CTO)
In 1999, the three founders and their families owned around 57% of the company. Since then, 2 of the three left and the remaining one has reduced his ownership to ~6%. It seems that they were not fully convinced about the long term prospects of EVS.
– they are currently building crazy expensive heaquarters in Belgium.
Overall cost is expected to be around 60 mn EUR. This is from the 6 month report:
At the end of 2011, EVS started the construction of a new integrated building in the proximity of its current location in Liège, in order to gather all employees of EVS headquarters, split today in 6 different buildings. EUR 39.4 million have been invested by the end of June 2014 (less EUR 5.2 million of subsidies booked at the same date). The total budget for the project (including some higher investments in future-proof equipment) is estimated between EUR 55 and EUR 60 million.
EVS has in total 500 employees, with at least 1/3 outside Belgium. So spending ~200k EUR per employee for a new headquarter is absolutely insane in my opinion.
– current CEO is a “manager”, no ownership
The current CEO came from outside and has no stock ownership. He does have stock options and I have not seen a single share purchase of management ever.
– potential “diworsification”
The new strategy is to diversify “verticaly” into post production technology as the core sports area seems to be somehow saturated. EVS tried to diversify early on, but both attempts failed (digital radio, digital cinema). Maybe vertical diversification works better but if the high margins can be retained ?
– weak first half of 2014 indicates increasing pressure on margins
Normally, EVS always performs strongest in years with large sports events. 2014 with the Winter olympics in Sochi and the Football Worldcup in Brazil should have beenn a great year for them. However, despite rising sales, profit went actually down compared to the “non event year” 2013. 2015 with no events willbe even harder for them. So the trend clearly is negative at the
The stock price also shows that the market does not look that favourable at EVS’s prospects following the 6 month numbers:
EVS is an interesting company. As a clear niche market leader with fantastic historic profitability , it could be a great investment especially if the diversification strategy would work. On the other hand, there are several qualitative factors which i found distrubing, especially with rgeard to the new HQ and the lack of “ownership” within management and employees. On top of this, 2015 will be a tough year for them anyway so it might be the wrong time to invest in any case. So for me it is just a stock for the watch list with the next review in Q3 2015.