The Impact of Consolidation; Wasn’t That Over Years Ago?

Yes. And no. The snowboard industry consolidation that started around 1995 or 96 could probably have better been called extermination. Literally hundreds of brands went away either because their founders got tired of losing money or because the Japanese stopped paying cash in advance for snowboards. Though there were exceptions, these brands didn’t get subsumed under the multi-brand umbrella of a large corporation. They just ceased to exist.

A Business Week article in September talked about the fact that prices on recent acquisitions of apparel makers have been at cash flow multiples 20% higher than what companies were purchased for just a few years ago. Some of the recent, richest deals have closed at multiples of cash flow that are twice what public apparel makers trade for. A graph in the article shows the value of mergers and acquisitions in the apparel sector were around US$ 6.5 billion in 2000 and are projected to be nearly US$ 40 billion in 2005.
Quiksilver has announced that it’s earning for the year ending October 31, 2006 are expected to be US$ 0.87 to US$ 0.88 cents a share. Analysts had been expecting US$ 0.98 per share. Earnings are expected to be US$ 0.86 to US$ 0.87 for the year ended October 31, 2005.    They said the integration of Rossignol, acquired in March, the strengthening of the dollar and higher interest expense were responsible for their projection of essentially no earnings per share growth in the coming year.
These two things got me thinking. Sometimes that leads to an article.
The 90s snowboard consolidation was largely confined to the small world of the snowboard industry itself. And as I said above, consolidation maybe wasn’t the right word for it. This consolidation is different. It’s not confined to snowboarding, or even to what we have called action sports. It’s taking place in the context of the much, much larger lifestyle/fashion/apparel (pick your favorite term) market. It’s big companies buying companies that we in action sports use to think of as big, but that are turning out to be small compared to the companies buying them and the markets the acquirers are in. Hurley bought by Nike, Quik bought DC and Rossignol, VF Corporation bought Vans, Addidas bought Salomon (and has now sold it to The Amer Group). I’ve forgotten all the brands K2 has bought. I don’t mean to suggest this is new, but I expect it to continue. It has ramification for brands and retailers.
Let’s see what they might be.
Stuck in the Middle
The conventional wisdom is that you either need to be a niche brand, or a big company with a low cost structure. If you’re stuck in the middle, you’re screwed. We could talk, I think, about how that may have changed or be changing due to the role of brands, how marketing has evolved, and the internet and the leveling of the information playing field, but that’s a topic for another day. For the moment, let’s go with the conventional wisdom.
We continue, thank god, to see the regular emergence of new action sports brands. Some of them get some traction in the market. We all know why. Committed snowboarders, for example, who think of snowboarding not just as a sport but a lifestyle are interested in buying brands different from the ones anybody could buy pretty much everywhere. I’d argue that this group of committed snowboarders, as a percentage of total snowboarders has shrunk, but it’s still a basis for a new brand to get a toehold.
I look at these companies as niche brands who, due to their small size, flexibility, limited availability, coolness factor, and cost structure control, have a way to compete. Remember when one of these brands ran the ad telling kids how to fake lift tickets or something like that? Boy were the resorts pissed off and you couldn’t hardly blame them. But it generated a lot of talk. Can you imagine a large snowboard brand with close ties to resorts using that kind of marketing?
At the other extreme are the big players. But if I try and list the big snowboard only companies (or the big surf only companies, or the big skate only companies) I end up with a damn short list. Not even Burton, even with the leading position in the snowboard market, is a snowboarding only company any more. Quik’s’ certainly not just surf with acquisition of Rossignol.
The big players are increasingly multisport, year around businesses with a significant and growing presence in the apparel/lifestyle market. K2 Corporation, Amer Sports, VF, Nike, Quiksilver come to mind. There are others you might name. I think the companies stuck in the middle are those with revenue of, oh, let’s say under $1 billion who don’t have defendable and competitive lifestyle/fashion/apparel brands.
Got your attention with that number did I? Good. That was the idea. Want to say $800 million? Okay with me. But whatever the number it’s at least one order of magnitude bigger than what we usually think about when we say “big” action sports companies.
The idea I want you to come away with is that many of the companies with the potential to be “stuck in the middle” are now much larger and the revenue range of such companies much wider. In this much larger market, you can be stuck in the middle at $25 million. Or at $400 million.
Remember action sports- especially in hard goods- is an industry where you have to do everything right just to be in the game. And, in contrast to how it use to be, doing everything right doesn’t give you a long term competitive advantage (I’m not sure there are any of those anymore unless they are related to brand)- it just gives you a chance to compete and make it to another season.
A further factor in catching companies in the middle is the squeeze on hard goods prices and margins that has resulted from wide distribution, lack of product differentiation, and the availability of cheaper, quality, manufacturing. Downward pressure on prices can mean less margin dollars even if the margin percentage remains the same. Nobody is immune to this.
So What?
Because of the encroachment on action sports of the lifestyle/fashion industry, and the fact that there seems to be more money to be made in soft rather than hard goods, companies in the middle face a tough competitive challenge. Much (most?) of their growth potential is in selling soft goods to the lifestyle market. But their competitors in that much larger market have resources and advantages that the pure action sports companies can’t even come close to matching. What can they do?
Well, they can sell. For many, that will be by far the best financial decision they can make. So we will see this continuing wave of consolidation. As usual, there will be those companies who will have been mismanaged and need to find a deal. But even solid companies, looking at their market position and circumstances, will rationally decide it’s time to sell.
They’ve grown steadily, are profitable, and respected in the core market. They are a trend leader with a serious cool factor. The next step in growth requires them to begin to expand their distribution into the broader market. Potentially, they may begin to erode their image. They will begin to run right into the much larger competitors who have them out resourced by ten to one. Even if they are successful, they may not have the working capital they need to follow through.
Typically it’s right at this point where the company’s value will never be higher. The Business Week article suggests that might be right now. It’s not easy to recognize, and there are damn few successful entrepreneurs who don’t think next year will be better than this year. But making a deal right then, with your market aura in tact and your financial statements pristine and before you start to run head long into the 500 pound gorillas who will be your competitors is where the deal needs to be made. And that’s why I think we’re going to see more deals.
But who to buy? If, as I’ve suggested, the core market of actual participants who define themselves and their lifestyle by their participation is shrinking then the niche brands, while they may be successful, don’t have the room to grow they use to. So why would they be attractive to a larger company if they can’t contribute substantially to growth and profitability? They probably aren’t. So the number of attractive acquisition candidates shrinks, and the price, as seen above, gets bid up.
And the Retailers?
Four things. First, we seem to have been through, and maybe we are still going through, the extermination phase with retailers. I have no numbers, but I think we all share the perception that a lot of individual retailers have gone away and comparatively few have opened.
Second, I expect the “stuck in the middle” analysis above for brands to apply to retailers as well. We’re already seeing some consolidation and I’d expect more. As I’ve written, the only financially attractive exit strategy for a core shop run by the founder/owner seems to be to open enough additional stores to create a size, management structure, and ”proof of concept” that makes the mini-chain attractive to buyers. This is consistent with the discussion above of why a brand would sell.
Third, I can imagine that purchasing inventory is going to get interesting for shops as the companies they buy from have more and more things to sell them. Remember that the days of the single sport/activity shop are long gone. I wonder if K2 will want you to buy both your snowboards and your football equipment from them. Okay, granted I don’t know of a snowboard shop that sells football equipment in the summer, (and I don’t know if K2 sells it) but there must be one. What kind of incentives might they offer you to consolidate your buying for various activities with them? Hmm. Maybe I should ask them.
Fourth, are you sure you’re still an action sports retailer? I mean, a lot of you are selling an awful lot of soft goods that aren’t really sports functional to people who don’t participate. Maybe, for some retailers at least, it’s time for you to reconsider how to redefine yourself to take better advantage of the whole lifestyle/fashion/nonparticipant thing. Could be there are some opportunities you’ve been scared to look at that make sense?