dylan“The times they are a-changin” – Bob Dylan

Industry analysis is easy when everything is moving up and to the right.  When market conditions are such that a rising tide does not float all boats, it is harder to draw conclusions that are applicable to a broad set of market participants.  The pet industry now finds itself in an operating environment where company execution will most likely determine the winners in this phase of the cycle.

The  pet industry has hit a transformative moment.  The humanization movement, though it continues to be cited regularly, has achieved its point of arrival — pets are treated like members of the family.  Kids today only know of pets as their equal.  As a result, there are no longer large cohorts of pet owners who are available to upgrade.  At the same time, younger generations now represent the largest segment of pet owners, and they think and act differently than their parents generations.  However, they also lack the same disposable financial resources, meaning they have to make tradeoffs today.

These realities are changing the power paradigm in the category.  The pet consumer is in the ascendancy at the expense of all others who participate in the supply chain.  Today the pet owner is able to choose among channels and brands based in their personal values.  Effectively product access has been commoditized. Consumers are now able to dictate to manufacturers what attributes they seek, not vice-versa.  In the future this paradigm will move across the sub-categories within in pets to redefine who wins and who gets left behind.

When market dynamics shift with significant force, it usually leads to elevated levels of industry consolidation. The 2015 – 2016 period was the greatest period of consolidation the industry has witnessed, and we expect that will continue.  With that as a backdrop, we present our pet industry capital market themes for the Spring of 2017:

  • Major Pet Specialty Franchises Struggling. It was not long ago that PetSmart and Petco could do no wrong. The major pet specialty chains were posting SSS comps that were the envy of retail analysts; the gap between the two biggest pet retailers and the balance of the industry seemed vast and unbridgeable. How quickly things can change. Over the past three years, major pet specialty has watched its franchise erode. Independent pet retailers out-serviced them; FDM retailers poached manufacturers and offered customers a better cost value proposition; and ecommerce providers out-priced and out-“convenienced” them. In 2016, we estimate that PetSmart comped down 3% – 4% (mature stores) and that Petco comps were flat to down 2% (mature stores). With their loan packages trading below par, both companies are under pressure to innovate. Petco’s turnaround strategy appears focused on private label and house brands.  PetSmart is focusing on ecommerce, as evidenced by its acquisition of Chewy. What is clear is that there is no silver bullet for what ails them. Expect things to get worse, before they get better as brands begin to feel pressure to find other sources of growth and as Petco and PetSmart refine their respective strategies.
  • Treat Acquisitions are Focused on Sustainable Competitive Advantage. The treat space has been actively consolidating as manufacturers compete for the discretionary portion of the pet owner’s shopping basket. However, what is rapidly changing is the attributes these consolidators are seeking in their acquisition targets. Deep customer relationships built through an emotive brand are now the table stakes.  Buyers want some form of competitive advantage that has greater barriers to justify prevailing multiples. The acquisition of Salix Animal Health (Spectrum Brands) and Whimzees (WellPet) are examples of this in practice. Other major pet treat IP players, including Petmatrix, are most likely to get snapped up by the large industry players. This will in turn create an opportunity for private equity to acquire mid-stage brands and invest in building these attributes.  The phrase “innovate or perish” has never been truer than in the treat space today.
  • Digital Pet Age Has Arrived. Historically, pet industry incumbents have been dismissive of the potential for category disruption through technology innovation. Major pet retailers were not well situated to sell the solution set; legacy pet ownership generations, the Baby Boomers, did not understand it; market leaders were not organized to innovate into the category. As a result, Chewy, A Place for Rover, Bark Box, Whistle, and their peers rose up to fill the market void, creating substantial shareholder value as pet ownership dynamics shifted to favor the digital generations. In 2016, $154 million dollars was invested in 46 pet-tech deals, a pace that has been increasing since 2012. Even in its nascency the pet tech movement is showing signs of making a lasting impact. As Millennials further outpace Baby Boomers in terms of pet ownership, digital will gain more momentum in the pet category. This realization will leave strategic buyers who have not made a tech play scrambling to play catch-up.  This trend augers well for acquisition valuations in this sector of the market.
  • Expect M&A Transaction Velocity to Remain High. Since 2014, transaction bias in the pet industry has been towards M&A. 2015 – 2016 was the greatest period of industry consolidation as measured by transaction volume. As company’s reposition themselves to compete in a rapidly changing landscape, we expect elevated M&A activity to continue in 2017. Market leaders will seek to plug remaining portfolio gaps while small and midsized players will be looking to exit at the tail end of the cycle. While acquisitions may be plentiful, there will also be a flight to quality with differentiated assets – brand, scale, channel (direct or proprietary) – garnering premium valuations, while those lacking it face commodity multiples. If the U.S. implements tax reform, volume should spike across asset classes providing private equity a unique opportunity to buy into the category.  Financial buyers will be banking on these assets to carry them through the next recession.

As always, our full pet industry report is available by request.

/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.

sbmIf you have not seen the digital age in pet coming, it’s arrival has now been fully announced.  In the past year, a remarkable number of meaningful events have happened to punctuate it’s arrival.  Many of those events were likely to have gone unnoticed at the time, but in aggregate its hard to ignore.  Notably the past last year was book-ended on one end by Mars acquisition of Whistle Labs (March 31, 2016) and the merger of A Place for Rover and Dog Vacay (March 29, 2017) on the other end.  In between we have witnessed the rise of Chewy.com at the expense of Petco, PetSmart, and even Amazon; Phillips Feed Services acquisition of Petflow for the purpose of arming independent retailers for the digital pet race; and a total $154 million dollars invested in 46 pet-tech deals.

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Historically, it has been easy to dismiss the digital pet movement as a novelty act, confined to products whose addressable market was small and whose value proposition was narrow.  It’s true that many of the first generation products were poorly designed or over engineered, and generally expensive.  Further, the arrival of pet tech was slowed by the inability of core pet retailers to sell the solution set.  Simply stated, Petco and PetSmart were not well set up to educate consumers on why they needed to own a $200 smart feeder or a $150 remote treating system.  Further, technology retailers, such as Best Buy, knew very little about the category and were therefore unable to effectively merchandise a pet technology set.

Despite these impediments, it’s hard to argue with the results of the market leaders.  Whistle Labs was acquired by Mars for $117 million, representing a high single digit multiple of revenue.  As we detailed in our last post, Chewy.com has achieved over 50% market share in online sales and anticipates 2017 sales of $1.5 billion. Finally, A Place for Rover (Rover.com) was valued at more then $308 million its $40 million Series E financing closed in October 2016.  Rover also announced that it acquired its primary domestic competitor Dog Vacay in a stock-for-stock transaction. In our discussion with other pet technology companies many of them appear poised to deliver strong growth and financial results in 2017.

The collective impact of these digital pet companies and their ascendancy in terms of industry importance can no longer be ignored.  While the negative comps produced by both Petco and PetSmart in 2016, and the recent deterioration of their leveraged loan valuations, can be attributed to a variety of factors, it’s hard to argue that the rise of Chewy.com and the lack of traffic drivers attractive to the Millennials, and subsequent generations, such as pet technology products, has been a key contributor.  The fact that the vast majority of pet food brands are available online, making their availability more commoditized, and not an influencer of store visits, is exacerbating the problem.  Further, Rover and DogVacay have served to disrupt the discretionary services segment of the market, for whom Petco and PetSmart (both boarding and grooming), along with VCA Antech (boarding) and Banfield Animal Health (boarding),  are the most established players.  Prior to the take private, PetSmart generated $750+ million in services revenue annually, accounting for ~ 12% of revenues.

The ability of incumbent players to catch-up digitally is limited.  Earnings based companies are hesitant to acquire companies without an established track record of profitability given their valuation paradigms consist of multiples of EBITDA or contribution margin.  Mars benefited from its private nature when considering the acquisition of Whistle.   A subset of major players we have spoken to are waiting around for these companies to stumble in hopes of acquiring them at bargain prices.  While companies like Chewy.com have “scraped paint” in the past, we see this strategy as unlikely to succeed in the near to medium term.  Those who are called to action, but partially paralyzed by their valuation paradigms will seek to partner.  Whether creating these bridges will be enough to move the needle or insulate them from risk remains to be seen.

/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.

 

happy-puppehAgainst a backdrop of macroeconomic uncertainty, the pet industry continues to thrive.   While the prevailing theory that the industry is “recession proof” is being sternly tested, market fundamentals of pet ownership remain strong and consumers are skimping on themselves as opposed to their pets and/or children.  Further, the premium demographic continues to have a voracious appetite for efficacious products that are good for their pets as well as the environment.

That being said, the recession has set in motion a number of trends that will, in my view, forever change the pet industry landscape.  While several of these trends are in the “early innings” so to speak, the momentum behind them is significant.  The companies that stand to win during the next phase are those that recognize the seachange and position themselves to take advantage of the wave.  This period will separate the leaders from the pack, to steal a phrase.

Recession Not Found Here?

Pure play equities of pet related companies fell precipitously with the market during the second half of 2008.  However, unlike the general market, these equity began to experience their recovery in November 2008.   The primary driver of equity price contraction was based on fundamentals — earnings for these core names fell 30% from the prior quarter, which spooked the market (in truth some of this could be chalked up to seasonality).

In reality 3Q2008 was up year-over-year from an earning perspective, albeit only slightly.  In a world where flat is the new “up”, this should have been investors first signal that the market was overreacting in this category and  pet related equities were becoming oversold.  Notably, earnings rebounded strongly in 4Q2008 posting year-over-year growth of ~ 4% (weighted by market capitalization), driving a correction with respect to public company valuations.   Thus, the prospects for a technical recession in the pet industry are in fact quite low.

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Notably, the macro economic environment did not constrain equity deals in the pet space.  Key deals including Hammond Kennedy Whitney/FURminator, TSG Consumer Partners/Dogswell and Tyson/Freshpet were all announced against a declining or, even abysmal backdrop.   Appetite for pet related concepts has never been higher among growth equity funds due to the prevailing dynamics and long term fundamentals.

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Key Trends for 2009

So what are the seismic shifts of which I speak?

First, I believe we are in the early innings of a major shift in the pet retail landscape. PetSmart and Petco are facing significant competition from Wal Mart as they battle to be the one-stop-shop for the mid-tier pet buyer. Wal Mart’s merchandising acumen coupled with their reach and financial strength make them daunting opponents. Large pet specialty will take share among the most attractive demographic and thrive amidst the chaos among big box players. Their ability to educate buyers and offer patrons a favorable service experience situates them to be long term partners of both customers and the most compelling pet related brands. They will also take share from contracting boutiques hit be financial hardship.

Second, in bad times value trumps luxury.  The downturn in the U.S. economy has eroded the balance sheets of mainstream consumers. While companion animals will continue to a growing part of our society, consumers will become more fickle as it relates to spending on their pets. Product (excluding consumables) and service providers must give pet owners a compelling value proposition if they expect to experience continued growth. This change is expected to be lasting.

Third, consumers want to know what they are paying for.  In the food arena, efficacy is going to become important, a concept which many have taken at face value.  The market has become saturated with better-for-you pet food brands whose differentiation has become hard to appreciate. Supply chain control and organic are no longer differentiators. As distribution opportunities contract, due to contraction in the boutique market, and funding dries up, solutions that can demonstrate high degrees of efficacy will prevail. Customers will begin to demand results for their incremental dollar.

Finally, pet health will come in to focus as owners make difficult choices with their limited free cash flow.  Pet related health care is even more inefficient than its human corollary. Relations between veterinarians and their customers is strained by the high cost of service and medications and the limited proliferation of pet insurance. Further, compliance rates on even basic pet medications are sub-standard. Solutions will arrive that deliver compelling value throughout the pet health care supply chain, driving operating and cost savings at the clinic level, compliance rates among drug applications and ultimately satisfaction for pets and their owners.

Net net, I expect the balance of 2009 to be challenging but good for pet related industries.   Notably, I believe we will see additional pet related equity deals as investors seek to put capital to work in sectors that continue to grow.  As the debt market improves, leveraged buyouts of some of growing bell weathers of the industry (a la FURminator) begin to come in to play, assuming valuation expectations have come down due to market realities.   One would also expect public pet companies to seek to buy growth in a effort to fuel their lagging equity prices.  This could kick of a consolidation phase in the middle market, but I’m not overly optimistic.

As always, you can contact me for a complete version of our market presentation.

/bryan