Lining up all Belgian listed companies that start with the letter “A”, will there be a Belgian stock that deserves a place in the Hot Seat ?
“Belgians, Brazilians and below average beer”
First one up, alphabetically, is immediately the biggest Belgian company – by far. AB Inbev is a global beer behemoth.
Richest Man in Belgium, Alexandre Van Damme, thanks his fortune in a big part on the > 400% return since the arrival of Brazilian CEO and 3G-Capital-star Carlos Brito.
Once upon a time 3G Capital were the golden boys of consumer brand roll ups. Ever since their Heinz acquisition their sainthood has waned. Simultaneously with the problems at Heinz, trouble started at their crown jewel AB Inbev.
Although AB Inbev produces 1 in every 4 beers on the planet and has 500 brands in the portfolio, the former star of Belgian stock market started to experience trouble after the expensive and leveraged acquisition of SAB Miller in 2016. Apparently their trademark cost cutting strategy only goes so far.
Ever since profit has been falling and the main focus is to reduce the debt load.
Now, you will be hard pressed to find a Belgian who adores the beer produced by AB Inbev. In a country flushed with centuries old craft beers, the beers of AB Inbev are usually compared to the water that comes out of your bladder. So, I’m not sure if the brands are that valuable on an emotional level, nor if they are really build in our daily habits. The moat – if any ? – might especially be a case of production efficiencies and distribution contracts.
Although I am a fan of the meritocratic culture in 3G companies, I am not a fan of their addiction to debt. It seems like their culture of finding gateways to promote their best employees internally by growing their group of companies, has hit a brick wall.
I picked up a lot about the limits and the features of growth through the discourse of Geoffrey West (Santa Fe Institute).
And I am curious what Vaclav Smill has to say about the subject in his new Bill-Gates-Recommended book.
Question remains if the structure and size of the company is suited for an optimal future.
In short: like the operations, don’t like the debt, lukewarm about the prospects.
Market Cap: 146.816 million
Share price: 71,46 €
Dividend per share: 1,8
Payout Ratio/ebitda: 19%
BVPS : 30,26
“microcap with growth aspirations, but what about the margins?”
Activity: engineering consultancy
Owner-operator Frank De Palmenaer started consulting real estate developers after a change in law created the need for a specialized consultancy in matters of environmental law, back in 1995.
In 2014 he did a reverse take-over of troubled energy company Thenergo to become a listed entity.
The nature of the business is such that human capital is the main cost. Margins are lowish. Cash Flow can be fickle.
They act like a microcap roll up of market leaders in their field. It seems like ABO dominates its niche fields in their territories.
I really like owner-operated market leaders in niche industries.
And although I have tremendous respect for entrepreneurs like mr. De Palmenaer, I don’t like the numbers here. Book Value grows with something like 10% each year, in line with debt. Total Assets is 70/30 debt vs equity.
With something like 35 million in debt and something like 1 million cash profit in the best of years on 50ish million in revenue … it’s really hard to see how Abo Group might outperform any other stock in the Belgian universe.
Moreover, with 300 employee mouths to feed each month, I feel like 1 million a year is not quite enough to show for all that effort.
The company will say they are investing in growth, revenue and market share.
And they will do quite good, personally, I am sure.
I will just not join them on their journey. Not until the debt has melted and the margins improve…substantially.
Market Cap: 25 million
Share price: 2,38
Dividend per share: 0
Payout Ratio/ebitda: N.A.
BVPS : 1,48
“a hot stock, with skin in the game, but not like you suspect ”
Activity: real estate – semi-industrial
Accentis is considered a low-quality real estate holding.
And still, it is our first Belgian company that deserves a place in the “Hot Seat” (meaning it’s my best idea among the stocks covered so far). How come?
Am I already losing my sanity or is there more to the story?
In 2008 overly ambitious automotive and digital print company Punch ran into trouble. Enter Gerard Cok, a Dutch porn king, and former owner of Beate Ushe (a household name in the lower countries). He placed the real estate of former Punch into Accentis, while controlling Accentis with his investment holding Iep Invest.
Some activist investors say there was some shady accounting going on in valuing the real estate and mr Cok got the real estate way too cheap.
This trend seems to persist. The bruto rent return on “fair value” of the real estates is now according to the annual report 10,5%. That seems quite high and seems indeed to undervalue the real estate.
Since then Iep Invest added to its position, amongst others by buying 11% of Accentis from a minority shareholder at a premium of 10% compared to the listed stock price. Now Iep has about 66% of Accentis.
It looks like Cok is planning to take Accentis private. According to law, he needs a 95% ownership for that to happen and has to buy out minority shareholders.
Normally, Cok would succeed to do so at 0,55 per share or at Book Value.
Yet, a writer of a local Stock Picking Newsletter succeeded in buying over 5% of Accentis and demands a minimum price of 0,7 per share.
This will probably force Cok to take Iep Invest private first (the same Newsletter Author demands 10,7 per share for Iep Invest – price is now 7,8)
A semi-special situation, if there ever was one?
Problem is though: when will this materialize? I’m guessing Cok likes a bargain even more than skin without cover. How patient will he be?
Although this is the best opportunity I see out of the three stocks covered yet, I rather hope there will be better opportunities coming along…
(Full disclosure: I have owend Accentis in the past, but am sold out at the moment)
“Drama in Paris”
Activity: real estate – hotel
There is definitely some “oddball value” here, but do the red flags make you wanna run from this faster then Usain Bolt ?
ADC mainly seems to own a second tier hotel in Paris build in 1989 and some shops and a flat in Paris.
Man behind this vehicle (listed in Brussels), is Alain Duménil. Alain is a French ex-banker and three times novelist, who has a literary price to his name (commemorating the best French novel of the year) and used to own the “Theatre de Paris”. A man of high standards, you would presume.
The only thing is: in 2017 Alain Duménil was convicted of fraud concerning “Alliance Developement Capital”
Duménil was convicted to one year in prison and 37k euro fine. He didn’t appeal.
Quite strange as well is that this company stops to exist in 2050. So, it’s like an Royalty Play, but with a hotel that pays rent, instead of royalties on oil in an MLP ?
There is also the closing of some other litigation concerning a 2007 ongoing legal case – that supposedly impacts the balance sheet positively for about 10 million euro.
Apart from that, NAV per share is calculated at 0,38 while share price at the moment of writing is 0,128. Dividends haven’t been payed since 2014. Positive Cash Flow is … hmm, unpredictable.
But with the main man convicted for fraud, this one is not for me.
Activity: real estate – healthcare
Aedifica is a “GVV” or “Regulated Real-Estate Corporation” – a special Belgian juridical vehicle for Real Estate companies. There are 17 listed companies with this status and I will cover them all together here…
“Can the Ugly Duck of Belgium become a Princess Swan once again?”
It is my personal opinion that a great Insurance stock (or a basket) should be the cornerstone of any Value Investing Portfolio.
Could Ageas be the cornerstone of your portfolio? Can it throw Accentis from the throne and become the new “Hot Stock”?
Ageas is what is left after the break-up of Fortis Holding. The infamous bank and insurance group –considered by many small Belgian shareholders as the ultimate “safe stock”- ran into liquidity problems in 2008 after a bad timed and expensive acquisition of the Dutch ABN Amro bank. French bank BNP Paris-Bas picked up the pieces in a forced sale.
All that was left after the sale was the insurance part (apart from a pile of toxic distressed debt) and that became Ageas. Only recently they had to pay out former Fortis shareholders after a collective settlement trail was won by the activist shareholders.
But that is the past. How about the future?
The company is the largest provider of insurance in Belgium through it’s brand AG Insurance and is active in 14 countries. The bank BNP-Parisbas Fortis is still the main sale channel for their insurance products.
They sell car insurance, travel insurance, home insurance, some re-insurance and some life.
You might call Ageas a dividend growth stock. With a payout ratio under 50%, the Gross Dividend (before withholding tax) looked something like this, the last couple of years:
The performance hasn’t been stellar, the last decade. Only just beating the wider index BEL20.
Revenue grew a healthy 10% CAGR.
Although, the Combined Ratio started to improve the last couple of years, ROE stays < 10% ; lower then you would expect from a quality insurance company.
Despite being quite cheap at the time of writing (around 0,96 BVPS), what holds me back is the quality of the shareholders – there is no controlling shareholder. The big chunks in this graph are “institutional” and “retail” shareholders.
What I am looking for in an insurance business is a shareholder who acts as a stable factor who doesn’t chase growth, but is happy to make the best decisions for the long term.
Also, you want executive directors with skin in the game, don’t you ?
e.g. I have owned Aflac in the past and still own some Markel.
Ageas seems like a run-of-the-mill insurance company without real special sauce. I just cannot convince myself that my money would compound at above-average rate by buying this stock.
It’s a pass for me.
“What is so special about the Belgian Eastman-Kodak?”
Activity: image processing
It seems like Agfa is the ultimate turn-around stock. Cycle after cycle of turn-arounds.
Gevaert started out as a photo-paper company in Antwerp in the 19th century.
In the beginning of 20th century they invested heavily in the development of colored photo for about 20 years before it was commercially viable.
Ever since, Gevaert is a “patent” company.
Which is one of the reasons some shareholders never give up on it, despite lackluster revenue during some years. The patents are hypothetically worth a lot.
Agfa’s thirst for innovation led them on a decade-long acquisition round, that eventually made them number one in pre-press and healthcare imaging.
When they IPO’d in 1999 40% of al printed material in the world was run through their machines and they were leader in the healthcare imaging business.
None of that could make up for the decline in paper photo, though. Agfa-Gevaert run into the same problems as Eastman-Kodak (they developed the first digital camera, but never profited from it): a lot of patents, but declining revenue.
Eventually, they sold the photo-business (and rightly so: it when bankrupt a few years later).
Restructuring after restructuring happened. Dividend is suspended for 12 years now. And the business nor the stock price have gone anywhere but down and then sideways.
Until recently. Since December they are discussing the 50% sale of their IT Healthcare division with Italian based Dedalus Holding. Rumors are quoting up to 1 billion for the 250 million in revenue crown jewel. (in 2007 offers for 2,2 billion were on the table for a 100% sale).
At a market cap of 800 million, this might be a very attractive special situation.
So, in that sense – Agfa-Gevaert could definitely be on your watch-list.
The CEO is quoted in saying that this sale should give them enough cash to revitalize Agfa-Gevaert into a “new” company.
But is it better then Accentis, as an investment opportunity right now ?
Maybe, maybe not. There are still 1 billion in pension liabilities to cover. So, while you might get a hefty special dividend (whenever the sale goes through), there will not be a lot of cash left to energize the remaining parts of Agfa-Gevaert (which are lower margin then the Health IT-department)
As one pundit put it: “the new Agfa is the old Agfa”.
“Like Magic Johnson I will throw a No Look Pass at this one”
Activity: engineer consultancy
Akka is not really Belgian, it’s French.
It only just listed on the Brussels stock market in late 2019, as a second listing.
So, Akka is technically not part of the intentions of this round-up.
While I suspect the same objections I had with consultancy group ABO, will pop up – I haven’t really looked into it. I glanced.
Shoot me. Throw me some cake in the face. Slap my hand.
They do have a nice picture of the Brussels Grand Place on their website. So, credit for that.
Activity : Real Estate – retail
Ascencio is one of the 17 “Regulated Real-Estate Corporations”.
They are covered as a group here.
“Asit as in Chapter 11”
While the Brussels stock market might be know for its “special” real estate companies, it also is infamous for it’s biotech sector.
Biotech stocks are the most heavily traded on the Brussels stock market – showing an appetite for speculation and quick rich schemes by the Belgian Retail Investor.
While fortunes have been made in biotech, fortunes have also been lost.
ASIT was developing a medicine against Hay Fever, but it didn’t turn out so well.
Now they are in the Belgian “Chapter 11”.
They do hold some sort of Belgian record, though : the stock managed to crash 82% in one day. Which is the biggest crash since 2001.
“A real estate developer with legacy families behind them”
Activity: real estate development – offices
Belgians are not only addicted to putting money into our saving accounts, we also seems to be addicted to dividends, especially in this low interest environment.
A great source for dividends turned out to be: listed real estate.
Apart from our 17 “Regulated Real Estate Companies” (who don’t have to pay taxes as a trade of for their dividend paying obligations), we also have a number of Real Estate developers who are competing for the love of dividend hungry Belgians on the stock market.
Atenor is one of them.
Suffice to say now that Atenor has had a great 20 year run; are venturing in East-European markets because they see the Belgian market as mature ; carry a +20% ROE ; have a very reasonable payout ratio, but a heavy debt load.
More then 50% of shares are held by “insider families” – household names amongst the Belgian high finance.
All in all, I guess covering the bunch of real estate developers as a group and comparing them peer-to-peer will be more fruitful, then going through them individually. I will do so here…
But already know now, I will have a hard time to pick just one.
“How to value growth without earnings?”
Activity: B2B digital audio broadcast solutions
Audiovalley is around since 2008, or since 2013 – depending on what timeline you fancy. They facilitate web radio/audio broadcasting and the monetizing of the audiences through an audio advertising management platform.
Managers own 66% of the business.
After the IPO in Paris in 2018, they sought a second listing in Brussels in 2019 – without actually raising extra capital.
I guess I am not the right person to value this semi-IPO. My circle of competence is narrow and has long ended before the point where Audiovalley starts.
Audiovalley owns some brands/solutions for web based audio broadcasting.
They have a Spotify-like platform for rights free music, called Jamendo. Ever heard of it? I haven’t. So I asked around : a friend of my makes audio advertisements as a sound engineer. He has heard of Jamendo, but doesn’t use it. “Nothing is really for free”, he says.
In 2014 they bought Winamp, a mediaplayer that has been around since 1999 and was bought from AOL. Since then, no new version of Winamp has actually been released – except a leaked beta version – despite the announcement 2019 would see a new version.
Their main brand used to be Radionomy – a platform to broadcast web radio. But in 2020 Radionomy seized to exist and was rebranded (?) as Shoutcast : a subscription based solution to broadcast radio and podcasts.
Main contributor to revenue is a platform to manage audio advertising, called Targetspot.
Year over year revenue growth has been around 20% since 2017.
A trend confirmed in the 2019 HY report.
Equity was 11 million in 2018 but in the HY 2019 report equity has declined to 6 million, while intangibles are a whopping 40 million.
However, Storever has since been sold for 15 million. And a recent bond offering of 8 million was successfully subscribed.
Apparently Audiovalley has to make payments to Vivindi for the acquisition of Radionomy. The sale of Storever and the bond offering helped Audiovalley to reach the first mile stone and by doing so they were able to shave of 9 million from the acquisition price.
How the rationale behind this deal exactly works, I have no idea.
Also, HY 2019 saw the first operational profit, although they missed their revenue growth target of 35%.
Somehow the market values Audiovalley at a market cap of 35 million, for an Enterprise Value of circa 62 million.
Of course for me there are so many red flag waving, I wouldn’t know were to begin valuing this thing.
That says a lot more about me then about any potential Audiovalley might have as a company.
All I can do right now is throw Audiovalley on the too-hard-for-me pile.
Maybe someone smarter in growth stage companies can enlighten me?
ACKERMANS & VAN HAAREN
“Making money with mud.”
Activity: diversified holding
In Flanders we have a thing with “mud”.
In world war I we dug ourselves purposely into the mud in Flanders Fields to withstand the German troops. At a great cost, but also with great pride.
Also, there is a niche cycling sport called “field riding” that is very popular down here and involves taking a racing bicycle into muddy fields to see who comes out on top after one hour – usually at maximum heart rate.
Next, we have an expression that translates as “the mud of the earth” – meaning “money”.
And, we are the number one players worldwide when it comes to dredging.
This brings us to Ackermans & van Haaren
In 1884 two men joined forces to win a dredging contract to clean out the most important river in Flanders: the Schelde, connecting the Antwerp harbor with the North Sea. Because of the tides, the river needs to be dredged out regularly – for the biggest ships to be able to dock in Antwerp.
Now, 125 years later AVH is still owns one of the top dredging companies in the world : DEME. (number one is also Flemish, but private: Jan de Nul).
Deme is part of the separately listed CFE, the “building & contracting branch” of AVH.
Next to CFE, they own a banking branch (a private bank and a bank specialized in accommodating liberal professionals) and they are invested in Sipef, a Belgian palm oil farmer in Asia.
Since recently they are looking into “care logistics”: nursing homes etc.
And have some venture capital.
The strategy of AVH is to identify a sector where they see structural growth and then become a controlling shareholder in what they see as a potential top notch company in that sector.
Reading the yearly reports, they strike me more as Operators, who are chasing growth instead of classic Capital Allocators, who are interested in culture, legacy or preservation of capital.
It is within their philosophy that the companies they own are responsible for their own financing, balance sheet health, risk control and operations.
It’s has been a recipe that works.
History hasn’t been bad for AVH. But not stellar either.
CAGR of Book Value is 13% since IPO, 8% for the last decade.
Despite the numbers, they are considered the “best” diversified holding in Belgium by retail investors, in terms of “growth”. And that’s why AVH doesn’t suffer from the usual “holding discount” other holdings traditionally endure.
It is very easy to fall in love with AVH. They do a lot of the things Belgians have earned a reputation for (banking, dredging, farming) and they seem to do it reasonably well.
Now, I once fell in love with AVH and the company was a nice chunk of my portfolio. But as time went by, my perspective towards investing evolved. And with that my love for AVH.
When I finally sold with a nice profit, it was not about bad numbers or a bad quarter or even a bad year. In my investing journal I wrote : “Will AVH come into trouble more then some of the other holdings I admire once a recession strikes? I would think so: they seem more concerned with chasing the upside instead of protecting the downside, more about current results instead of legacy, vision and culture. That has become – for me personally – disappointing.”
I was lucky in my timing : since selling out the share price has gone south.
I also wrote in my journal: “AVH stands out for what they do NOT talk about in their annual reports, more then what they do talk about.”
In that silence, I found discontent.
This trend is continued in their latest HY report. They only really talk about income, about cash on the bank account, equity and growth. There is no mention of the balance sheet. For 3 billion in equity they have 1 billion in long standing debts (besides the bank liabilities), which is a little spicy for my taste.
Now, you could say this is reasonable since interest rates are so low. It is smart to do so. It’s a sign of smart capital allocation.
True that, but when you are a contractor, a bank and a commodity player – how naked will you stand when the tides pull away?
Bottom line is: I think they are good –not great- in what they do. I think they are in vulnerable sectors. (And I also think the smart thing to do is to pile up liabilities when your competition is bleeding, not when everybody prospers.)
And what I look for in marriage on a portfolio level is a combination of “great”, “healthy” and “safe”.
Besides, with that kind of CAGR, I also look for a hefty discount, before I step in.
But even then – AVH has lost my love and it will very hard to regain it.
CONCLUSIONS AFTER THE LETTER “A” ?
We have one “hot stock” in Accentis, but I am very lukewarm about that result.
I will not buy into that situation.
Even more disappointing, not one company we covered stood out for me as a clear top quality company you should keep your eyes on in the event they become cheap one day. Not even 3G Capital darling AB Inbev.
We will cover the Real Estate Companies as a group, so maybe there are gems to be found there?
But then again, the future might prove me completely wrong (since that is what the future tends to do…)
Curious about what sweet juicy Belgian companies are spelled starting with the letter “B”?