Blue Apron and GNC, two examples of the struggle to fight against thematic headwinds

Blue Apron and GNC, two examples of the struggle to fight against thematic headwinds


In Tematica Investing, we focus on companies that are benefitting from tailwinds associated with our investment themes. As a good institutional portfolio manager knows, avoiding problematic investments is critical as they can sabotage returns to be had from well-positioned ones. In our Tematica lingo, that means avoiding companies that have thematic headwinds bearing down on their businesses and buying companies that are rising the tailwinds.


No need to revisit Blue Apron shares

We’ve been bearish on shares of Blue Apron (APRN) and we’ll try not to pat ourselves too hard on the back as we take a victory lap on that call.

As we saw yesterday, there is a good reason to remain that way as Walmart (WMT) is formally getting into the meal kitting business. While many were expecting Amazon (AMZN) to leverage its Whole Foods Market business with its own meal kitting offering (we still are), Walmart is leveraging its position as the largest grocer to enter the fray. The goal for the brick & mortar retail giant is to help build its digital footprint as well as take share from the restaurant industry, which has been pressured by weak traffic and average ticket pressure. Odds are Walmart is also looking to ride the consumer shift toward healthier eating and snacking that is part of our Food with Integrity theme along with a hefty dose of our Connected Society one.

All in all, this looks like a good extension for Walmart and one that is poised to make an already challenging environment even more so for Blue Apron.



Struggling GNC Holdings looks East

Another company that has been running into a significant thematic headwind is GNC Holdings (GNC). Once a dominant player in the sports performance and nutrition space (otherwise known as body-building), the supplement retailer has been attempting to reposition itself to a wider audience as a seller of “health, wellness and performance products.” As the performance market has moved online and to other sources, GNC has been attempting to capture more women and appeal to the Boomers and their set of nutritional needs, which are far different than the iron clangers in the free weight section of the gym.

To say this stock price chart looks like a one-way roller coaster that only goes down would be an understatement. A better comparison would be an alpine slide that starts extremely high up a mountain, has several twists and turns, but only goes in one direction – down. Since peaking in late 2013 near $60, that’s exactly what we’ve seen with GNC shares as its profits turned to losses despite a comparatively modest dip in revenue over the last few years.



In perusing the company’s latest 10K filing, the company offers up an explanation of sorts: “Prior to 2017, we had been experiencing declining traffic trends leading to decreasing same-store sales in our retail stores. After extensive consumer research and market analysis, we determined that our business model needed to be reimagined.”

Not exactly what a shareholder, existing or prospective one, wants to hear, but at least we can credit the management for not acting like an ostrich with their head in the ground as Amazon rolled into space as did others. The combination of having to “reimagine” its business model as well as fend of competitors led annual Selling, General & Administrative expenses to rise over 2015-2017 as revenue shrank, pushing GNC to deliver bottom-line losses.

Digging into the financials, the company experienced negative same-store sales in every quarter during 2016 and the first two of 2017. Making matters worse, average transaction amount was in negative territory over the last five quarters, and sales at sales were falling as well. December 2017 quarterly sales were up 0.2% in company-owned stores vs. down 1.2% in the September 2017 quarter.

Not exactly a recipe for success, but clear signs the company could be in turnaround mode. What makes this potential turnaround interesting is the new partnership with CITIC Capital and Harbin Pharmaceutical Group. As a way of background, CITIC Capital is a global investment firm with a strong position in China and the Harbin Pharmaceutical Group is a joint venture of several China-based pharmaceutical companies. CITIC will invest $300 million in the form of a newly issued convertible perpetual preferred security with a 6.5% coupon payable in cash or in kind and a $5.35 conversion price. GNC will use the funds to repay existing debt and for other general corporate purposes, and on an as-converted basis, CITIC will hold roughly 40% of GNC’s outstanding equity. That’s a significant shareholder and one that will also appoint a total of five members to GNC’s newly expanded 11 member board.

The company expects the transaction to close in the second half of 2018, but it will require regulatory approval in both the U.S. and China. Given the current geopolitical tensions we are reading about almost daily, there could be some speed bumps associated with these approvals. Also too, GNC is ramping marketing associated with its recently launched pricing strategy and loyalty program, One New GNC strategy in the current quarter. This likely means margin pressure is poised to continue.

The bottom line is even though GNC is facing steep competitive domestic pressures, it’s new relationships could pivot its business but there are several hurdles to be overcome. Keyword being “could.” The risk related question I find myself asking is “Yes, I understand what the management team is saying, but what if the pivot or turnaround doesn’t happen as expected?”

We’ve seen many a company that in the face of thematic headwinds and mounting competitive pressures have attempted to reposition their businesses. Few have succeeded. My gut tells me that GNC, much like Blue Apron, Blackberry (BBRY), Angie’s List, GoPro (GPRO), Fitbit (FIT) and others, is on the road to nowhere for investors. But that’s my gut, which means reminding myself to keep an open mind and watch the data as it becomes available.




BlackBerry’s accelerating transition lands it on the Tematica Contender List

BlackBerry’s accelerating transition lands it on the Tematica Contender List

We’re adding a new name to the Tematica Investing Contender List today, and it’a one that you may have heard something about before – BlackBerry (BBRY).

As you read that sentence there is a distinct probability that you said “huh?” or something similar to yourself or the person next to you.

Yes, we said BlackBerry, as in the company that was once the dominant smartphone manufacturer until it was outflanked by Apple (AAPL) with the iPhone, which as we all know revolutionized the smartphone industry. Back in the day, we had BlackBerry’s named device and while it was ahead of the competitors when it came to email, the reality was  the device had a horrible internet browser, a click wheel that made maneuvering around the screen challenging to say the least and its phone capabilities paled in comparison to other mobile phones at the time. In short, it was ripe for disruption and Apple did just that.

All of this helps explain the “huh?” reaction you likely had.

Here’s the thing, one of the traps that investors fall into is thinking things remain the same at companies. Sometimes that is true, and we’re seeing as part of the reason activist investor Nelson Peltz was gunning for a seat on the board of Proctor & Gamble (PG) – more on this is another post. In the case of BlackBerry, it has been a turnaround in the making that has spanned several years with revenue falling from $6.8 billion in 2014 to $1.05 billion for the 12 months ending this past August.

Now, this is where things start to get interesting because during that time period the company managed to not only shrink its bottom line losses from $1.99 per share in 2014, over the last 12 months it delivered EPS of $0.13. Current consensus expectations sit at $0.06 per share for the current year, rising to $0.08 next year even as revenue is forecasted to decline further. From a stock perspective, this means the shares are still uber expensive even if we back out the roughly $3.00 per share the company has in net cash. That’s one reason why the shares are only making it onto the Contender List, and I’ll share a few more before too long.

The nagging question is what is driving the bottom line improvement even as revenue is expected to fall further over the coming quarters?

It’s the transition in the business model from hardware to software services, which carry richer gross margins, and focuses on security. This transition brought BlackBerry back onto our radar screens as part of our Safety & Security investment theme. As we all know in reading the headlines, there isn’t likely to be any slowdown in the speed of cyber-attacks, and this is helping fuel BlackBerry’s transition. In the recently reported August quarter, its software services business accounted for just under 80% of overall revenue vs. 44% in the year-ago quarter. To show the power of that transition, gross margins in the recently completed August quarter rose to nearly 74% vs. 29% in the year-ago quarter. Lending a helping hand, the comparatively lower margin device business fell to just $16 million in revenue vs. $105 million in the August 2016 quarter. This accelerating transition helps explain why BBRY shares have climbed 15% over the last three months vs. 6.6% for the Nasdaq Composite Index and 5.3% for the S&P 500.

As this transformation continues, another item to watch at BlackBerry is its embedded software business, a key part of our Asset-Lite investment theme.  The initial licensing focus for BlackBerry has been in the automotive industry with regard to autonomous cars. Recently Delphi Automotive (DLPH) announced that it chose BlackBerry QNX for its Centralized Sensing Localization and Planning platform, which is a fully integrated autonomous driving solution. Given our recent Cocktail Investing Podcast with Audi on prospects for autonomous cars, we know this is a development that still has several years to go until it is ready for prime time. That said, the win for BlackBerry at Delphi is certainly encouraging.

Finally, BlackBerry has had some success leveraging its licensing business, which includes software licensing, intellectual property licensing, and technology licensing. As we know given the position in Nokia (NOK) on the Tematica Investing Select List, licensing businesses tend to carry very favorable margins, but it’s also one that moves in fits and starts not a smooth, continuous line. We also know that it’s a business that takes time to convert prospects and opportunities into revenue and profits, and in the case of BlackBerry, there are others such as Qualcomm (QCOM), InterDigital (IDCC) and Nokia that have competing licensing businesses. This means we’re not apt to see leaps and bounds of improvement with this Blackberry business in a short period of time, but more likely periodic wins.

The bottom line is that BlackBerry’s transition to a Safety & Security and Asset Lite Business Model is accelerating, it has yet to really reap the rewards on its bottom line. With the shares currently trading at 142x expected 2018 earnings and well into overbought territory, we are going to place BBRY shares on the Contender List and watch for either a pullback in the shares to $8 to $9 at which they have support or signs its EPS generation is poised to accelerate in a meaningful manner over the coming quarters.