David Marcus

David Marcus Of Evermore: How To Deal With Tough Moments

This is a multi part post on ValueWalk’s interview with David Marcus, co-founder, CEO, and CIO of Evermore Global Advisors. In this part, Marcus discusses how he deals with tough moments and his investment strategy.

See part 1 here: David Marcus: Lessons Learned From Michael Price

See part 3 here: David Marcus: What Makes Europe Unique And Why I Like It

Q1 hedge fund letters, conference, scoops etc

David Marcus

Yeah.  I was reading a couple of your interviews and the one thing I like that you were talking about was the returns and just generating them within a reasonable amount of time.  So can you just talk about the time horizon that you try to seek for investing for your opportunities?

Sure.  Look, I think a lot of investors generally, but especially value investors will say, “Yeah, I bought that stock at 8 and, you know, now it’s 13.”  And you know, they’re crowing about the return and then you have to say, “Well, you started buying it in 1979, you know, your rate of return is actually very poor, you might have done better just to throw that money in the bank.”  And so we look at holding periods, we look at how well we’re compounding in a name.  You know, if you have a stock, and we do this all the time, we still do it, I do this with my investment team all the time, because maybe we’ll have a stock that was, let’s just say 65, and now it’s 130 and it took three years to go up a 100%.  And then we keep it two more years, it’s still 130, well, our compounding is now … we’re dividing by more time periods.  So therefore our rate of return, our annualized rate of return is really deteriorating, that money is actually not working for us as well.  We can still crow about how we doubled their money but we’re just crowing without any … we made the money two years ago and we’re still sitting there.  So you don’t always know till after the fact, we’re not … we can’t, you know, get it right every time.  But when we get … we don’t want to make excuses, and so one of the things that I like to do in addition to a weekly sit down with my team, our weekly research meeting.

So I actually take the whole team out of the office once per quarter.  We’ll go, for example, to the Jersey shore in the wintertime, and I can confirm there’s nothing going on down there.  Even the restaurants that say they’re open year round, it turns out they define that by May to September, apparently that’s a year down at the Jersey shore.  But the point is we get out, we take everybody’s phone away, we’re there for two and a half/three days.  And the whole idea is to review not every name in the portfolio, but go through the maybe 15-20 names out of the 40 that we generally kind of cap it at.  And go through the ones that are down, the ones that maybe the news isn’t what we thought it would be.  And we’re really grilling each other on are we wrong, are we early, what is the reason why it’s not where we thought it would be.  We go through mistakes, we go through lessons learned, we go through missed opportunities.  We talked about buying something, we didn’t do it, it went up a lot, did we make the right … just because it went up doesn’t mean you made the right decision.  Maybe it went up for a different reason.  So we want to really call each other out, constructively to learn.  You know, we’re not changing how we invest, but we’re fine tuning.

We want to be like the old geezer who’s pruning the rose bush, right, he’s just pruning, he’s tweaking so that year after year it gets slightly better and that’s what we strive to do.  And I think that the process of getting the team out of the office every quarter, it really helps to stay focused, to take lessons learned.  We’ve really learned a lot about our portfolio and about how we invest, and I think it’s added value over the longer period of time as we’ve tweaked along the way, especially after a rough patch.  And so I’ll beat you to the punch on a question you might have, but in the fourth quarter last year, we had a very tough year, as I’ve said to people, you know, we had a tough year in seven weeks.  The last seven weeks of last year killed the whole year.  And so it was very frustrating, but we were nibblers all the way through, we were adding to 17 positions out of 40 during the period.  And we’ve had a bounce this year, not huge, but decent.  But it’s not about this week or last week or whatever, it’s a little longer periods of time.

Yeah.  And so when those tough moments happen, how do you deal with it, I guess, like emotional wise and the team as well, the team morale?

I have a paintball gun, I just start shooting it.  No.  Frankly, if you were in … so I modelled the office here similar to the way Michael Price had the office, meaning I have a trading desk in the center, people don’t really … nobody has an office except me and I’m usually sitting on the trading desk with everybody.  We’re constantly talking, debating back and forth, our analysts sit around the desk.  You know, we’re not traders, we are investors, we’re all in one big room.  And every single office opens up to the trading, and the offices are just for the non-investment people, you know, the COO, the CFO, Investor Relations.  I want everybody to be in the loop on what’s happening here.  But if you came here during December … so if you come here when the markets are crashing, crapping out, whatever you want to call it or if it was the other way, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.  Why?  We try not to freak out or panic, I like to believe if you see … let’s just use … everybody likes to use the Dow Jones as just some sort of an indicator, if the Dow was up 500 or a 1,000 or down 500 or a 1,000, you wouldn’t see much stress here or euphoria.  But what I would be doing is saying, “Okay, people, what should we be nibbling on?  What should we be taking advantage of?  What of our stocks are down that we really need to take advantage of this?”  Let’s assume this is a gift, we don’t need too many gifts like this, but we’re getting ones.  And then November/December, we got kind of a few too many gifts, you know, of tough days.

But we’re very happy that we took advantage, but the key is to not freak out, it’s not to panic.  I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now and you just realize that you really, if you can stay disciplined and when it’s really bad out there, actually have the wherewithal to buy, nibble, take advantage, get that phone call when there’s a distressed seller somewhere and you can name the price on that block.  That’s what you want to be positioned for and you want those brokers that are going to calling with those blocks to know they should call us for that.  You never want to be making that call, you want to be getting that call.

Especially on Sundays like what Buffett says.

Yeah, exactly, no, it’s absolutely true.  And so it’s building your network out and so forth.  But we like to be buyers on bad days and try to really be methodical and take advantage, but also during those tough periods, stocks that we were working on that we thought, this is interesting, it’s not cheap enough.  Well, they start coming on to the radars so you get an opportunity also in those names.  A lot of people don’t like to buy a new name during a crisis, we’re happy to buy it.  If they set the price low on the valuation that we’re looking for we’re going to dip, but you don’t have to be all in, you can dip your toes in.  Then it gets worse, now your ankles are in and your knees are in, you kind of ease in.  I know it’s easier to jump into the cold water than to go in slowly, we’ve all kind of debated what’s the right [inaudible].  For investing we want to go in slowly and take the pain along in increments.  And I think that’s the way I believe it should be done, but it’s also how we invest.  Now, we really are fixated on companies that are not just cheap, I don’t want to jump ahead but I mean I think our methodology is a little bit differentiated in the sense that we’re not just looking for 50 cent dollars.  Do you want me to chat about that?

Yeah, definitely, yeah, your approach.

I don’t want to just blabber here.  I’m a notorious blabberer.  So I think there’s two camps in value investing.  I think you have the traditional guy or gal who wants to buy a dollar for 50 cents and says, “Over time the market will revert to the mean, things, you know, will be recognized and the market will figure it out.”  I think that worked for a long time, it doesn’t really work anymore.  And there are people who say, “Well, it will eventually work.”  We have zero interest in that style.  Why?  The world changed, it’s not a news flash but it’s kind of a news flash to some people, the world has changed.  Money that used to go into those value stocks, in many cases there’s no value indexes or ETFs or other vehicles that are syphoning off that money, it’s just not coming into those stocks.  So you have the chance for value traps, you have … so you have the chance for value traps, you have the chance for stocks that just don’t … they’re always tomorrow stories, they’re what we call wishful thinking investing, if only this, if only that.  We’re just not interested, and I think that’s an extremely tough game to play.  And as I said, it used to work, the world changed so much that that is just a harder game.  I think a lot of those stocks become targets because they do get cheap.

And we’re not looking for cigar butts, some of those were cigar butts, there’s a few puffs left, we don’t want cigar butts, we want cigars, we want as much of it as we can get.  And so we want to be in the other camp.  What’s the other camp?  Yeah, that’s a 50 cent dollar, 40 cent dollar, 55 cents, whatever it is.  But there are catalysts, we’re fixated on breakups, spinoffs, restructurings, where it’s pushing out mediocre manage teams, elevating to a higher caliber management team.  We track what the activists are doing and others, not every activist case is going to make money.  In fact sometimes they’re so short term focused they may actually destroy value because they’re trying to get a quick hit instead of the long term value that that company could create.  So we have to really understand the nuance of what’s happening, but there’s focus on spinoffs, breakups, restructuring.

We love family controlled businesses where we have dynamic value creators at the top.  When you look at sort of a portfolio of those kinds of things you get the concept of sort of going back to when I started the business with the questions of what’s going to make this one go up.  Well, cheap plus catalysts.  Now, not every catalyst is going to create value, some companies are restructuring just to survive and exist.  So we have to go through a catalyst assessment process, what are they doing?  How long might it take?  What are the risks to get those things done, meaning what is the execution risk here, because ultimately we might see the value’s there, but we have execution risk.  So I actually think that when you have a cheap stock, plus you have a multitude of catalysts, those things should contribute to better earnings going forward, that’s why they’re doing it, or cash flow or whatever.

And the fact is we look at that as a package, I want to be there during that period.  When it’s past that period, they’ve done a restructuring, the transformation, the spend or whatever, afterwards the stock has done very well because they’ve built this transformation story, it’s usually when we move on.  Why?  It becomes what we call too good for us, because it’s actually now an earnings story.  They have to sell more next year of whatever they do, at higher price margin and deliver higher returns for investors and you have no cushion.  What do I mean by cushion?  You have no non-core assets that are still being sold.  You don’t have low margins that have been through the restructuring, improved, you don’t have any of those things as well.  If it’s just an earnings game, I think you have the highest risk of all, we want to stay away from pure earnings stories because that’s why the world is chockful of profit warnings, because companies are not always good at forecasting, nor are analysts, things change along the way.  We want to know that earnings are just a piece of the pie, and we have all these other things to fall back on.  And it’s proven for us over and over and over that that focus really has created a lot of value, where we have that.

Where we will sit with stocks for very long periods of time are what we call compounders.  Every value investor has their own definition of a compounder, our compounders are generally family controlled businesses, they have been around for long periods of time, they have cranked out huge total return for their shareholders, yet they traded at discount to some other parts.  And they are led by a dynamic value creator.  And so companies like Exor which is the Agnelli family holding company, they bought Chrysler during the financial crisis from the US government, they own Fiat, Ford and Maserati, PartnerRe, a big insurance company.  They used to own Cushman and Wakefield, they sold it, so they’re very … John Elkann who runs that for … he’s this generation of the Agnelli family to run it and he’s really a value oriented guy who has created huge value for his shareholders.  So we track guys like that and we own those stocks for much longer periods of time because they are just working for us every day of the week to create long term value.

So we have maybe 20% of the portfolio is in these compounders, these conglomerates that are going … sort of during this process of continuously working to find ways to create value.  They’re not really thinking about us as shareholders, they’re trying to create value for themselves as the main owner, they kind of let us tag along.  But they’re not just sitting back and collecting their dividends, they are aggressively managing their assets.  And so whether it’s Exor or Bolloré ,which we’ve run for a long time, it’s French.  Right now, you’re literally in a transition right now from the sixth to the seventh generation of the Bolloré family, they own Porsche in Africa, they control 26% of Vivendi, which in turn owns a 100% of Universal Music, the largest music company in the world.  So they have their tentacles into so many different kinds of businesses, and you’re going through a transition now in from the father to his sons who are taking over.  It’s a fascinating time when you get these generational shifts.  So this fixation we have on family controlled businesses, I think it’s a great area to focus on, a lot of investors don’t focus on family controlled businesses.  But the data shows that over time family controlled companies have actually substantially outperformed indexes.  Because when you have a steward of this capital, is really thinking for the long term, they tend to make better decisions for the long term rather than this quarter or next quarter.

So we have this hybrid portfolio where we have our compounders, and then we have our more transactional type investments which are the restructurings, the transformations, the breakups.  What’s interesting to note I’ll say is that a lot of investors want to come into a restructuring or some sort of a strategic change situation after.  They want to see that it’s done or it’s a company in a multitude of businesses and they’re breaking it up and that doesn’t say, “Yeah, I’ll come in afterwards, I don’t want it when it’s going through it.”  Well, afterwards it’s usually revalued or well onto its way of revaluation.  We want to get it when it’s the most compelling, so it doesn’t have to be before, it’s usually during, during the change, now you have execution risk.  You have to understand who is driving the transformation.  Where do they come from?  What’s their track record?  You don’t want to be in a situation where somebody says, “Look.”  And we focus mostly small and mid-cap, but we’ll dabble up when there’s a mega cap or large cap with something.  You know, Vivendi, that’s a 30 billion euro market cap.

We recently bought in the last year DowDuPont which is a massive breakup case and restructuring, and that’s 140 billion cap.  We never thought we’d buy something that big.  And people might say, “Well, what do you know that the next guy doesn’t know?”  Well, the next guy doesn’t want to buy a conglomerate, the next guy is waiting for this thing to break up, we’re buying it when it’s still together, when they have made all these announcements about their focus, how they’re reorganizing their operations to focus on making real returns instead of just investing for the sake of science.  They’re looking for ways to deliver bottom line performance, while still investing for new products and growth.  And but investors will value a conglomerate, its weakest business, in the case of DowDuPont, Dow, the Dow piece which is the combine from Dow and DuPont commodity business is where the whole pie has been valued.  Well, once that piece is broken out, which will be next week, then you’ll at the end of June get the agricultural piece, it’s the combined ag businesses, you’ll be left with the specialty business, which will be called DuPont.  And then we think DuPont itself will likely break up into subcompanies.

The market rewards narrow focus, so when you de-conglomerate you generally get more reward.  So buying it like in the middle of the change you get it at, we think, at the most compelling discount.  But this execution risk is real, you have to understand who’s … we think in terms of, we’re not just buying horses, we’re buying jockeys.  The horse doesn’t know what to do or which direction or whatever.  So the horse is let’s say the assets of the company.  The  jockey is driving it, and his or her skills help drive this thing to the end game, the finish line, which for some of our companies is really the starting line, because now they’re out for the first time as a new company.  And so it’s really critical to do the work.  But I’ve seen situations where we’ll see a company and people are saying, “Look at this, how lucky are we, our $2 billion market cap just got a new CEO.  They came from a $7 billion company.  How are we so lucky?”  And then we go and we do our homework and we say, “Hold on a second, when that person got to the $7 billion company it was a $14 billion company.”  That’s one of the great value destroyers out there, that’s the last person we want here.  So you have to do your homework.

And we’re in an era of so much information available, we’re really in the era of information overload, but you find people talk about information, they don’t always consume it.  You know, people will say, you’ll ask somebody, “Did you read whoever’s annual report?”  “Yeah, I got it.”  “I didn’t ask if you got it, did you read it?”  “Not yet.”  All the time you hear that, a lot of investors are waiting for other people to summarize, to condense, to whatever.  We want to go to the original work ourselves, we’ll make mistakes sometimes, we’ll get it right hopefully many more times.  But the fact is, it should be because we use our own brains to get there, it’s doing your own original research and not just outsourcing your thinking to somebody else.

Right.  Yeah, can you just tell me more about meeting the management and selecting the jockeys and the process and what you learned through the years of doing that?

Sure.  I think it really does come down to getting to know who’s the captain of the ship.  When it’s a mega conglomerate or a market cap, we’re not always getting that one-on-one connect.  But in those large cases, like in the case of DowDuPont, we don’t really need to meet Ed Breen, well, it would be great to meet him but there’s so many interviews, there’s so much history of what he’s done in the past, they have so well documented what their intentions are of this company.  And they’ve made other management people available, so you don’t always get that guy.  And this is not a company where there’s like a main shareholder, that’s a family forever.  There are heirs to the original owners that are probably shareholders, but they’re not controlling shareholders.  So it’s getting to know the management, we’ve put a lot of effort into it.

I was just in the Nordic region last week, Norway and Sweden visiting companies, and we spent a lot of time, not just with individual management teams, but it was also a number of family offices that are sitting on boards that control businesses, individuals that control companies.  We’re not looking for secrets, we couldn’t care less how this quarter or next quarter’s going.  We’re looking for interesting businesses that are cheap, where there are catalysts for value creation, and with these families there are such long term investors and thinkers that the more we can share our own thoughts with them and they share their thoughts with us on where they’re seeing opportunities, what they’re looking at, it’s great.

And to develop this network of families and individuals that control companies, it goes back to the earliest days of my career where when I was … I think I was 26 years old, I got a passport for the first time.  And I discovered a country called Sweden, as a firm when I was at Mutual Associates, we had never invested there.  And they were going through a financial crisis and I went there because there were conglomerates that were trading cheap.  And I realized very quickly there were families that controlled businesses, you know, the guys that started H&M family, the Wallenberg family, that’s AstraZeneca, Electrolux, Ericsson, a bunch of other companies, Atlas Copco, you name it, they controlled a lot of businesses.  The Stenbeck family with all kinds of telecom and media businesses throughout Europe and emerging markets.  And I thought, man, this is amazing, you have all these families and individuals, I’ve got to get to know them better.  And then what we also figured out is that if somebody was a good CFO in these smaller countries, like Sweden or Norway, eventually they’d be … if they were a good CFO, one day they’d be a good … they’d be offered a shot as a CEO.  So we made it a focus of ours to get to know as many CFOs as possible.

And so it’s just, it’s sort of just getting out there, meeting, talking, debating, complaining and challenging them.  If somebody comes here into our office, they’re from a family or an individual or I’m in their office in their country, I don’t want the pitch book, it’s less than I want to see.  We should have read it before we got there.  I want to hear them talk about their business, I want to hear how they think about creating value.  And do they know their business?  Do they have to flip through docs to get answers to questions?  How well do they know it?  What have they done, when they have made mistakes, how have they dealt with it?  And just the more you can speak with people the more you can really get your arms around how they do what they do.  Are they value creators or are they value destroyers?  Are they talkers or are they doers?  There’s a lot of doers out there, but there’s also a lot of talkers and you realize they never deliver.  And so you want … I don’t care if they’re a talker as long as they’re also a doer.  If you’re just a talker we’re not interested.

And some of these family controlled businesses, they don’t create value, they’re taking advantage of the shareholders.  They’re working against their shareholders, they use them like a piggybank.  We’re not interested in those, but we distill everything down to we want to … there’s a difference between a bad manager and a bad person.  A bad manager can be changed, a bad person is a bad person.  So when we think there’s a situation where it’s a bad person at the helm, we don’t care about valuation, we’re investing in people.  We have to have people that we can trust, that are of good character and judgment and so that qualitative aspect is critical.  That’s why speaking with different family offices and individuals in these markets is so important, because they help you triangulate many times the softer part, the, are those good guys.

I know in Spain, there’s a group that I talk to, I’ve been talking to for 25 years, a publicly traded company, we don’t own it.  But the head of it is one of the wealthiest guys in Europe, and whenever I’m there he likes to talk stocks, so do I, about European small and mid-caps, the guy’s really into all these other companies.  But if we’re vetting a company in Spain I will ask him specifically, “What do you think of that person that runs that company and how do they manage?”  And in some cases I’ll hear, “They used to work for us 10 years ago, we’re very happy they don’t anymore.”  Or it was, “We were sad to lose them because they went over there.”  So just these are soft comments, but they really help you triangulate.  We’re trying to construct a 3D view of the company and of the people running it because you’re betting on both.  So it’s a lot of work, we look at a lot of things to find a few things.

Yeah, very cool.  And then can you just tell me about your ideation process and do you screen for anything or how you find your next investment?

Sure.  So there’s a number of ways to source ideas.  First of all I think a lot of investors do screen on numbers, we don’t.  I think if you invited 10 value investors into this room, and you asked them to do some screens, you’re going to get a lot of overlap in output.  We screen on key words, if you do screens on spinoffs, post reorg, equity, if you do … for years where we do a search where we do patriarch, plus died, plus holding company.  You will get a lot of Asian conglomerates that were transitioning to the next generation.  Now you’re getting a lot of German mid-caps, where the next generation is not interested in the business, but they’re interested in the money, so you’re getting M&A activity growing.  So this helps us, I mean we have other kinds of combinations of words that we do.  A company might announce at their annual meeting, or if they’re doing a capital markets day, an investor day, whatever, we’re reviewing our businesses, we may spinoff non-core assets, we’re going to take a review till year end, we get an alert.

And then we do our own work, we’re not relying on anybody to do the work, but the alert says, “Okay, the company said that they’re thinking of breaking up basically.”  So then we do an analysis and we just start asking, “You know, is it cheap?  Why is it cheap?  What’s going to make it less cheap?  What are the risks?”  And we go into a whole process, we are very process driven.  So the sourcing is the key word searching, it’s this network of families and individuals that we know and who.  It’s random but somebody will say, “Hey, I know you like spins, have you looked at, or you like restructurings, finally this company in Bavaria has changed, they’re bringing professional management for the first time in the history of the company in 200 years, interesting.”  So that’s a little softer because it’s not as regimented, but we’re talking to our network throughout.

And I’ll make the distinction between brokers and the bankers.  We like to talk to bankers.  Why?  Well, businesses are breaking up, they’re spinning off assets, they’re refocusing on core, we want to get a call from the banker to understand what’s happening.  So what I didn’t say throughout this whole podcast is that we have a high fixation on Europe, I probably should have said that at the beginning.  But we really put a lot of our time and effort into Europe first, US second, everywhere else after that, for opportunities, for our kind of opportunity for special situations.  There’s more happening in Europe really than anywhere else.  And I’ve been doing that for almost 30 years now.  And so some people might say, “Well, how can a couple of guys do that from Summit, New Jersey?”  Well, the fact is it’s … we travel a lot but more than that it’s having a perspective that we don’t have to cover the whole world, we are only looking for key characteristics, we have a very rigid filter.  And so we’re not covering every healthcare, industrial business, whatever.  We’re only looking for the ones where there’s change, where there’s a problem, there’s a breakup, there’s a spin, those are the words that attract us, those are the characteristics that drive us to do more work.

So it’s not, you have the universe that you can look at which is globally, but the fact is the ones that are really managed well and are great businesses, we’re not interested in.  We actually want the good ones that have stumbled, that we think can get back on track, that’s sort of the play or part of the opportunity.  And so we do that and we are on the road quite a bit, but I’ve been doing it for a long time, you don’t have to be based there.  Having the outsider’s perspective is important.  But I would say that we have a network that I’d put against anybody who’s not, we can say ours is as good or better.  Because we started calling these companies and these families, and these individuals almost 30 years ago, and are still talking to them or their next generation.  And it’s invaluable, some of them do not actually meet investors, it’s just not what they do.  They’ll say, “Go and meet the management of the company.”  We get the meeting with them, and again we’re not looking for secrets, we’re trying to get perspective.  But it goes back to having been so focused on this.  And when I try to get a meeting I say, “Well, here’s the references I can give you to check me out or some of my team out,” so that we can get these meetings.  Because a lot of these families are very … I’ll call them introverts, they’re not really introverts, but they’re close, they’re not looking for outside, especially, you know, some guys from New Jersey to say, we’d like to chat, talk about stocks.

And I know I got off the topic, but for sourcing it could be that, so talking to the bankers, the network of families and individuals, this key word screening.  And then just tracking what’s happening in the world again with these various alerts.  In my weekly meeting that I do with my team, everybody has a topic area.  One person tracks what the activists are doing.  One person’s tracking spinoffs and breakups, all the announcements.  One analyst here is focusing on restructurings.  And so the Monday meeting is a catch all, we’re talking all the time but the Monday meeting is to make sure that we kind of don’t miss something from the prior week, that we might have talked about during the week, to make sure that if it’s warranted, somebody’s working on it.  So there’s a lot of ways to source but we don’t, as I said before, we don’t want to own everything, we want to have a much more curated list of names and cap it.  We say it will be around 30-40 positions, we’re actually slightly above 40 at the moment.  But that will come back down, some of the things that we own are somewhat smaller cap, and we don’t usually focus on sectors or industries, but we happen to have some maritime related investments, where the market cap’s just so small.  You can get some more characteristics in a number of companies and we don’t want to own too much of an individual name, so we spread it around a little bit.

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