This week we take a look at Wesfarmers who is a key beneficiary from the Work From Home trend during COVID-19 lockdowns.
WES is a diversified conglomerate with operations across retail department stores, home improvement, office supplies, resources, chemicals, energy and industrial products. Primarily though, the company is a consumer-facing business due to its ownership of the dominant Bunnings and Officeworks chains. I consider WES as being one of Australia’s modern-day success stories, having acquired, built and sold a diverse array of businesses since its foundation in 1914. That said, the companies earnings are currently concentrated in its market-leading, monopolistic Bunning’s franchise, which contributed $938 million of the $1.54 billion in earnings in 2019, or 60% of the total, following by discount department store Kmart, $343 million and WesCEF or Chemicals, Energy and Fertilisers at $422 million. The company is an aggressive acquirer and it is this forward-looking nature that means WES warrants a position within portfolios. The company deployed some $1 billion in 2019-20 through acquisitions of Kidman Resources, a lithium producer and Catch Group, an online, discount coupon retailer. This follows WES’ sale of its thermal coal assets in 2019.
WES’ key business lines continued to delight shareholders in 2019 with strong sales growth across all, however, like-for-like EBIT margins contracted in all five segments due to a combination of reasons. These included wage inflation, payroll errors, digital investment, and product mix changes. As is the case with most consumer companies post COVID-19 comparable figures offer little insight into the future. Management did, however, provide an update on its retail performance up to the end of May, reporting Bunnings had increased sales 19.2% and Officeworks 27.8% as investors flocked to both businesses as they prepared to work from home. Target remains the only concern to shareholders, with management announcing a wide-ranging consolidation of their store network and a cost-cutting exercise in a bid stifle its poor performance. They expect close to half of Target stores to be closed or converted into the more successful Kmart model and are using the COVID-19 opportunity to renegotiate lease terms around Australia.
WES provides investors with an excellent combination of monopolistic assets and growth opportunities. The market-leading return on capital delivered by Bunnings (52%) and Kmart (25%) affords management the flexibility to purse long-term acquisitions across any and all sectors of the market. It is this ability to be patient and extensive experience in both the mining and retailing sector that saw the company generate such strong returns from its significant bet on the turnaround of Coles Group. We view the demerged of Coles as a positive for shareholders, as it frees up flexibility for less capital intensive business opportunities in the faster-growing e-commerce and technology sectors. It is becoming clear that the retail sector will look very different following the impending recession with WES conservative balance sheet offering the potential for a number of purchases. Additional upside will come in the form of continuous improvement of their existing businesses, with Bunnings only launching a full digital ordering offering in 2020, which we expect to add significantly to margins and sales. The company is by no means cheap, trading at around 27x earnings, however, the business model is sound, gearing is conservative and the company is well-led.