petcoOn Monday, Petco Animal Supplies filed for a public offering. Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan are the lead underwriters on the offering. If-as-and-when successful, this will be the third time the company has tapped the public markets. A brief synopsis of Petco’s ownership/liquidity history can be summarized as follows:

  • 1994 IPO. Largest pet specialty retailer in the country.  Owned by private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners (currently the owner of Phillips Feed Service). For the fiscal year ended January 31, 1994, Petco’s 208 stores generated approximately $180 million in sales at less than $3 million of operating income (EBITDA figure was not available). Trading on NASDAQ under the ticker symbol PETC.
  • 2000 Take Private. $600 million transaction (6.1x LTM EBITDA) led by Leonard Green Partners (LGP) and Texas Pacific Group (TPG).
  • 2002 IPO. $275 million IPO, again on the NASDAQ.  For the fiscal year ended February 2, 2002, Petco’s 548 stores generated $1.3 billion of revenue and $109 million of EBITDA.
  • 2006 Take Private. $1.85 billion transaction (8.5x LTM EBITDA) by LGP and TPG using an abundance of cheap debt financing to underwrite the purchase price.  LGP and TPG contributed approximately $765 million in equity (total equity check was $775 million).
  • 2010 and 2012 Leverage Dividends. Company financed approximately $1.2 billion in distributions through two leveraged dividends (1.5x Invested Equity).

In short, Petco has been the pet industry’s transaction bellwether, and that is before you take into account the acquisitions and strategic investments the business has made historically. However, this trajectory is more a function of the company’s economic fortunes overlaid against the broader capital markets backdrop. After being the clear market leader in pet specialty in the early 1990s, the company found its position usurped by PetSmart later that decade. A relative comparison of the two leading pet specialty players looks as follows (Fiscal Year, Revenue/EBITDA, $million):

  • 2000. Petco, $990/$88; PetSmart, $2,110, $128
  • 2006. Petco, $1,996/$209; PetSmart, $4,234, $440
  • 2015. Petco, $3,995/$411; PetSmart, $7,070, $944

In 2011, I wrote this piece suggesting that maybe Petco had been done and dusted by PetSmart, a fact that was supported by the data at the time.  While PetSmart remains the dominant player from a financial perspective, Petco has certainly made up ground, producing slightly better same-store-sales than PetSmart over the latest twelve month reported period. That said, it could be argued that Petco is poised for a better near term run for the following reasons:

  • Store Format.  Petco currently operates 130 Unleashed stores in addition to their 1,279 Petco locations.  Unleashed units are 5,000 square feet and currently located in 14 major urban markets. They target a premium customer who values a small box specialty experience. These stores also appeal to a Millennial customer who often lives in an urban center.  Based on our experience, leading small box pet concepts are experiencing growth rates in excess of 15% percent (many of them are producing 20%+ growth), providing Petco exposure to a higher growth segment of the market. Further, Millennials are the fastest growing category within pet ownership. Unleashed units also provide Petco an opportunity to have a specialized merchandise mix, which allows them to embrace emerging brands earlier in the lifecycle. Notably, as part of its go-public preparations, Brad Weston, who was previously President of Unleashed, was made President of the company.
  • Digital Assets. Petco’s .com properties generated $185 million in Net Sales in the first half of fiscal 2015.  While it is hard to validate the company’s claim that they have the largest integrated ecommerce offering in pet specialty, we also have no reason to dispute the assertion.  Of greater significance is the fact that throughout the growth of pet food supplies online, Petco has maintained control over its digital assets and made significant investments in technology to enhance both customer engagement and omnichannel capabilities.  Petco is currently implementing technology that will facilitate cross-selling across physical and online properties as well as enable same-day delivery.  Additionally, the company is making investments in store resident technology to offer endless aisle support.  Finally, Petco has partnerships with major online properties such as Instacart and Rover.com that augments its digital footprint and offerings.  As online grows in pet, Petco is well situated to benefit.
  • Operational Upside. Based on the substance of Petco’s regulatory filing, there is clear upside to be harvested through operational improvements.  As an example, Petco currently generates 15% of sales from private label/owned brand products versus 27.5%+ for PetSmart.  Given the ability of house brands to drive traffic and take margin, a greater emphasis by Petco on this initiative should provide meaningful earnings growth.  The acquisition of Drs. Foster & Smith, which has significant private label capabilities, offers one direct point of leverage in both consumables and wellness solutions.  A second example is the potential for greater sales in higher margin product categories. Notably, Petco generates ~ 38% of sales from consumables and ~ 8% of sales from services versus ~ 50% and ~ 11% respectively for PetSmart. While these categories remain competitive, and are subject to pricing pressure, the potential to drive greater sales through these higher margin verticals would drive earnings growth.

Based on market chatter, a publicly traded Petco could be valued at $4 – $4.5 billion, or +/- 8.5x – 9.5x Adjusted EBITDA.  This compares to 9.0x EBITDA for the PetSmart take private, and the low end of the range is in-line with the historical take private, about where I would expect it to land. The question is whether there remains pent up demand for public pet industry equity in light of the first day run-up in Blue Buffalo’s equity valuation.  While public investors are sure to view Petco’s operational upside favorably, PetSmart’s experience provides a cautionary note.

/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.

nickelLast week, Blue Buffalo filed an amended S-1 providing an expected price range for its sale of 29.5 million shares of common equity, with an overallotment allocation of 4.4 million shares.  The company expects to raise in excess of $500 million in its IPO and will trade under the ticker symbol BUFF.

Based on an expected valuation range of between $16-$18 per share, at the mid-point ($17/share) Blue Buffalo would have an equity value of approximately $3.3 billion and total enterprise value of over $3.5 billion based on net debt of $241 million as of the March 31, 2015. This would imply a valuation of just over 18x trailing twelve months Adjusted EBITDA (as defined by the company) as of March 31, 2015.  The above stated range fell below my expectations in terms of anticipated value.  A few factors are likely to be weighing on institutional investors’ minds in light of a more complete analysis of the company’s S-1.

  • Too many eggs in one basket.  Companies that are subject to customer concentration issues generally receive discounts in the capital and M&A markets. In the case of pet food the customers are the retailers.  As disclosed in the  S-1, 73% of Blue Buffalo’s sales were to national pet superstores, PetSmart and Petco.  Based on my personal analysis and those of third parties I consulted, collectively we estimated that PetSmart likely accounts for between 66% – 75% of Blue Buffalo’s national pet specialty volume. This would imply that PetSmart is responsible for approximately 50% of the company’s total sales volume. This puts Blue Buffalo is in a more complex position vis-a-vis a move to mass.  While we think such a move for Blue Buffalo is inevitable, it may complicate the process or drive up the cost.  Clearly, PetSmart and Blue Buffalo need each other, for now. That said, last week PetSmart announced, what many had already known, that Natural Balance would now be available throughout their store network and online properties. I view Natural Balance as a perfect comp for Blue Buffalo from a product positioning standpoint. If PetSmart is able to obtain access to Merrick it would add a second leg to that protective stool.
  • Share and share alike, not really. According to Blue Buffalo’s own market segmentation analysis, in 2014 it owned a 34% share of what it terms the “Wholesome Natural” segment, which it defines as dry dog food using only natural ingredients (based on AAFCO), that have whole meat or meat meals, with the animal protein type clearly identified as their principal ingredient.  These traits are distinguished from the “Engineered” segment, which are characterized by the fact they typically do not contain whole meal or meat meal as their principal ingredient and/or they use lower cost proteins (by-product meal, corn/wheat gluten) and contain lower-cost starches (corn, wheat, fractionated grains). Setting aside the current supply chain issues as it relates to Blue Buffalo’s self classification, this nuance allows Blue Buffalo to inflate its market share. While we can appreciate the desire to isolate one’s difference in terms of ingredient panel and adherence to certain standards, this segmentation allows Blue Buffalo to exclude a meaningful set of Brands/SKUs from their market share calculation, thereby overstating the company’s position.  Talk to a seasoned pet food merchandiser and they will tell you this is not how they, or their end customers, think about the market.  I also note that several of the of brands in the Wholesome Natural segmentation analysis are either overstated or understated based on what I know to be their 2014 sales.  This simply speaks to the imprecise nature of the analysis.
  • About that lawsuit. Blue Buffalo’s S-1 makes it clear that they are responsible for directing their suppliers to purchase the ingredients they approve, from the people they approve, based on the terms they themselves negotiate.  Yet somehow Blue seems to be getting a free ride as it relates to their recent sourcing issues. However, several people I have spoken to recently expressed greater conviction about the probability of a countersuit from Wilber Ellis and/or a Purina victory.  If Purina does in fact play this out and wins an injunction against Blue Buffalo as it relates to its ingredient claims, it would undermine the Blue Buffalo story, in addition to having meaningful financial implications.  I note that the company has not set up a litigation reserve due to the fact that the lawsuit is in the early stages (as self defined), it is unclear the damages the plaintiffs are seeking, and the fact that Blue Buffalo maintains its counter claims.  It seems quite reasonable that institutional investors are factoring potential losses into their valuation models.

Notwithstanding the issues above, we expect Blue Buffalo to have a successful IPO later this month and for it soon to be trading at an enterprise value in excess of $4 billion.  Even a modest first day pop would get the company there. Get your popcorn, this should be fun to watch.

/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.

unicornOn Wednesday, as anticipated, Blue Buffalo, the pet industry’s most prominent unicorn, filed to raise up to $500 million in a public offering (see form S-1 here).  The company intends to trade on the NASDAQ under the “BUFF” ticker symbol.  J.P. Morgan and Citigroup are the lead underwriters. BUFF reports generating $918 million in revenue in 2014 ($940 million for the latest 12 months ended March 31, 2015). The company estimates it holds a 6% share of the total pet food market and 34% share within its competitive set, which it defines as the Wholesome Natural market segment.

A number of items that are notable from the S-1:

  • The company’s growth strategy lays out a thinly veiled plan for ubiquity in product access, noting that Blue Buffalo currently feeds only 4% of dogs and 2% of cats.  Growth will come from 1) building U.S. market share by expanding the availability of Blue Buffalo products, which we assume means a move into mass, 2) entering into therapeutic diets, and 3) select international opportunities (Canada, Mexico, Japan).
  • Blue Buffalo products tend to over index with younger households (Gen X and Gen Y) as well as younger pets (ages 0 – 1), providing some belief that it will increase market share as these owners age by capturing them early in the lifecycle.  Approximately 4% of Blue Buffalo sales occur online, versus 2% of the total market according to Blue Buffalo, which makes sense given the demographic where the brand is resonating strongly.
  • The business has delivered impressive growth over both the recent and longer term time horizon.  Revenues increased from $190 million in 2010 to $918 million in 2014, representing a compound annual growth rate (“CAGR”) of 48%.  During this same period Operating Income grew at an 86% CAGR from $15 million to $179 million.  Operating Income margins have increased from ~ 8% in 2010 to nearly 20% in 2014.  While future growth rates are projected to taper, it appears to be more associated to with the “law of large numbers” catching up with the business, as opposed to any change in fundamentals.
  • Management plans to continue its movement towards vertical integration as it relates to production. The company notes that in-sourcing a substantial portion of its product manufacturing, whether at the existing Heartland plant (which is expected to produce 50% – 60% of Blue Buffalo volume) or to future owned facilities, will yield significant cost savings. The Gross Margin profile of the business is healthy for this category, at around 40%, but has not shown much in terms of scale benefits. That said, that fact is not all that surprising given the level of production outsourcing and variable cost of protein inputs.
  • The company is building a dedicated sales force for the veterinary channel.  Blue Buffalo views veterinarians as key influencers and believes it can develop a set of differentiated products that will create disruptive results in this channel.
  • The company incurred $2.9 million of legal expenses in 2014, which are costs related primarily to the litigation with Nestle Purina.

The filing highlights the reason BUFF has not pursued an M&A exit.  Historically, the high water mark for pet food M&A has trended at 3.0x Revenue.  However, if Blue Buffalo were valued at $3 billion, that would imply the company was worth 15.5x Adjusted EBITDA of $193.2 million, which feels considerably light for the leading independent natural pet food brand. Consider Freshpet, which is smaller, unprofitable, and has not produced as impressive growth, trades at over 6.0x Revenue. While we don’t see Freshpet as the perfect comp those who are not close to the industry are naturally going to make that comparison. Our expectation is that a public Blue Buffalo will be valued closer to $5 billion, too big a piece of cheese for even the largest industry mouse to swallow. That valuation assumes that the company can detail a tangible plan to grow outside its core channels and in lower cost products, improve its gross margin profiles, and deliver higher level of surety around its product inputs.

/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.