A Quick Word on Sears Holdings

11 Jul

I want to post a quick commentary regarding Sears Holdings (SHLD), a company I have admired (from the sidelines) for quite a while because of its Chairman and owner of 42% of its stock, Eddie Lampert. The stock was down over 10% yesterday on the heels of a reduced earnings outlook, making the shares more attractive.

Sears is a company that throws off solid free cash flow and continues to buy in shares opportunistically. For any company, what matters should not be size or market share for their own sake but profitability in the markets in which it operates. Lampert is keenly aware of this and is managing for profitability. I would compare this to Warren Buffett not growing premium volume just for the sake of having a larger policy base. There have been 10-year periods for Berkshire where premium volume shrank in every single year, but profitability on those in-force policies remained solid. Lampert is a Buffett disciple, so there is ample reason to believe he looks at Sears in a similar way. I think he’s willing to shrink the total size of the “empire” as long as he, per-share, grows wealthier.

If the Sears (and Kmart) business as a whole shrinks, the stores that are still around will be more profitable in their individual markets. What remains of a smaller, more profitable company will have low reinvestment requirements (since it’s just maintaining what it already has). This will lead to even more robust free cash flow (and proceeds from real estate sales) to use for even more opportunistic buybacks. Using this procedure, Lampert can increase per share business value at a steady clip even while aggregate sales and net income decrease.

As an example of his influence on a company, look at what he’s helped orchestrate at AutoZone (AZO), of which he owns 31%. Since 1997, sales and profits at the company have risen 9.2% and 12.7% annually, but 18% and 22%, respectively, on a per-share basis. They’ve done this by focusing on profitability (net profit margin has gone from an average of around 7% to nearly 10% over that time period) and have used increasing free cash flow to buy back heaps of shares. And the stock has followed, up nearly 20% annually over that time.

Full disclosure: No positions


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