19 shares for the future

by Richard Beddard from interactive investor |

The Decision Engine has never looked better, identifying 19 good companies at attractive prices.

You know the drill. Most weeks I profile and score a business and its stock market valuation and every fifth week I publish a snapshot from the Decision Engine. The Decision Engine ranks all the shares profiled in the last year by their scores so we can see which of these companies will be the best long-term investments. 

Each share is scored against five criteria. Four relate to the business (a company can receive a score of 0, 1, or 2 for each), and the fifth scores the company's stock market valuation. 

Companies trading on a low valuation score a maximum of two, but companies on high valuations can receive a negative score, up to minus two. The maximum theoretical score is, therefore 10 and the minimum is -2. In time, any share scoring less than five is likely to be dropped and replaced by a more promising share to maintain our focus on decent investments.

The valuations are calculated on the fly because one of the basic inputs is the share price of each company which changes every day. The business scores are judgements made once a year, preferably soon after a company has published its annual report. We are looking for companies that are profitable, adaptable, resilient and run for the benefit of customers, employees and shareholders as well as the directors because these are most likely businesses to prosper for a long time.

Evolution not revolution

Unlike share prices, businesses do not usually change overnight, so the business scores rarely change mid-year. But sometimes stuff happens, which prompts a re-evaluation. One way a company can change almost overnight is by acquiring another company. 

The significance of an acquisition depends on how much the company spends on it, and what it is getting in return. In 2017, Animalcare (LSE:ANCR) acquired Ecupharm. Animalcare was a profitable distributor of veterinary products developing its own pet medicines. It appeared to be a good business getting better. Ecuphar was a bigger company, distributing across Europe. 

The combination might increase Animalcare's geographical reach over time, but it also saddled the company with much higher levels of debt and a history that would likely remain unfamiliar. Ecuphar was a Belgian business that had grown rapidly by acquisition under its chief executive, who became chief executive of the enlarged group displacing Animalcare's executives. I did not drop Animalcare because it had become a bad company overnight, but overnight it had changed drastically and the new Animalcare was incomprehensible to me.

Change is often a good thing, but it is easier to make sense of evolution than revolution.

Two portfolio companies have announced significant acquisitions in the last few months. Acquisition is a core element of both company's strategies, so the news itself is no surprise, but the size and cost of the acquisitions require further examination.

Cohort plays Chess

Cohort (LSE:CHRT), which is a group of defence technology businesses, acquired Chess last December. Strategically, it is a very good match. 

Cohort has had a hard time selling its expertise to the cash-strapped Ministry of Defence (MoD), which runs more of its own training these days and is increasingly procuring off-the-shelf products instead of commissioning new designs. Consequently, Cohort has become more product focused, which not only gives it more to sell the MoD - it reduces Cohort's dependence on the MoD because products are easier to sell abroad. 

Chess makes products, and it exports them. It manufactures fire control and surveillance systems, cameras mounted on stabilised platforms that acquire and track targets for weapons systems, for example. It also makes counter-drone systems. The acquisition will give Cohort a foothold in the US, and increase its European presence. 

But the acquisition is sizable, and not as cheap as Cohort's previous acquisitions. So far Cohort has paid just over £20 million, about twice Cohort's operating profit in 2018, for an 82% stake in Chess, which made a profit before interest and tax of £2.4 million in its last full year as an independent company. But, depending on how Chess performs, Cohort could be on the hook for another £20 million in a few years time when it pays a performance-related earnout and buys the rest of the Chess shares.  

To my mind Chess is a medium-sized acquisition at an uncertain but quite hefty valuation. To earn a decent return on its investment, Chess must enhance Cohort, and Cohort must enhance it. I believe there is a good chance this will happen because of the strategic fit, and because Cohort has demonstrated new subsidiaries win more business as a result of being part of a large well-financed group.

Solid State gets a Pacer

Solid State (LSE:SOLI) also supplies the defence industry, among many others. It is a manufacturer of electronics, rugged computers, and batteries, mostly for use in harsh environments, and a distributor of components, adding value through customisation and technical services. It acquired Pacer Technologies in November. Pacer is also a value-added distributor. 

Solid State paid £3.73 million, but Pacer also had about £1.5 million in debt, so the value of the enterprise on acquisition was over £5 million, about 10 times the operating profit Pacer earned in its last year as an independent company - a bigger multiple than Solid State has paid before, and equivalent to two years of Solid State's profit. 

Like Cohort. Solid State, says the acquisition will give it access to a new market (the medical sector), but this story is probably also about efficiency. Gross profit margins at Pacer are higher than they are at Solid State Supplies (Solid State's distribution division), but operating margins are less than half of Solid State Supplies'. The difference is administrative costs, those costs not directly related to sales, central functions like accounting, the directors, and rent. 

This too is a medium-sized and not obviously cheap acquisition. To make it work, operating profit margins at Pacer will have to improve, presumably by sharing administrative costs. The good news is Solid State has successfully achieved improvements in its previous acquisitions. The bad news is, it has paid more this time.

As Solid State and Cohort grow bigger, they are targeting bigger acquisitions. But bigger acquisitions tend to be more expensive because other large companies and venture capitalists with bags of cash are also interested. 

As the size and price of the acquisitions rises, companies find it harder to profit just by buying companies cheaply. They rely more heavily on economies of scale: The fact that they will be able to sell more products to more customers and share costs.

Though it would be comforting if the valuations of these acquisitions were so low it would not matter if the management failed to make more of them, I am not inclined to mark Solid State or Cohort down. 

This is evolution, not revolution.

Scores on the doors

Since the last update, I have profiled Quartix Holdings (LSE:QTX) (a growing vehicle tracking business temporarily shackled by a declining insurance market), RWS (LSE:RWS) (a translator with an appetite for big acquisitions), Anpario (LSE:ANP) (a manufacturer of animal nutrition products taking them direct to farmers), and Porvair (LSE:PRV) (a filtration firm with strong positions in lots of niche markets). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, RWS is hardest to fathom. It does not really tell us what makes it special, though it has an extraordinary record of profitable growth. The "what" without the "why" is not much good to me, which is why its score is so low. 

Here are the scores on the doors (as usual, the businesses in bold score more than seven out of eight for profitability, adaptability, resilience and fairness):

Name Score Description
XP Power 9.2 Manufactures power adapters for industrial and healthcare equipment
Cohort 8.9 Manufactures military tech. Does research and consultancy
Victrex 8.1 Manufactures PEEK, a tough, light and easy to manipulate polymer
Goodwin 8 Casts and machines steel. Processes minerals for casting jewellery, tyres
Avon Rubber 8 Manufactures respiratory protection and milking equipment
Trifast 7.9 Manufactures and distributes nuts and bolts, screws, and rivets
Solid State 7.7 Manufactures rugged computers, batteries, radios. Distributes components
Howden Joinery 7.7 Supplies kitchens to small builders
Judges Scientific 7.7 Buys and operates small scientific instrument manufacturers
Next 7.6 Retails clothes and homewares
Dart 7.5 Flies holidaymakers to Europe. Trucks fruit and veg around the UK
Renishaw 7.4 Whiz bang manufacturer of automated machine tools and robots
Quartix 7.4 Supplies vehicle tracking systems to fleets and insurers
Anpario 7.4 Manufactures natural animal feed additives
Games Workshop 7.2 Manufactures, retails Warhammer miniatures for collectors, gamers
Science 7 Conducts research and development and provides scientific services
Hollywood Bowl 7 Operates tenpin bowling centres
Castings 7 Casts and machines components for heavy trucks and other vehicles
Dewhurst 7 Manufactures pushbuttons and other components for lifts and ATMs
Alumasc 6.9 Designs and supplies roofing, walling, drainage and solar shading
Computacenter 6.8 Distributes IT. Provides managed services and consulting
Shoe Zone 6.7 Retails cheap shoes
Treatt 6.6 Sources, processes and develops flavours esp. for soft drinks
FW Thorpe 6.6 Makes light fittings for commercial and public buildings, roads, tunnels.
Colefax 6.5 Designs luxury fabrics, supplies them to interior designers
Ricardo 6.4 Provides engineering and environmental services and builds engines
Motorpoint 6.4 Retails nearly-new cars through car supermarkets
Air Partner 6.4 Brokers air charters and provides services
Porvair 6.2 Manufactures filters and filtration systems for fluids and molten metals
James Halstead 6.1 Manufactures vinyl flooring for commercial and public spaces
Portmeirion 6.1 Designs and manufactures tableware, candles and reed diffusers
System1 6 Tests our emotional response to advertisements and concepts
Walker Greenbank 6 Fabric and wallpaper designer and manufacturer
Churchill China 5.8 Manufactures tableware for restaurants and eateries
Softcat 5.8 Distributes IT. Provides managed services and consulting
Vp 5.4 Rents out specialist equipment and tools
Tristel 5.3 Manufactures disinfectants for simple medical instruments and surfaces
RWS 4.6 Translates patents and technical documentation. Localises major brands
SSP 3.9 Operates food and drink concessions in airports and railway stations

Source: interactive investor

Richard owns shares in Solid State and Cohort, and many of the companies tracked by the Decision Engine (especially the high scoring ones, obs).

Contact Richard Beddard by email: richard@beddard.net or on Twitter: @RichardBeddard.

Richard Beddard is a freelance contributor and not a direct employee of interactive investor.

These articles are provided for information purposes only. Occasionally, an opinion about whether to buy or sell a specific investment may be provided by third parties. The content is not intended to be a personal recommendation, and is not provided based on an assessment of your investing knowledge and experience, your financial situation or your investment objectives. The value of your investments, and the income derived from them, may go down as well as up. You may not get back all the money that you invest. The investments referred to in this article may not be suitable for all investors, and if in doubt, an investor should seek advice from a qualified investment adviser.

Full performance can be found on the company or index summary page on the interactive investor website. Simply click on the company's or index name highlighted in the article.

Disclosure

We use a combination of fundamental and technical analysis in forming our view as to the valuation and prospects of an investment. Where relevant we have set out those particular matters we think are important in the above article, but further detail can be found here

Please note that our article on this investment should not be considered to be a regular publication.

Details of all recommendations issued by ii during the previous 12-month period can be found here

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