Why declining businesses are hard to stomach

Alvise Peggion

Forager Funds

Forget pizza, bruschetta, risotto and pasta. What I most miss about Italy is mortadella, a pork sausage flavoured with spices and pistachios. It may not be fancy but it is loaded with flavour, and great childhood memories.

What, then, to make of Felsineo, the leading mortadella manufacturer, offering a vegan option – of a pork sausage, no less – sold under its traditional label?

The decision could be seen as either bold or stupid but Felsineo had little choice. As Italy’s population ages, demand for meat is falling. Younger Italians, meanwhile, are increasingly choosing a meat-free life. Eurispes, estimates that 7.6% of the population is either vegetarian or vegan. And meat-eating Italians are buying higher quality cuts. Sales of cured meats like mortadella fell 5% in 2016.

Felsineo is desperately trying to fight a slump in sales, which is proving more structural than cyclical. It’s a challenging task, although successfully investing in a shrinking business like Felsineo may be even harder.

Different strategies

Overcoming structural change is possible, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), which once sent out DVDs in cardboard envelopes and now streams its own content across the Internet, proves it. But it’s a rarity. History shows that established firms struggle to reinvent themselves.

Changing what has worked for decades takes courage, especially if it causes sales to initially fall faster and costs to rise for years. Genuine innovation is more likely to come from newer and more agile firms with no preconceptions, no history.

An alternative path is to fight structural change through diversification. This, as in Felsineo’s case, involves expanding the product range to ‘adjacent’ categories and markets. It seldom works though, as all challenged firms end up doing the same thing, competing fiercely with each other.

A third path is to acquire businesses in unrelated industries, much like Fairfax (FXJ) bought Stayz, an online accommodation portal. This is risky. Successful acquisitions are generally opportunistic and not motivated by need.

None of these options are attractive. So, if a firm falls victim to structural change, why not just shrink?

For investors at least, this makes sense. The best managers are those that allocate capital most efficiently, not those that try to predict future trends. After reaching maturity, often sitting back and focusing on cashflow is the low risk option. In practice, though, it rarely happens.

Shrinking is preferable but hard

When sales are falling, fixed costs have a growing, adverse impact on profitability. And there is only so much that a firm can cut expenses. Again, Fairfax proves this point.

At the same time, directors and managers don’t want to oversee a contracting business, often because their fees and salaries are dependent on growth. Owner-managers, meanwhile, tend to take pride in the longevity of their companies to the point of even denying their businesses are in trouble. Gerry Harvey, the founder of white goods retailer Harvey Norman (HVN), comes to mind.

Declining businesses tend to first resist structural change. Then, when it’s too late, they try frantically to fix things up with ill-conceived new products or foolish, overpriced acquisitions.  Either way, shareholder value is destroyed. This is why declining business make for such difficult investments.

When we invest in such businesses we don’t expect them to turn around. We look for alternative sources of value unrelated to the core business that might be hidden within them.

The International Fund’s recent investment in set-top-box manufacturer Technicolor (ENXTPA:TCH) is a good example. The stock is discussed in detail in our December quarterly report. But if you can’t find a reason like this to invest in a declining business, best steer clear.

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Alvise Peggion
Alvise Peggion
Investment Analyst
Forager Funds

Alvise joined Forager in 2013 and works for the Forager International Shares Fund. He has a degree in Finance (Honours) from the University of Adelaide and he is a CFA charterholder. Alvise is fluent in Italian, Chinese (Mandarin) and English.

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