Walmart announced a new partnership with e-commerce platform Shopify. Shopify is used today by over 1 million small-to-medium sized businesses, offering services “including payments, marketing, shipping and customer engagement tools to simplify the process of running an online store.” The partnership clearly makes sense for sellers if they can get cheap access to Walmart.com’s 120 million monthly visitors.
I covered Amazon’s third-party marketplace in a previous post, but if you’ve been on Walmart.com recently, you’ve probably seen third-party listings such as the one pictured below. In fact, a cheap-o like me has started to notice that Walmart’s prices in many cases are cheaper than Amazon (with no Prime membership either).
So if Walmart already allows third-party players to sell on its site, why is partnering with Shopify important?
This is Walmart’s first real foray into allowing small-and-medium sized businesses access to its platform. Currently when you shop on Walmart’s site, you’ll see merchants such as Autozone. This opens the playing field to many smaller businesses. As the program ramps, this could allow Walmart to quickly add literally hundreds of thousands of sellers.
It’s very competitive with Amazon. Shopify’s announcement noted that, “unlike other retailers” Walmart charges no setup or monthly fees, though it will charge a “referral fee”. It looks like Walmart will charge anywhere from 6-15% of the sale (except Jewelry is 20%). Amazon charges essentially the same rates, it appears. However, as discussed in my last post, Amazon charges $39.99 for “Fulfilled by Amazon” services as well as other fees.
FBA sellers don’t pay for shipping or packaging, but you do have to pay an “FBA fee” which covers these costs – detailed here
FBA also has monthly storage fees (which can be long-term or short-term)
It is launching at a near perfect time. One challenge with any marketplace is getting sellers and buyers to sign up. Walmart.com already has the buyers and COVID19 has caused all retailers to move most of their business online. That’s why US e-commerce sales were up ~74% in Q1 Y/Y. At the same time, Amazon is under anti-trust scrutiny. Perhaps this is an opportunity to launch competition in the space (while a competitor is both slightly distracted but at the same time, welcoming a competitor).
It is clear Walmart wants to bea platform, not just compete with them as a physical retailer with an online presence. Probably the most important item in the post and research I’ve done on Walmart’s recent actions is that it is clearly trying to pivot and use its already massive scale to its advantage. Clearly, if its going to compete in the future, it must take on Amazon.
Still though, if you are someone who wants to see a competitor to Amazon, this deal leaves something to be desired. With just 1,200 additional Shopfiy sellers (that also have to be pre-approved) it’s not really opening up the floodgates of competition.
I also wonder what products they will sell – is it items that just doesn’t make sense for Walmart to sell? Perhaps this is a way for Walmart to prune low margin sales in its portfolio and just collect a platform fee.
Either way, it’s a positive for Walmart and a clear shot across the bow at Amazon. Walmart wouldn’t be doing this if their 3P marketplace wasn’t a key part of its go forward strategy.
Walmart had just launched “Walmart Fulfillment Services” or “WFS” in February of 2020, so clearly teaming up with Shopify would help both of them to compete with Amazon’s FBA service.
It will be interesting to see if Walmart can market this well enough that consumers and sellers recognize the benefits. Consumers are paying Amazon $120/year for Prime whereas Walmart is free. Returns are free on most Amazon Prime and you can do it through any Whole Foods, but 90% of America lives within 15 minutes of a Walmart store, so returns will also be free and pretty easy for all of America (not just the 1%…). Is this a strategy that Walmart recognizes?
So far, Walmart doesn’t have a ton of sellers on its platform and it seems like its holding them to high standards (e.g. only allowing 1,200 at first in this launch, believe they only have ~300k in total vs. millions at Amazon). This may disappoint shareholders who would prefer Walmart “move fast and break things” but it also will reduce scrutiny and costs down the road like Amazon has received and it also means you’re not competing for space against a bunch of other sellers on Walmart.com.
Well, it happened. Hertz is cleared to issue equity in bankruptcy on Friday, June 12. This is a monumental day (which I live tweeted the hearing process on my twitter for those interested). Companies issue equity all the time – why does anyone care that Hertz is issuing equity in bankruptcy.
To put it simply: because the equity is likely still worthless.
$HTZ counsel adds that prices for used cars have improved meaningfully from time of prepetition and there has been positive movement in the business, but quick to say the increase in biz so far does not justify the "moves that have happened in the market"
Now, I can back up. Hertz was already highly leveraged coming into the COVID19 crisis, but the economy was good. Perhaps Hertz could manage its way through its debt problem.
When people stopped traveling due to COVID19, that crushed demand for transportation, especially rental cars which are typically picked up at airports. In addition, the pressure on the economy meant that the “residual value” it receives for cars coming off lease was also diminished (i.e. used car sale prices went down).
Here is how Hertz described it in their bankruptcy filing:
Typically, when a company goes bankrupt, its stock will still be listed for a little bit of time, but it will not be worth anything. It will trade, but its typically much smaller amounts. It is just waiting to be delisted.
There are a few exceptions to this such as W.R. Grace. Grace filed for bankruptcy because of growing asbestos liabilities, but did not have solvency issues. The equity continued to trade and had value. It had value because the value of the business after all liabilities were paid was still greater than zero. There aren’t many other cases I know of like this except maybe General Growth Properties, which Bill Ackman was involved in.
Another example is American Airlines when it last filed for bankruptcy. The equity was initially deemed to be zero, because unsecured creditors were not going to be made whole, but valuations moved up and that created equity value in bankruptcy.
So why is Hertz issuing equity in bankruptcy different?
First, it still seems pretty clear that the market is saying the bonds are not going to be made whole. Let’s look at the trading prices and also discuss the “waterfall.”
Here is a Hertz unsecured bond. You can see that pre-covid, investors essentially deemed it likely that Hertz would pay the money back and they would be made whole. These bonds traded from par to a low of 12 cents on the dollar, but some others traded as low as 9 (before bankruptcy, bonds that mature earlier than others are said to have temporal seniority – i.e. the company will try to take those bonds out first, so you at least have some chance or option value to make out better than later-maturing classes).
Trading at 9-12 cents on the dollar means the bonds are saying that’s likely what their recovery in bankruptcy would be. Pretty simple – bond investors wouldn’t just sell a bond at 10 cents on the dollar for no reason. The coupon on these bonds was 6.25% too so the market with such a low price was implying in March and April already that they wouldn’t pay another coupon.
Here’s an example “waterfall” chart. It’s simplistic, but the point is to say, if there is no value after the secureds are paid off, senior unsecured creditors get nothing.
Here’s another way credit debt investors draw it out. I’m showing 3 scenarios that hopefully are self-explanatory enough:
This math is why it is so crazy to people that Hertz is issuing equity in bankruptcy.
Even with all the positive news (for creditors) that Hertz is issuing up to $1 BILLION in bankruptcy, the bonds are still at less than 50 cents on the dollar. That implies the bonds are still in the hole by 50%. So Hertz may raise a $1 billion of equity that may immediately be worthless.
The thought that maybe issuing equity increases option value of the equity might be a little crazy too. At this point, it is still hard to argue that the unsecureds are going to be made whole here. Even if they rise to 65, 70 cents on the dollar that is still the case. The market started to improve for GGP from 2009 to 2010, but its bonds also snapped up to 100 cents on the dollar.
It also hard to say right now that the operating environment will improve in such a strong way that Hertz will increase in value. Valuations are conducted on a 5 year view anyway (i.e. no one is valuing Hertz solely on trough 2020 earnings – they essentially do a DCF) so it seems unlikely to me they aren’t already including some strong rebound next year.
$HTZ judge has a great comeback stating that there is never any promise that a capital raise will increase enterprise value
Many know the history behind McDonald’s, but if you don’t I highly recommend the movie The Founder. It details how McDonald’s started as a simple restaurant business, but Ray Kroc took it over to expand the business and eventually takes it over. It also gets into the groundwork for McDonald’s strategy it would use for decades to come.
McDonald’s is not in the restaurant business, per se, it is in the real estate business.
As a reminder, this Competitive Strategy series I am doing is trying to unravel why some businesses do better than others, even in highly competitive industries. This post will be brief and mainly focus on this real estate point – to me, it is a truly differentiated strategic decision from McDonald’s.
Why Does McDonald’s Own or Lease the Real Estate?
Typically, McDonald’s will own or lease a restaurant site and lease or sublease it to a franchisee. McDonald’s return on that real estate investment is derived from a fixed % of sales as rent payment from the franchisee. McDonald’s also earns a royalty fee, but the bulk of earnings is actually tied to this “rent” payment.
As you can imagine, this is a unique relationship between franchiser and franchisee.
Here is a comparison of gross PP&E on a group of restaurants balance sheets compared to the number of locations they have. The only names that come even close are Chipotle, which has no franchisees so isn’t really comparable, and Starbucks, which also is mostly company-operated stores.
Think about if you were a landlord and received rent plus a fixed percent of the tenant’s sales. You want the tenant to do well and may even kick in funds to help them (if you think the returns will be favorable to you).
This is the case with McDonald’s. When a restaurant unit needs to be remodeled or needs new capital investment, McDonald’s will typically share some of the expense, which helps relieve some of the burden on the franchisee, while also allowing the company to cycle through new looks and new menu items. This keeps McDonald’s menu relatively fresh and restaurants looking up-to-date.
McDonald’s also does not allow passive investors. This aligns incentives for the store owner to maximize sales and profits (because that is how they derive most of their income) which in turn boosts McDonald’s profits.
As a result, McDonald’s has posted a powerful financial track record over the past couple decades. As shown below, its same-store sales results are pretty impressive when you think about how mature McDonald’s is as a business.
But doesn’t this make McDonald’s more capital intensive?
Here is a chart of capex as a % of sales for each of the players:
But that actually doesn’t hinder the company much. Look at its return on assets compared to peers. It actually stacks up quite well, which is surprising when you think about how much more in assets the company has.
What could be the driver of that? Profitability. McDonald’s is just much more profitable than most of its peers. Part of this is scale (can leverage corporate fixed costs well with the number of branches), but also part of it is the way the company has established its fees.
In this post, I am going to compare Home Depot vs. Lowe’s. Note, I’m now including this in my Competitive Strategy series, as I think the decisions Home Depot has made to date compared to Lowe’s have clearly manifested themselves in their results.
Ackman’s thesis seems to rest on Lowe’s “closing the gap” with Home Depot’s performance – and that will cause Lowe’s stock valuation to also close the gap with Home Depot’s stock. Ackman even says Marvin Ellison, the Lowe’s CEO who is an ex-Home Depot executive, was his top pick for the CEO job.
As such, I will be examining Home Depot stock vs. Lowe’s 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 stock and Lowe’s stock.
I’ve been studying Bill Ackman’s portfolio and strong performance so far 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 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.
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.
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 should give a clue as to why Home Depot’s stock then has been crushing Lowe’s.
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 (my emphasis added):
“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 dispel 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 stock, 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 Home Depot 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 stock screens as pretty cheap. But given what we know, what would you do with Home Depot stock vs. Lowe’s stock?
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 on Home Depot stock.
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.
Home Depot’s stock vs. Lowe’s stock? I have to go with Home Depot’s stock.
It all came down to a certain way they decided to operate – its Competitive Strategy. There probably have been hundreds of fastener businesses that have come and gone over the past 30 years, and many probably never created much value. So what gave Fastenal their competitive advantage? What drove their staying power? And how did they compound earnings so effectively? Clearly, something must be going right to translate into Fastenal stock being such a long-term winner.
One thing I’d like the reader to do is think actually how similar Fastenal’s strategy is to Amazon’s (I think the latter borrowed some things from the former’s playbook).
First, some history to shed a light on the business.
Fastenal was actually dreamt up by its founder, Bob Kierlin when he was just 11 years old. His father ran an auto supply shop in Wisconsin and Kierlin noticed customers typically drove from store to store looking for fasteners they needed for particular jobs. If a hardware store didn’t have the right nut or bolt, the store would send the customer to Kierlin’s store, and vice-versa. Bob noticed a lot of customers had to resort to buying the part, one-off, via a special order and wait.
Kierlin and four other friends started Fastenal in with $30,000 and rented a store in Winona, Minnesota. They opened a store as a one-stop shop with thousands of fasteners for retail customer needs.
But the idea was a flopand the company almost went bust.
Instead of focusing on the retail customer, Fastenal decided to pivot and focus on the commercial customer. It turned out that price was much less of a factor than timeliness for that market segment — contractors and companies often lost money searching or waiting for a particular part. Kierlin and his partners discovered that there was a great need for a service that could quickly provide the fastener or part that a buyer needed.
In short, Fastenal segmented out its buyer base and identified what their key purchasing criteria was. They focused on industrial and commercial buyers and they realized they didn’t need to be the lowest price, they just needed to have the item in stock.
At the end of the day, you can see why this makes sense.
Fasteners make up a small portion of project costs (e.g. building a home, building a car), but are crucial pieces in the process that can hold up work.
If Fastenal increased price of a particular fastener by 3%, their customer probably wouldn’t even notice in their project and could likely pass it on to the end customer if needed
Fastenal’s customers are many in size but also small in size, so they have limited bargaining power.
Fastenal further segmented based on geographic locations.
Fastenal opened its first branch in Minnesota and continued to target very small towns. Why? By targeting small towns that had healthy construction and manufacturing industries, but were also small towns that were underserved by big distributors, Fastenal could be the only game in town.
Finding New Segments
One thing a business can do to improve its competitive advantage is find new product segments. Think about Arm & Hammer expanding baking soda into a refrigerator deodorant – that was a creative decision to target a market and improved the overall market size.
In some cases, you can find new segments by broadening and you can find new segments by narrowing focus.
Fastenal actually did both.
Narrowing Focus (and Not Being Afraid to Try Something New)
This is from Fastenal’s 1996 10-K. Satellite stores weren’t a major success, but the company did expand to 71 satellite stores opened by 2001. The key was that Fastenal was focused on improving the customer relationship. Fastenal already was getting some business from these customers in smaller areas, but they wanted to make it even easier on the customer to get their Fasteners – and it preemptively did so. Sure, it would cost resources and no one else really saw the returns from doing it, but the customer sure would be loyal. Sound familiar to Amazon?
In 2014, Fastenal identified a new growth driver: Onsite locations. These are sites that are not open to the public, or a wide variety of customers, but instead serve one customer at their location.
In essence, the customer (typically a very large one) might consume enough fasteners that it could source them themselves, but they’d rather benefit from Fastenal’s scale and expertise so they hire them to serve all their needs.
Fastenal had locations like these since the 1990s, but they expanded following 2014 – growing from 214 locations to over 1,100 by 2019 and represents roughly 30% of the company now.
The company really started to build a vendingsolution in 2011, choosing to do so while industrial activity was still weak from the Financial Crisis.
They would give a customer a vending machine, essentially for free (estimated to be a $10,000 value), but in return it would essentially become a “mini-branch” at the customer’s site. The machines were also available to the customer 24/7 – not just when a supply room is staffed. It also helped the customer track consumption data, in some cases improving their ability to see which of their plants were consuming more or less of certain parts.
Early on, Fastenal learned that it actually cut customer consumption (2011 conference call):
As we talked about on the Amazon review, if I were to distill differentiation with a buyer into two factors it would be: cut their cost and/or improve performance.
In this case, Fastenal cut the costs for its customers buy reducing spend, but it also differentiated Fastenal as a solutions provider. It also resulted in a share shift as customers looked favorably at the vending machines (quid pro quo) and Fastenal “locked” the customer into purchasing from them.
The company now has 105,000 vending devices in the field and generate $1.1BN of revenue.
Fastenal decided in the mid-90s to test out new products. If a customer came into the store for fasteners, they might want to pick up something else why they are in the store. Convenience outweighs price.
In 1995, threaded fasteners were ~70% of sales. By 2000, it was just 51% of sales. Now, Fastenal has 9 different product categories it sells and targeting further product diversity:
The company also decided that in some cases, it made sense to manufacture tools for a customer. This would be rare, but in some cases it would pay off royally (and gain customer loyalty).
In one instance, a Ford plant’s assembly line was shut down by a breakdown that required a few dozen special bolts. Ford’s regular supplier told the company it would have to wait until Monday—three days later. “Meanwhile, it’s costing them something like $50,000 an hour to have this line not operating,” Slaggie [one of Fastenal’s founders] said in the March 11, 1992, Successful Business. “They called us and the part is an oddball, something we don’t have in stock. We had them fax us the blueprint for the machine and we determined we could make it…. We had them finished Sunday afternoon.”
Doing some simple math, $50,000 a day is $1.2MM in cost… for 3 days that would cost the company $3.6MM. Fastenal could make a part and charge $50,000 for it, and I’m sure Ford would pay for that all day… I have no idea what Fastenal charged in this case, but you can see why Fastenal created differentiation here as a service provider.
Decentralized. By the time Fastenal stock became public, they put out some interesting color on how they decided to manage new branch openings:
By reading the company’s filings, you can tell they first want to train their employees to understand the business and industry and then give them the power to make decisions on their own.
I’m a relatively cynical person, so I wonder to myself how the employees could possibly know more about what to stock than people who have been operating the business for 20+ years. Two words: Smile & Dial.
Putting it together
I could go on about Fastenal — there is a lot I didn’t touch on about how frugal the company chooses to be — but its performance as “just a fastener distributor” has been truly amazing.
I opened this series saying that I was tired of the terms “asset light” or “high margins” being used to say why a business is “good”… instead, you need to understand what the company has done to make its business sustainable and why they will create above average shareholder value in the long run.
Here are some summary financial metrics for Fastenal compared to other distributor peers.
What jumps off the page to me is (i) its gross margins for a distributor, (ii) its EBITDA margins and (iii) EBITA / Assets (a proxy for ROIC).
High Gross Margins: Its high gross margins relay to me that they truly have targeted their customer in a way that isn’t just based on price – otherwise I think the margins would be much lower.
EBITDA margins: Its EBITDA margins are high, which makes sense given the gross margins. But the delta between gross margins and EBITDA margins is nearly 23% of sales — meaning they spend 23% of sales on selling costs and general and administrative expenses. That’s definitely in the upper half of the group and tells me that they are spending a lot on service for the customer.
EBITA / Assets: One might look at this comp set and say, “hmmm, Fastenal’s metrics are good, but its FCF conversion (rough proxy using EBITDA – Capex over EBITDA) isn’t great because capex is so high.” That’s ok for me – when I look at EBITA / Assets, what Fastenal earns on every dollar of capex it spends is much higher than what I could go out and earn! It also will likely lead to above-average sales growth.
I hope you’ve seen from what I’ve outlined above that Fastenal is very similar to Amazon – relentless focus on the customer. But Kierlen also appreciated hiring the right people and giving autonomy, as shown in this interview I found with some hard-hitting reporters.
“I admit things I never knew how to do well – I admit I was never a good sales person, so I hired a good salesperson.” In some ways it reminds me of Steve Jobs (though it was later learned he had a tendency to micromanage), he did have a great quote:
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”