fresh2Earlier this month, pet food marketer, Freshpet pulled off a successful initial public offering, raising $156 million. The company, which generated $74.5 million in sales and $23.1 million in losses for the 12 month period ended June 30, 2014, priced its IPO at $15, higher than the anticipated $12 – $14 range. The stock enjoyed an opening day “pop” of approximately 27%.  Freshpet occupies some pretty attractive real estate in the form of 12,500 branded refrigerators.  Those units include distribution (as of September 30, 2014) in Wal Mart (1,607 stores), PETCO (1,364 stores), PetSmart (1,306 stores), Target (1,157 stores), Kroger (972 stores) and Whole Foods Market (226 stores).  The company was backed by Mid-Ocean Partners, a New York based private equity fund, who, for all intents and purposes, salvaged the company in 2011 after it burned through the original undisclosed investment it received from Tyson’s Foods, who is the primary protein supplier to the company and remains a minority shareholder.

At is current enterprise value of $676 million (November 24, 2014), Freshpet’s public equity trades at 9.1x multiple of revenue.  In contrast, publicly observable acquisition multiples for the most attractive pet food assets have historically topped out at 3.7x revenue (Del Monte Foods / The Meow Mix Company, March, 2006). This convergence of circumstances has led many too ask, often using colorful language, how the market might justify such a premium. Here is my response:

  • When a Number if Not the Number. When a company goes public, there is a collaborative process to create positive momentum for the stock price.  The supply chain has the company selling at a discount to the underwriter who in turn sells at a discount to institutional investors and sprinkles some of the well connected general investing public. Those not in this inner circle who seek to access the stock are forced to bid it up in an effort to acquire a position.  The resulting supply/demand imbalance generally buoys the stock price for some period, ideally until fundamentals catch-up to the price. In the period immediately following a public offering, there is limited downward pressure, outside of broader market fundamentals, on the stock until it posts earnings or the lock-up period expires. As such, the prevailing price is simply the price you can buy or sell the stock for right now rather than indicative of the long range, or fair-market valuation of the company.  You can see other examples of this trend in practice with other recent pet related IPOs Pets-At-Home Group (LSE:PETS) and Trupanion (NYSE:TRUP) both of which, after a brief honeymoon period wherein the stock was supported by the supply/demand imbalance, have seen their multiples revert to the mean for their business respective models.
  • Don’t Underestimate the Pent-Up Demand. Retail investors love the pet space because, for companion animal owners, it is easy for them to understand. However, as we have detailed before, there is a lack of pure play pet companies, especially in the consumables category.  Investors can play the retail space through PetSmart (NasdaqGS:PETM) and Pets-At-Home, the health care space through VCA Antech (NasdaqGS:WOOF), Zoetis (NYSE:ZTS), and Neogen (NasdaqGS:NEOG), and distribution through MWI Veterinary Supply (NasdaqGS:MWIV). However, opportunities to invest directly in pet food and treats are non-existent.  The three biggest players — Purina (subsidiary), Mars (private), and Big Heart Brands (private) do not currently offer that opportunity. As someone who subscribes to the Peter Lynch theory of investing (i.e., go with what you know) I can see why retail investors might be willing to pay a premium to get access to the sub-sector given its growth profile, consolidation multiples, and recession resistant dynamics.
  • Compelling Business Attributes.  What is overlooked in the analysis above is the fact that Freshpet has some compelling business attributes that should be ascribed a premium price.  The company’s refrigerator inventory occupies some valuable real estate and the business model is such that retailers are unlikely to support multiple players, providing Freshpet with a first mover advantage and considerable barriers to entry once that cost is underwritten.  Ultimately, the company might become a toll taker whereby it is paid to host third party products in its established real estate. Also consider that Freshpet reports that its refrigerator units reach cash flow breakeven in 15 months. If we assume the company will generate approximately $81.6 million in sales this year (the most recent reported quarter (2Q2014) annualized), this translates to approximate $18/per refrigerator/day to support this breakeven point.  One and one half six pound tubes of the company’s Vital brand would essentially cover that daily revenue bogey.  As revenues scale breakeven per refrigerator will come more quickly, thereby enhancing cash flow.  Finally, the cost premium, while significant is not that far out of market for owners already feeding their pet super premium solutions.  Consider that an active 50 pound dog would go through at 28.6 pound bag of Orijen premium pet food (made by Champion Pet Foods) in 23 – 27 days (based on the brand’s feeding guidelines here) at a cost of approximately $3.75 – $4.25/day based on an in-store retail ring with sales tax.  That same active 50 pound dog would go through a six pound tube of Freshpet Vital in 4 – 5 days, at a cost of approximately $3.50 – $4.40/day. While the disparity gets larger with the size of your dog or as you indulge in more exotic Freshpet offerings, and the price variance is much greater versus mass market kibble, it is not all that out of line for a premium consumer.

The net of all this is that the current equity price of Freshpet is hard to fathom.  While the current price is being artificial inflated, the business has some operating characteristics that support a premium.  I won’t hazard to guess what Freshpet will be worth once the trading shackles are off, but we have seen examples of where companies that are pioneering unique niches in the food space can enjoy strong multiples from some time (see Annie’s).  However, invariably company performance will have to accelerate meaningful to support even the prevailing enterprise value.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change.  While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.