Is SodaStream an Irresponsible Corporate Citizen

courtesy of Jweekly.com

Over the last few months I received quite a bit of hate-mail regarding SodaStream’s inclusion in this website. There have been boycotts in its largest markets including Sweden and the United States, and more recently TIAA-CREF removed it from its Social investment portfolio.

Essentially the company presents itself as a socially responsible organization helping the world reduce soda bottle waste, as well as promoting health & wellness as its syrups don’t use high-fructose corn syrup.

However, at the same time, SodaStream’s main production site is in Mishor Edomin, the industrial park of Ma’aleh Adumim, an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The main arguments against SodaStream are then:

  1. its use of illegal land
  2. its mislabeling of origin
  3. treatment of workers

I believe the most important of these is actually the last.  Israel motivates companies like SODA to invest facilities in these illegal settlements with tax rebates, etc.  The positives are that jobs are created for people that desperately need them.

Unfortunately, it is not certain if Sodastream’s employees are treated fairly with Israeli citizens as they may be exploited as is done in Bangladesh. In fact, there are some workers in the Mishor Edomin facility that claim they are working in “slave labor” like conditions including 60 hour work-weeks.

We will watch this issue closely and revert back to our readers when we receive further clarity.

SodaStream’s Slippery Slope to Adulthood

Recently SodaStream (“SODA”) reported third quarter earnings ending Sept’13.  As many readers of this website are familiar with, SODA sells DIY soda that you can make at home. Its machines are used to “fizz” water or make soda but people are learning how to fizz most anything including wine.

The company yet again beat consensus earnings estimates but investors were rattled when:

  1. the company didn’t boost guidance
  2. it reported weak flavor sales (up just 7% y/y)
  3. and adjusted EPS rose just 3%

The chart below, courtesy of SodaStream, shows (in light purple) the slowing growth of Quarterly Flavor Unit Sales over the quarter.

Consequently, SODA shares declined to $52.50, and were off from their 52-week high of $77.8.  The high price was emphemeral as SODA’s shares were victim to undocumented takeover rumors during the Summer.

Click to enlarge: Source: GoogleFinance


Financial Highlights:
As you can see from the company’s financial highlights below, revenues grew a healthy 29%, boosted by strong (albeit lower margined) Soda Makers.  However, investors remain concerned over the 7% gain in Flavor Units, which is sharply lower than its historical growth. The anomaly appeared to occur in the United States, a region the company’s depending on for growth.

Management claims the disappointing Flavor growth was due to changes in inventories at its retailers (“sell-in”) compared to the actual sales from those retailers to end-customers (“sell-through”).  Management stated that sell-through growth, which can be obtained using a service called NPD, was higher than sell-in growth.

SodaStream: 3Q Financial Highlights

Something similar to the above occurred in 2011; however, what worries me is that the company’s Operating Cash Flow has taken a big hit in the process.  SODA is no longer in its “infancy” growth stage and should be growing cash more rapidly. However, this is not the case (see Nine-Month cash flow statement below).  Though, SodaStream did see higher Operating Cash Flow during the latest three month period.

Equally troubling is a sharp decline in cash since Dec’12.  As you can see below, cash & equivalents declined to just $39mm.  What you cannot see on this table is that the company took out $20mm from its bank line. Without that, Sept’13 cash would have been just $19mm.  Some observers note that the company is spending lots of money on a new cutting-edge production facility.  However, upon closer examination, it appears that weak working capital management is to blame.

Where things are going well…
On the positive side, SodaStream continues working closely with its retailer customer-base such as Wal-Mart.  In fact, some of the large increase in Inventories that negatively affected Operating Cash Flow may be attributed to a Christmas program at Wal-Mart.  Also, the company has linked with several name-brand companies to sell their flavors including Kraft, Countrytime, Crystal Light, V8, Cambell’s, etc… The latest is OceanSpray flavors which can now be “sparkled” with SodaStream.  See the video teaser.

I think one of the most exciting characteristics of SodaStream is its innovation, some of which operates “behind the scenes.” For example, this summer Samsung started selling a fancy refrigerator that dispenses sparkling water (powered by SodaStream).  The water (and soon soda) can easily be dispensed from the outside of the fridge door. A side benefit is that the fridge door is likely to be opened much less, saving electricity in the process.

Source: Samsung

Remember, SODA isn’t an ordinary company but an extraordinary company revolutionizing the way we make and drink soda.  In the process, less waste is produced and users consume significantly less sugar than conventional sodas.

As a reminder, SODA’s business model is the “Razor-Blade” one. As such, it is still in its early growth stage (but not infancy) in the U.S. while it is in the maturity stage in Europe. Consequently, SODA is still selling lots of low-margined (about 30% gross margin) Sodamakers in the States. However, as the company matures, a higher proportion of revenues will be attributed to CO2 bottles and Flavors. Some analysts believe that SodaStream’s gross profit margin may be approaching 90% on those CO2 bottles.

SodaStream hopes to become a billion dollar in sales company by 2016 with 56% gross margins and over 15% net margins. The key will be maintaining customers (which would lower Ad & Promotional expenses) whom will purchase the higher margined CO2 bottles and flavors.

Source: SodaStream presentation: Aug’13


Conclusion:

The “take-away” from SodaStream’s 3Q’13 earnings report isn’t that its business model may not be working but that cash flow will likely build-up slower than first thought. This will, in turn, lower projected share-price estimates if one uses the Discounted Free Cash Flow model to calculate the intrinsic value of SODA.

While we like SodaStream as a company and as an investment, it is always a good idea to objectively seek out pros and cons including largest risk factors for any potential investment.  Such thinking, we hope, will allow investors to make better long-term decisions.

Disclosure: the author is long SODA.

Should SodaStream look East ?

In a recent Wall Street Journal article link the paper quotes Coke CEO Kent’s plans to spend $4Bn over the next three years to expand bottling plants, marketing, etc. in China.

For now, SodaStream’s concentrating in the United States (i.e., the Americas).  And for good reason.  Whether you call it a secular trend, or just a fad, no one can deny that SODA’s Americas’ growth is fantastic.

Source: SodaStream, Socially Responsible Investing

So then, everything must be Hunky-Dory at SodaStream.  Or No ?

SodaStream shares lost their fizz after they beat the Street’s estimates for 2Q’11.  Which makes me ponder what would have happened if they DIDN’T beat the Street!  CEO Daniel Birnbaum later (8/18/11) appeared at a mini roadshow speaking with Jim Cramer, but the damage was already done (see stock chart).

Source: GoogleFinance

Several analysts and Seeking Alpha members were disappointed that SodaStream didn’t raise its 2011 guidance.  After all, at this rate, revenue growth would implicitly be expected to slow down to c.20%.

The lack of color in this outlook picture is surely reason for pause.  So, what’s going on in Western Europe ?  Well, according to Birnbaum, everything’s Kosher.  He basically said:

  • Indicators of Americas and Europe are fine
  • In fact, Europe will benefit if its economy slows, as it’s a value proposition

Whoa, whoa, whoa.. REALLY…?

  • To me, SodaStream’s still a consumer discretionary product, in fact, Birnbaum doesn’t want to market it as a value-product.  The deal is, you can’t say that it’s a higher-valued/differentiated item (see company presentations) then later say it’ll sell well because it has a strong value proposition.  In fact, in my earlier analysis, I proved that SodaStream does not significantly reduce soda costs.  See SA article Should SodaStream go Single?
  • More evidence that weakness in Europe will effect SodaStream’s business comes from Linda Montag and Yasmina Serghii-Douvin of Moody’s.  They expect European soda demand to remain lethargic, especially in the ever-expanding countries with troubles (e.g., Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy).  As proof, they give the example of Greece’s 2010 slowdown (one of the first) which significantly reduced soda volumes at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Co.
  • Recall that SODA’s Western European revenues declined in 2009 attributed to significant business and inventory management problems at one of its Nordic distributors.  A portion of the problems were directly related to the Financial Crises.
  • SODA would also be hurt if the EURO, which has held up remarkably well in the $1.40/EUR area, declines.

Despite all the talk about the hot Americas/U.S. business, the fact is that much of SodaStream’s revenues still come out of Western Europe (see chart below).

Source: SodaStream, Socially Responsible Investing

Also note that given the geographic proximity and close economic ties, Eastern Europe will undoubtedly be affected by a slowdown in Western Europe.  So where does that leave SodaStream?

So then, maybe SodaStream should be looking East !

Going back to my opening comments, maybe, just maybe, SodaStream should focus its energies on the East.  Wait, wait, you say that “SODA’s already in Asia.”  And to that I respond, not really….

Yes, the company is doing a small amount of business in Asia-Pacific (see above chart).  However, drilling-down it appears nearly all of it is actually in Australia and New Zealand.  Should we really call those Anglo-Saxons examples of what it means to be Asian?

Instead, I suggest SodaStream delve into China and Japan.  Japan’s consumer-profile is somewhat similar to Europe and the U.S., and we all know they love robots and other gadgets.  In fact, management did mention their intention to enter the Japanese market by this year’s end.   Also, I strongly believe that SODA should enter the Chinese market, especially since Coke and Pepsi are already educating its consumers.  Besides, the trajectory of soda consumption is salivating.  See chart courtesy the WSJ.

Of course, entering China and Japan has its own share of problems.  Birnbaum, cited difficulties with language, regulations and advertising contracts in Japan.

In China, the largest issue will be protection of intellectual property rights and lack of full control of local entities.  Remember…those CO2 carbonators SodaStream “sells” to you actually come with a license agreement, which effectively empowers SodaStream to collect 70-80% gross margins.

I welcome constructive comments and criticisms.  So long as we’re listening with open minds, I believe we will all benefit from them.

Disclosure:  the author is long SODA

Investors are Look’n Thru a Rose-Colored Mosaic

On July 31st, I saw that share prices of Potash nutrient companies (e.g., Agrium (AGU), Potash Corp (POT), Intrepid Potash (IPI)) had taken double-digit falls on news that Uralkali was walking away from the BPC cartel.

 

Mosaic Corp. (MOS) in particular caught my eye because as a socially responsible investor I had seen the company on several SRI lists (e.g., Corp Responsibility Magazine’s list). And besides, the contrarian-side of me couldn’t wait to jump on MOS shares.

So I set out gathering data on the fertilizer market, feeling very bullish on Mosaic before even having a stab at the documents. Part of any good due-diligence, of course, is reading what SA authors are saying. However, several seem to be looking at MOS with rose-colored glasses. I now feel it necessary to “set things straight” on Mosaic. This article is a rebuttal of their logic.

They say: Several writers noted Mosaic’s low 10x price/earnings ratio.
I say: I believe this number’s deceiving and based on trailing earnings. Going forward, Potash prices could decline as low as $280/metric ton, according to Goldman Sachs. The lower prices are indicative of the constant oversupply condition of the industry and change in industry structure towards higher production. Lower Phosphate prices, in turn, boost the P/E ratio as the earnings denominator declines. I prefer to think of a P/E as expected earnings growth. So a P/E of 10 would infer 10% growth for the next year. I believe a 15% decline is more likely. Several sell-side analysts (who are typically bullish) expect EPS to decline from $4.08 in FY’13 to about $3.50 next year. (Note: EPS may be higher if the company repurchases shares at year-end.)
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They say: Some investors think Mosaic is protected by its large phosphate business.
I say: Over 60% of Mosaic’s earnings are from its smaller Potash business and, secondly, the Law of Substitution will suppress phosphate prices. While the two nutrients are indeed different, farmers tend to buy higher volumes of whatever’s cheapest at the time.

They say: There is a secular upward demand trend for fertilizer from Emerging Markets, especially the BRICs.
I say: This trend is not new and is already baked into prices. Further, weak currencies (attributed to the Fed tapering), falling subsidies and slowing population growth will reduce Emerging Market demand. While anecdotal evidence says that China’s population is growing rapidly, in fact, its population is expected to grow just 1% annually.

Data from the US Census
Yearly Chart of the Indian Rupee

                              
They Say: One SA writer said, “Uralkali failed to substantiate plans to increase supply.”
I say: Uralkali expects to ship over 10 million tons (MT) of potash in 2013 and their stated capacity is 13mt. Further, it has already secured an agreement with China. In fact, China recently purchased a 12.5% stake in Uralkali to secure supplies.

They say: A SA writer said that Uralkali’s management won’t have time to increase production because it will be distracted with legal battles related to its arrested CEO.
I say: I believe that legal issues will be handled by the company’s legal team. A CEO’s duties are to set a company’s strategy, mission and build its culture.

They say: Another SA writer believes the cartel will resume soon.
I say: I believe this is doubtful because Uralkali’s CEO has been jailed (now under house arrest) and he’s supported by Uralkali’s Board of Directors. There is also the risk that the other side of the cartel, via North America’s Canpotex, could also break up. Further, do you really think the Chinese favor higher potash prices?

What’s working for Mosaic?
I think the best thing going for Mosaic is its management. It’s an offspring from one of the most successful private/family businesses. As such, cash and liquidity are high and I expect a large share-repurchase program. Expect a press release on the share repurchase amount soon as the company will no longer be restricted from buying-back shares after November 26th. What distinguishes the company from other miners is its progress in corporate social responsibility. Though the company’s mines remain a work-in-progress, Mosaic is a leader in governance and reporting. In 2011, Mosaic became a founding member of the Global Reporting Initiative. In 2012, it became a signatory in the United Nations Global Compact (deals with Labor issues).

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Conclusion
A friend once told me that good portfolio management is actually good risk management in disguise. And given that the S&P 500 is so elevated (as well as its P/E) it makes sense to trim your gainers and buy into a small MOS position. Then wait and see how the Potash market unfolds.