Comment: The Well-Invested Grow Stronger

A FTSE 250 joinery firm provides one set of fund managers with a case study in how to spot thriving companies in a difficult market environment

Hugh Yarrow 4 August, 2023 | 10:20AM
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July was a positive month for global stock markets. Though concerns over persistent inflation and higher interest rates linger, recent disinflationary trends have helped the mood, as have reasonably reassuring corporate results and economic data.

The second quarter results season is now nearly over, and more than three quarters of Evenlode Income's holdings have updated the market since the start of July. These fresh updates, and subsequent conversations with management, provide an interesting bottom-up view across the global economy.

Some companies have seen a slowdown in demand (Hays, Page, Howden) but the portfolio’s bedrock of repeat-purchase holdings remains a source of resilient growth. Portfolio holdings also continue to cope well with input cost increases which are still, with a lag, working their way through the system.

Most management teams are now seeing a vastly improved supply chain picture, with many of the Covid-19-related bottlenecks returning to normality. Input cost inflation is beginning to moderate – a welcome trend expected to continue into the second half of the year.

Short-Term, Long-term

Quarter-by-quarter results provide an interesting window on recent progress and resilience but, for the long-term investor, questions of longer-term health and sustainability are even more important.

There are many questions worth exploring from this longer-term perspective. How well-invested is the company you are investing in? Is its management team continuing to invest steadily for the long-term? Are employees happy and motivated? Is the competitive position strengthening? Are relationships with customers improving and becoming more embedded? Do long-term growth prospects look healthy, even if short-term conditions are tough? And the list goes on.

Case Study: Howden Joinery

These short-term versus long-term considerations are well illustrated by Howden Joinery PLC, whose management we spoke with following interim results in July.

Howden is quite unusual within the Evenlode Income portfolio as it is a predominately domestic-focused company (it has expanded into Ireland and France over the last few years, but the bulk of revenue and profit is still generated from the UK economy). Howden is the market-leader in the provision of kitchen and joinery products to trade builders and has grown to more than 25% of the overall UK kitchen market.

This dominant position has been driven by a culture of customer-focus and consistent investment, leading to steady, incremental market share gains over many years. Trade builders value the convenience of Howden’s local depot networks and strong service levels. Both builders and the end-consumer also value the company’s wide range of quality, low-cost products.

Despite a tough backdrop, Howden has shown a continued commitment to investing over recent years, with a steady programme of depot refurbishments and openings, new state-of-the-art manufacturing and warehousing facilities, and consistent investment in digital.

The company also has a cash-generative business model and a strong net cash balance sheet. This financial health means significant investments can be made whilst the company also pays a healthy, sustainable dividend - shares currently offer a dividend yield of 2.8%, well supported by free cash flow. When balance sheet cash exceeds £250 million after all investment and dividend needs (which it quite regularly has), the company also returns this excess to shareholders.

Like any business, Howden has risks. It is a relatively focused company (by geography and by category), economically sensitive, and the shares are less liquid than most held in the Evenlode Income portfolio. We reflect all this in a relatively low maximum position size (Howden currently represents about 2% of the portfolio).

Through The Downturn

Like the UK economy, Howden has been facing challenges over the last eighteen months. Market conditions have been tough as consumer incomes have been squeezed, and Howden has seen its performance slow. For the first six months of 2023, the company’s sales grew at +1.5% and profit was impacted by a particularly high level of investment in the first half.

Markets may remain uncertain for some time. Thanks to its well-invested offering, though, the company has continued to strengthen its competitive position. As the saying goes, the strong grow stronger in a downturn. In 2022, UK kitchen market volumes fell approximately -8%, whereas Howden’s volumes were flat. In the first half of 2023, market volumes were estimated to fall another -10% to -15%, but Howden’s were down only -5%. These statistics are just a numeric way of noting that, on a relative basis, customers are voting with their feet and choosing Howden’s offering over others.

Growth and investment

Looking ahead, a combination of market recovery and growth, continuing share gains, and expansion into adjacent product lines and geographies provide opportunities for growth. The company’s strategy is to harness these opportunities through continued investment. As management put it at recent results:

Our model is hard to replicate and difficult to compete with, and we have initiatives in place to make it more so in markets with significant longer-term growth opportunities for us. We continue to prioritise investments in the business on this basis.

More generally, the Evenlode Income portfolio contains an interestingly diverse range of well-invested, market-leading companies. We think they offer an attractive combination of cash-backed dividends today and good potential for compounding free cash flow and dividend growth over time.

Hugh Yarrow, Ben Peters and Chris Moore are fund managers on the Evenlode Income Fund, and have written this piece for

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The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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Hugh Yarrow  is fund manager on the Evenlode Income Fund

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