Assessing the Age Old Question: Invest in Home Depot or Lowe’s? $HD $LOW

I’ve been studying Bill Ackman’s portfolio and strong performance so far in 2019 and it seems the hedge fund manager is getting back to his roots. Gone are the shorts in Herbalife and aggressive long in Valeant, and instead he has waved in a new era of “high-quality, simple, predictable, free-cash-flow-generative businesses with formidable barriers to entry.” As shown in the slide below, it seems as if Ackman is positioning himself towards high-quality blue chip names. And not pictured, he added Berkshire Hathaway to the mix and existed UTX and ADP.

As a quick aside, this strategy is puzzling to me. For a hedge fund manager to be buying huge, blue chip stocks… it just seems odd. Perhaps it is due to his view on the business cycle and these investments, with good balance sheets, will perform fine in good or bad economic times. However, they also are now mostly consumer discretionary businesses.  Maybe he is bullish on the consumer 10 years into an expansion? Odd indeed.

In this post, I am going to examine Lowe’s which Ackman’s fund, Pershing Square, now has a ~$1bn investment. This is an age old question. We have two companies in a big industry. Everyone knows their names… why and how do you pick one over the other?

Ackman’s thesis seems to rest on Lowe’s “closing the gap” with Home Depot. Ackman even says Marvin Ellison, the Lowe’s CEO announced in May 2018 who is an ex-Home Depot executive, was his top pick for the CEO job.

As such, I will be examining Lowe’s in comparison with Home Depot and also determining if there are any structural differences between the two companies. In essence, I will see if Ackman’s thesis has merit. I hope to finally tie that into valuation. Because so much of this report will be comparing the two building product juggernauts, this might as well be viewed as a report on both Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Company Overview:

Brief History

Lowe’s history dates back to the early 1920’s when it opened its first hardware store in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. In anticipation of dramatic increase in construction following WWII, Jim Lowe (the son of the original founder) and his partner Carl Buchan began focusing on hardware and building materials. Following some years’ operating together, the two disagreed on focus and Jim Lowe split with his partner to focus on grocery (and started Lows Foods grocery chain) while Buchan operated Lowe’s.

The company expanded in the Southeast. After Buchan died in the early 60’s, his executive team took the company public with 21 stores.

In the 1980s, the company suffered against Home Depot and the big-box retail concept. Home Depot was formed in just the late 1970s and early 80s with the home-improvement superstore concept. Their first stores were built in spaces leased from JC Penney in Atlanta and began branching out in the southeast US. By 1989, Home Depot surpassed Lowe’s in annual sales.

Lowe’s resisted this big-box format, mainly arguing that Lowe’s served smaller, rural communities where a big box chain doesn’t make much sense. However, it eventually did succumb to pressures. Today, Lowe’s has ~2,000 stores and ~209 million square feet of store space and does ~$72BN in sales. Home Depot, in contrast, has 2,289 stores, ~240 million square feet, and ~$110BN in sales. More on these comparisons later.

Market Overview

Lowe’s and Home Depot operate in what is estimated to be a $900BN market. With $72BN in sales, this means Lowe’s has less than 8% market share while Home Depot has ~12%.

However, I will say it is unclear to me what this market size estimate includes. Obviously, the housing market is huge and the market that Home Depot and Lowe’s serve must be big given the size of their respective sales ($180BN combined). But if they’re including everything within home improvement, the addressable market is likely much smaller for the duo. They will never truly displace the lumber yard. Nor should they. That is a low margin, commodity business. Home Depot in the past as alluded the market is more like $600BN, which makes more sense to me.

The customer base is split in DIY (do it yourself) and DIFM (do it for me) customers as well as professional contractor customers. I think we can all understand the DIY / DIFM customers well. These people are doing repairs on their home and come into Home Depot or Lowe’s for a certain tool, toilet, door, window, flooring, etc. Lowe’s and Home Depot serve as a one-stop shop for them.

Contractors on the other hand are a bit different. This is the segment Lowe’s is now aggressively targeting. As noted at Lowe’s investor day in 2018,

“[Our] final focus area will be intensifying customer engagement. At the core of this objective is winning the Pro. We have a tremendous opportunity to grow this portion of our business. This is a customer that is very important because the typical Pro spends 5x as much as the average DIY customer.”

We will discuss this in more detail later on, but I can see the challenge of this sector of the market. Time is money for a Pro and when they need something, they need to go to one place. That is why specific building supply stores and distributors exist. Not necessarily for one stop shop of everything (cabinets and windows in the same purchase), but more like, “You need plumbing products for that job? Head to Ferguson. Need HVAC products? Head to Watsco.”  There are also showrooms around the country to sell tile, flooring and cabinets specifically for the pro channel. For example, Fastenal, Grainger, Ferguson, HD Supply, Watsco each have a niche they are targeting in the Pro segment. 

It makes sense why Home Depot and Lowe’s would target this customer. If a pro stops in to buy one product and then decides to throw a hammer, some fasteners, adhesives, and paper towels in the cart as well, that is all upside to Lowe’s.

Comparison – How do Lowe’s and Home Depot Stack up?

Now that we’re starting to get into their differences, I’d like to provide a simple breakdown first of Lowe’s and Home Depot’s stats. I think this is where it becomes clear that their performance differential is stark, despite seemingly similar store count.

Clearly, Home Depot has similar store count, but is much more productive. Home Depot has 14% more stores, but 50% higher sales, 140% higher EBITDA, and incredible return metrics on invested capital, despite spending about 2x as much per store.

What about like-for-like sales comparisons?

As shown below, Lowe’s was performing well against Home Depot up until the financial crisis. Since that time, Home Depot has been eating Lowe’s lunch.

This is more clearly seen by looking at the two-year stack (that is, comparing the last two years sales growth rate together). Coming out of the crisis, Home Depot took a strong lead and has since maintained it.

If we look at the drivers of Lowe’s sales since 2010, we can see in the chart below that in the past few years, most of the growth has come from larger average ticket sizes, while transaction growth (or volume) stalled.

At the same time, Home Depot has had a good mix of volume and pricing gains. To me, it looks as if share shift is clearly demonstrated in the last two years, where Home Depot is reporting stronger transaction growth to Lowe’s negative comps.

Rationale for the Underperformance?

Lowe’s called out some of the reasons for under performance here: 

“We took a hard look at the current state of our stores. We saw that customers were very excited to come to Lowe’s. And therefore, our traffic growth was quite strong. However, frequent out of stocks led to poor conversion, lower transaction growth and a frustrated, disappointed customer. We have terrific associates who know this business well and give their all each and every day to find solutions for our customers. But we also saw that we made it difficult for those associates to do their job. Lack of process, procedures and clear direction made their work inefficient. Complex, outdated point-of-sale systems require too much time and training to navigate, leaving our dedicated associates scrambling and long lines of customers waiting. In effect, the staffing models placed too many hours in associate and tasking activities and not enough in selling activities.

In addition, the company called out the lack of focus on the Pro.

“We had also fallen out of step with the Pro. They had been a lack of focus on the depth of inventory, the right pricing and the products that they expect. In fact, we lost some critical brands years ago because there was a focus on margin rate rather than the understanding and responding to the comprehensive needs of that important customer. We also found that our online assortment was lacking with a significant SKU deficit versus the competition.”

Home Depot has had much more success with Pros recently vs. Lowe’s. On Home Depot’s Q2’18 call, they stated that Pro penetration is ~45%, while Lowe’s stated it is ~20-25%.

Why does the Pro matter? Home Depot stated in 2019 that they were going to dispell a myth: the Pro is not higher margin than DIY. The margin mix of products is similar.  However, they spend much more when in the store. Home Depot also stated that “the Pro represents nearly 40% of sales but only 4% of customers.” Therefore, you have more inventory turns in the big box store and you are much more productive. 

I think another reason why Lowe’s stores lag Home Depot’s and lag in serving Pros is geography. Lowe’s stores lag in the high density population areas, which are Pro heavy. Instead, I think they have more locations in more “rural” areas which is heavy DIY. Household incomes of these denser population areas are also higher on average, which means they have more to reinvest in their homes and renovate.

Why did Lowe’s outperform pre-crisis? I think Lowe’s stores where in areas which were likely impacted by the real estate bubble. As the bubble grew, the city sprawl grew as well and the values of homes on the outskirts of town also witnessed strong growth (at the time). This translated into higher sales for Lowe’s at the time. When the bubble popped, these areas were more heavily impacted. 

This is speculation on my part, but let’s compare some stores in areas. Note: this is completely anecdotal, but what I am trying to gauge is Home Depot’s density in city centers (where population is theoretically higher) compared to Lowe’s. I also pulled up some smaller cities to compare store count. It’s one thing if you have the same store count, but it is another if one competitor has 10 locations in Houston and another has none there, but does 10 in Des Moines. With a big box store you want to be serving as many people as possible in a day. 

Below is Boston. You can see some Lowe’s stores are peppered outside of the city, but no real ones serving the actual city. Contrast that with Home Depot on the right – more stores dead inside the population zone.

The next is Houston. This time, Home Depot has many more stores serving the 4th largest city in the US, both inside and outside.

Next is Oklahoma City. Home Depot and Lowe’s looked roughly well matched. However, Lowe’s has 11 locations there, including one outside of town. Home Depot has 9. Does it make sense for Lowe’s to have the same number of locations in Oklahoma City as it does in Houston, when Houston has 4x the population?

Next is Indianapolis. To me, it is the same story as Oklahoma City. You can argue now that Lowe’s will be better positioned as these other, smaller regions grow, but it is questionable how they’ve allocated capital in the past at least (we can open a store in Houston, or one in Indianapolis – which do you pick?).

Ok last one to test the bubble thesis. South Florida was blasted by the housing bubble due to very high speculation activity in these areas. Let’s check out the store count:


Are the differences structural?

I think the differences in margin are not structural. However, I do think that turning a ship with nearly $80BN in sales is not easy and will not happen quickly. There may be taste changes that Lowe’s will have to overcome (didn’t have the product before, why should the Pro trust you now) and the investments may take some years to play out.

So what is Lowe’s doing to close the gap?

Clearly, it seems Lowe’s knows it needs to target the Pro. After an internal review, they discovered that there was inadequate coverage of Pro by their staff. The staff was busy with documentation work during peak hours and missed serving Pro staff. Time is money.

It does seem simple on paper: if they can be price competitive, have the right brands and quantities, and be consistent with service, I think that will help close the gap.

Again, however, I think this can only improve so much due to geographic differences.

On the profitability side, the company said that its payroll systems are antiquated and not prepped for changes in demand by department. Outside of COGS, store payroll is the company’s largest expense and they definitely spend more than Home Depot does on a per store basis (see EBITDA margin difference in table at beginning of this post). At the same time, they will be adding sales staff to support the Pro segment. The company’s goal is for the savings from one to fund the other.

They also noted they will focus more on “high velocity” SKUs in stock. Historically, they focused more on inventory dollar position versus inventory turns. If you are turning your inventory quickly – you are making more money. This seems like retailing 101 so hopefully is a quick fix.

As shown below, Lowe’s thinks it can improve sales per sq ft by ~10% over 2018 levels (and 8% over LTM Q1’19). By having better SG&A leverage, they think this will translate into 12% operating margins, or ~300bps higher than today and ROIC will improve dramatically.

In addition, Lowe’s is expanding its leverage target from 2.25x to 2.75x EBITDAR in order to free up cash flow for the equity.

This all seems to be a tough and a bit of a stretch. While $370 / sq ft is still behind HD, I try to detail my view on earnings if this were all to happen. I can see how you would get 110bps of margin expansion all being equal, but the company is also talking about investing in additional supplies, new technology, additional sales staff… all to support the Pro and help close the gap. That will cost something and doesn’t appear reflected in their goals.

However, as I look at consensus estimates, this isn’t totally priced in either. Street estimates show EBITDA margins expanding to 12.2% from 10.6% by 2021, so still high but not giving full credit. There is some doubt in the numbers which is good. It still seems rather optimistic to me, however.

Is it reflected in the valuation?

If I pull a list of comps for Lowe’s, I of course need to look at Home Depot, but I also need to show other defensible retail. I view the Home Depot and Lowe’s duopoly as similar to the auto repair stores. The customer service and experience drives customers back to their stores and there is some moat that Amazon will have trouble crossing. That said, if you don’t have the part in auto retailing, you lose the sale. Seems rather analogous to our discussion here.

Dollar Tree and Dollar General also remind me of HD and Lowe’s. Two formidable competitors that serve a niche part of the market. Finally, I also think Walmart, TJX, Ross Stores and Target need to be included as they are retailers known for their powerhouse supply chains and ability to survive in a tough retail environment.

In each case, Lowe’s screens as pretty cheap. But given what we know, would you buy Home Depot vs. Lowe’s?

Unfortunately, it is too simplistic to just compare multiple of earnings or EBITDA. We have to also take into account ROIC. Lowe’s is currently around a 12% ROIC while Home Depot is ~25%. If we were to run a DCF on these two companies and assumed they grew at the same rate and had similar WACCs, the one with the higher ROIC would clearly receive the higher multiple. Here is a brief summary with made up numbers:

Now compare to company 2…

If you then factor in that Home Depot has been crushing Lowe’s in growth, you have the formula for a much higher multiple that is warranted. Lowe’s is just trying to close the gap, but during this time, Home Depot won’t be standing still. It could reinvest more in new projects that extend its runway.

In sum, I think that Lowe’s has a formidable competitor. While I like that they realize they were asleep at the wheel and have a former HD exec running the ship now, I am a bit afraid that HD will still be pulling away while Lowe’s is trying to catch up. I want to root for the underdog, but I’d probably put my money on HD outperforming Lowe’s.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.