COMMENT: Why ASIC Needs To Move On Dick Smith Today Before Information Disappears
Serious questions are now being asked as to how financially viable the Dick Smith retail chain was when Anchorage Capital actually floated the Company.
Insiders have told ChannelNews that same store sales were propped up with creative accounting and that Dick Smith management that included CEO Nick Aboud and Marketing Director Neil Merola went out of their way to accelerate the float of the Company back in December 2013 before serious questions were asked as to the actual performance of the retail chain.
ChannelNews believes that the Australian Securities and Investment Commission needs to take action immediately to secure financial data, former employee statements as all financial records relating to the Companies accounts in both Australia and overseas.
They need to question manufacturers of Dick Smith house brand products as to where goods were actually shipped.
They also need to qualify the information that was provided to potential investors prior to the float as ChannelNews understands that information relating to same store sales and information provided in the Companies balance sheets were not 100% accurate.
Forage Funds Management has already labelled the float of Dick as one giant “heist”.
This is what they wrote in a report to shareholders last year.
Back in 2012, Anchorage set up a holding company called Dick Smith Sub-holdings that they used to acquire the Dick Smith business from Woolworths. They say they paid $115m, but the notes to the 2014 accounts show that only $20m in cash was initially paid by the holding company.
Forage Funds Management claimed that the time that this didn’t look right and we agree.
It doesn’t look like they even paid that much, because they acquired the Dick Smith business with $12.6m in cash already in it.
Dick Smith Sub-holdings was formed with only $10m of issued capital and no debt, and that is most likely Anchorage’s actual cash commitment.
So if Woolworths got paid $115m and Anchorage only forked out $10m, where did the rest of the cash come from?
The answer is the Dick Smith balance sheet, and this is always the first chapter in the private equity playbook: pull out the maximum amount of cash as quickly as you can.
In this case, first they had to mark-down the assets of the business as much as possible as part of the acquisition. This was easy enough to do with a low purchase price. You can see in the table below, that $58m was written-off from inventory, $55m from plant and equipment, and $8m in provisions were taken.
The inventory writedown is the most important step in the short term. They are about to sell a huge chunk of inventory but they don’t want to do it at a loss, because these losses would show up in the financial statements and make it hard to float the business.
The adjustments never touch the new Dick Smith’s profit and loss statement and, at the stroke of the pen, they have created (or avoided) $120m in future pre-tax profit (or avoided losses).
Now they can liquidate inventory without racking up losses. And boy did they liquidate.
At 26 November 2012, Dick Smith had inventory that cost $371m but which had been written down to $312m. Yet by 30 June 2013, inventory has dropped to just $171m.
That points to a very big clearance sale, and the prospectus confirms that sales in financial year 2013 were exaggerated by this. The reduction in inventory has produced a monstrous $140m benefit to operating cash flow, basically from selling lots of inventory and then not restocking.
The cash flow statement shows that Anchorage then used the $117m operating cash flow of the business to fund the outstanding payments to Woolworths, rather than funding it from their own pockets (note that the pro-forma profit was only $7m during this period).
And that, my friends, is a perfectly executed chapter 1: How to buy a business for $115m using only $10m of your own money.
Chapter 2 involves selling a $115m business for $520m, and it’s a little more nuanced. The good news is that, while private equity are focused on cashflow, equity market investors aren’t really focusing on how much cash has been ripped out of the business. All they seem to care about is profit.
So the focus now turns from the balance sheet to the profit and loss statement, and it’s time to make this business look as profitable as possible in the year following the float (allowing them to sell it on a seemingly attractive “forecast price earnings ratio”).
The big clearance sale in financial year 2013 leaves them with almost no old stock to start the 2014 year. That’s a huge (unsustainable) benefit in a business like consumer electronics which has rapid product obsolescence.
Remember that marked down inventory? Most of it was probably sold by 30 June 13 but there would still be some benefit flowing through to the 2014 financial year.
Remember the plant and equipment writedowns? That reduces the annual depreciation charge by $15m. Throw in a few onerous lease provisions and the like, totaling roughly $10m, and you can fairly easily turn a $7m 2013 profit into a $40m forecast 2014 profit. That allows Anchorage to confidently forecast a huge profit number and, on the back of this rosy forecast, the business is floated for a $520m market capitalisation, some 52 times the $10m they put in.
Anchorage were able to sell the last of their shares in September 2014 at prices slightly higher than the $2.20 float price and walk away with a quiet half a billion. Private equity are renowned for pulling off deals, but if there’s a better one than this I haven’t heard about it.
Chickens home to roost
Of course, all of the steps taken above have consequences. By the end of 2014, inventory had increased to $254m, with new shareholders footing the bill for repurchasing inventory. This should have resulted in poor operating cash flow, but most of this was funded by suppliers at year-end, with payables increasing by $95m.
Come the end of 2015 financial year, however, it really comes home to roost. Operating cash flow was negative $4m, as inventory increases further and suppliers demand payment, decreasing accounts payable. The business is required to take on $71m in debt to fund a more sustainable amount of working capital. As the benefit of prior accounting provisions taper-off, profit margins fall, and the company reports a toxic combination of falling same-store sales and shrinking gross margins in the recent trading update.
This float, as we pointed out in Dick Smith Takes A Bath, Comes Out Nice and Clean, smelled funny from the very beginning. Sorry Dick Smith investors, you’ve been had.