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.”
NVR stock has absolutely crushed the competition. The company is a homebuilder, which isn’t a very good business, but has a differentiated strategy than its peers. Below is a chart comparing NVR to other builders.
This may surprise some people, but investing in NVR in the 1990s would have outperformed buying Microsoft!
Note, the starting point differs a bit from the chart above, but you get the idea. $10,00 invested in NVR stock would be worth $2.8MM today compared to only $1.1MM in Microsoft stock.
Quick overview of the homebuilding industry
Homebuilding is pretty simple — essentially acquire land and subcontract most parts of the building process out.
Therefore, if you had the capital and time, you could probably enter the industry. That’s probably why most homebuilders do not create much value for shareholders in the long run. There are several other reasons as well.
Trusting them to be good asset managers. Homebuilders want to acquire cheap land, so they acquire in areas outside of where they currently operate – going where they think the growth will be. This land is typically “raw” and needs to be zoned & entitled, roads paved and sewer installed, etc. Now, builders typically let a land developer handle this, but enter into a contract to purchase that land when it is developed. By the time the land is developed and the builder is prepping to build homes, they are praying that demand will hold in or has moved in their direction, otherwise the investment in the “raw land” may not be fruitful.
In homebuilding,you are rebuilding the factory each year. Builders are constantly acquiring lots for growth. Think about it. What other business are you constantly selling your asset base down? In manufacturing, typically your factory creates products that you sell, but at the end of the year you still have the factor. In farming, I sell the fruits of my labor, but I still have the land for next year.
I liken homebuilding to oil & gas – if I drill one well, it will produce cash but for me to keep my earnings power constant, I’ll need to reinvest that cash into other wells. Typically this means they are burning cash in the good times, as demand looks good in the future so they continue to acquire future inventory. In bad times, the builders need to generate cash, but do so at the worst time. They have illiquid assets that need to move quickly to generate liquidity so they have to take a haircut.
As you can probably tell, I think homebuilding is a bad business. But as I said when I launched this series, you can have a bad industry, but a great company. Oftentimes investors will write-off sectors and leave gems out like NVR stock.
Summing up NVR in one picture: The company takes very limited land risk.
So for an initial deposit, NVR keeps flexibility of whether or not it will buy the lot. This helps it keep flexibility in a downturn so that its not still acquiring things that may be bad investments or it can divert capital elsewhere when needed (in fact, NVR is the only builder right now that can confidently buy stock on the cheap due to its flexible model and strong balance sheet). This also means it keeps very little land on the balance sheet compared to peers because it doesn’t own it.
This is very different than the rest of the industry:
Let’s compare how the cash flows then look for a traditional builder. Pay attention to working capital, which is mostly inventory movements (may need to click on picture to see better):
As you can see, Lennar generated cash in the financial crises, but it came from liquidating inventory. It then needed to replenish as the market came back. It was forced to sell when you’d want to be a buyer and forced to buy when you’d want to be a seller.
Let’s compare that to NVR’s cash flows. It too sold down inventory, but as a % of earnings, it was much lower and emerged much stronger. It also didn’t need to impair large portions of its book like Lennar did.
NVR Builds Only After the Home is Sold. NVR does not typically take ownership of a lot until it has pre-sold a home and the buyer has qualified for their mortgage and then it begins construction on the unit. This also reduces risk that the company spends capital today for no reason.
NVR ships pre-cut materials to the job site at specified requirements. This speeds up the building process for quick & efficient assembly. The company is one of the few builders to maintain manufacturing facilities for framing products as well as windows & cabinets. This type of vertical integration helps control costs and provide efficiency.
Maintains leading market share on a local level. I shudder whenever a homebuilder acquires another where it doesn’t currently build. Think about it – what benefit does the transaction bring? Yes, it brings lots in a new region. Some would say diversity is good. But M&A is typically done at 1x book value or above. So how does that create value? You won’t get any purchasing scale or scale on labor used unless you expand your market locally. It’d be much better to buy a player where you already operate. Lower competition plus gain regional scale.
NVR’s strategy is to gain leading market share where it operates and growth areas stem from places its operated before. NVR has a dominant 20%+ share in its core markets — much higher than peers’ typical share of 7-10% when they have a leading position.
Combining the last two points translates into similar margins to peers. NVR did about 35% of the sales that Lennar did in 2019. Yet compare their financials. NVR is lower GMs (which is a byproduct of their business model), but also much more efficient with SG&A, as discussed. This leads to comparable margins to peers.
Land is the most capital intensive part of the business, so they (i) are earning similar margins as peers but also (ii) turning inventory much faster than peers. This translates into much higher ROEs… higher ROE in the long-run helps NVR stock outperform peers.
Breaking this out – look at NVR’s historical ROE!
Why doesn’t everyone operate this way?
Not all geographic areas offer options like the ones NVR uses, so it may inhibit NVR in the long-term. But also many builders in other areas simply don’t have this option.
In times of growth, NVR’s top line will typically lag peers as its business model acts as a governor. Through cycle though, we can clearly see the benefits
Gross margins, in the good times, can also be better because you are selling low cost inventory into higher prices
NVR’s sales and earnings aren’t the largest, but its differentiated strategy aimed at limiting risk has obviously helped in a cyclical industry. As you can see by NVR stock, slow and steady wins the race.
What better way to open my new Competitive Strategy Series than to focus on Amazon – a company that has had great success the past two decades. But Amazon’s business strategy may surprise people – it got to where it is largely by following the playbook that others laid out before it.
I’ll be starting at the beginning because I hope to show that decisions a company makes compound over time. This compounding of focus and good decisions leads to a competitive advantage that we are seeking. Spotting these moves could help you find investments at the beginning of the curve, which I think will drive to higher returns.
I don’t need to share this, but looking at Amazon’s stock over time shows they’re building tremendous value. Companies don’t do this by accident — they follow a certain business strategy.
I’m actually not talking about the distribution and warehouses that ship literally everything today. Don’t skip ahead — I’m talking about Amazon’s business strategy, its choice, to focus on books in the beginning. Why books?
Books had more items than any other category.
At the same time, a hard copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” is basically the same as any other hard copy. So a lot of SKUs, but at the end of the day this was a commodity business.
Not manufacturing themselves, so quality assurance wouldn’t be a big issue in the beginning – just get the books in customers’ hands
Customers value two things in books from a retailer: availability of the book I want (when I want it) and the best possible price. That is all Amazon really had to focus on in the beginning
Amazon quickly built a catalog of over 2.5 million books, more than what a local bookstore could carry. It would keep inventory of 2,000 bestselling books so it could ship quickly or it would have a relationship with a publisher to print it and ship it as fast as possible. I went back to Amazon’s 1997 IPO prospectus and decided to clip what it said about the business:
control the cost drivers (i.e. continually focus on reducing the cost of producing something so you can edge out competitors), and
reconfigure the value chain to drive costs lower than competitors
These aren’t mutually exclusive, but the e-commerce space was in itself re-configuring the value chain. Publishers produce books, ship them to a Barnes & Noble distribution center and then shipping them to the stores to sell to customers.
Amazon’s business strategy would sell direct to consumer. This would cut out costs in the long run. Amazon was so focused on reaping advantages from being a First Mover, that it purposely kept its margins low to sell more books.
Amazon realized that if throughput increased, they could drive down their share of fixed costs to serve customers. Keeping all other costs constant, scaling up and taking share clearly would help profitability, especially for a commodity product. Here’s a simple example with made up numbers on how scaling up a low margin business (GMs around 20%) can be profitable when you increase throughput:
Obviously in Amazon’s history, they then used this scaled-up power to push on publishers to drive down their costs. Therefore Amazon’s GMs would increase and fixed costs would also be down as a percent of sales which would increase their dominance even furtherbecause customers wanted to pay less.
Increased Buyer Value:
Creating differentiation can’t just be price though. I can enter an industry and just charge less than my competitors and destroy value by earning lower margins and competitors might just follow suit – spoiling it for everyone. Generally, creating true value is raising buyer performance while keeping prices the same as competitors.
Amazon’s business strategy was a new way of selling products — direct to consumer. This increased satisfaction and kept prices low, increasing total value. It even decreased costs in indirect ways – I no longer need to drive to the bookstore, peruse the aisles, and hope the book I want is there. I go online, point and click to order and it’ll arrive at my doorstep in a couple days.
Many customers looked at the cost of Amazon Prime ($79) and said to themselves, “over the year, I’ll easily make that up in costs I would’ve spent on shipping, I’ll get my goods in two days, and I’ll get those goods at competitive prices.”
“Hey, if we already have a warehouse for books and we’ve figured out online ordering for customers in an efficient way, why don’t we sell more products this way?” This happens in many industries.
For example, in building products distribution, if I am shipping wallboard to a home and the construction team doing the work also needs some fasteners, doors, adhesives etc., why not throw it all on the back of my truck and charge for one order when I show up? I capture more value because I am selling more goods, I can do so at a cheap price because I am going there anyway and making one shipment, and I can pass some of those savings on to the consumer to encourage it.
Amazon’s business strategy has taken this to the extreme by being the “everything store” but you can start to see how the book playbook can just be repeated over and over in each new category.
Focus on Converting Buyers:
Another way to differentiate your company is to change your advertising compared to competitors, educate the buyers on why your product is sophisticated and will reduce their total cost, or get in front of the right buyer at the customer level who understands the value of the product (think the engineer at the company vs. the CEO who doesn’t understand why the company needs to spend more money). Each of these cost money, but will help convert buyers who are on the fence between you and a competitor.
Amazon’s review platform helps solve that problemand actually is a differentiator that builds on itself. A buyer feels comfortable buying from Amazon because thousands have bought the same product from them in the past and had very reliable experience. Or they shared their frustration and helped a buyer not make a mistake. Many other companies have since launched a review section on their site, but none really can match the depth of reviews Amazon maintains.
Share What You Learn.
Ok now we’re getting to things Amazon has done differently, but is extending its lead. Most learning from a first mover is fiercely kept secret. The last thing I want is for a competitor to copy what I am doing and close the gap.
Enter Amazon Web Services. Amazon could share its computing infrastructure, with cloud services, with all companies… and obviously charge for it. This is truly differentiated product which can provide a product & service to companies at a cheaper rate than its customers could themselves – no more buying server equipment for each new business.
The other thing it did to also leverage its existing infrastructure was to become a platform. Now buyers & sellers could connect on Amazon’s site and sellers could leverage Amazon’s fulfillment services. This means that a swath of sellers could offer their products with two-day shipping via Prime, which buyer’s value, and that means these non-Amazon sellers can increase their audience and therefore sales.
In return, Amazon charges inventory storage fees, fulfillment fees, among others. And all the while, it’s leveraging its infrastructure and now not taking inventory risk. You can envision a scenario where Amazon becomes an “infrastructure” company. You want to sell to all these customers we control? You have to pay the toll. In a way it is already charging buyers for access to the platform as well via the Amazon Prime annual membership.
The path forward:
Many of us know Amazon’s history well, but hopefully now you can see its success was meticulously planned to gain a competitive advantage.
So where does it go from here? I think we see Amazon’s profitability expand pretty dramatically over the next 5 years. And I’m not just talking about AWS. In my view, Amazon’s business strategy, its long-term focus, will start to really show itself the next few years.
How does Amazons profitability and return on capital improve?
Continued Scale on Resources: So far, Amazon has been reinvesting every dollar back into the business to grow distribution centers and lower shipping times.
In the short run, this burdens the income statement as Amazon said they would do:
In the long run:
more customers come to Amazon
they are less likely to switch given Prime and shipping benefits that customer’s value
Continues to shift into an “Infrastructure” company: Clearly, we’ve seen the growth of AWS and what that can mean from a profitability standpoint (50% EBITDA margins). We could reach a point where Amazon is selling less goods on its site than other businesses. Instead, it just charges the fee to connect with buyers and sellers.
Preemptively Change the Game: I’ve talked a lot about Amazon’s decisions here, but one I glided over was how it consistently changes the rules. From launching on the internet, to moving to two day shipping with Prime, to AWS, and now Alexa, the company has proven itself to be always one step ahead of the curve. What will they do next? As Bezos said in his 2015 Annual Letter:
” Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten”
They may not have all the direct data that you entered, like Facebook has, but they probably know whether you are single or married, a family of four, and where you live.
If I live in Florida in March, while I am scrolling they can show me an ad for sunscreen. That’s valuable because it helps sellers target their audience rather than shooting dollars into a black hole and hoping it works.
Right now, you do a search and a “sponsored ad” appears, promoting a product that is within your search query. It’s only a matter of time before this ads are tangentially related (“looking for an oil filter for your car? Click here to find out how you can save 15% on your car insurance…”)
Advertising is high margin and low capital intensity. It also may improve buyers satisfaction if it directs them to things they want.
As an aside, they also own Twitch, which is essentially becoming a YouTube competitor
I think this will improve Amazon’s return on capital and its free cash flow – more than people realize.
I’ll leave this post with another quote, this time from the 2016 shareholder letter,
“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?” That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.
“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
It’s clear to me that Amazon’s business strategy has had focus since day 1.