World Careers Network: How I’ve Become Stuck With A 37% Loss

04 June 2015
By Maynard Paton

Today I’m owning up to the second of two new investments I’ve made during the last few months.

I say ‘owning up’ because this second share has so far been a complete disaster. Indeed, what I thought could have been a ‘perfect stock’ has instead rewarded me with a 37% paper loss :-(

The company in question is World Careers Network (WOR), an obscure AIM-quoted business that develops and sells recruitment software for major employers.

I purchased the shares during February and March 2015 at an average price of 320p including all costs. The bid price now is 200p and the holding currently represents about 3% of my portfolio.

When I bought, I was convinced this £24m firm offered all the hallmarks of a successful investment. Alongside claims of supplying “world-class technology”, other attractions included a blue-chip client list, generous margins, a cash-flush balance sheet, respectable sales growth and a long-time founder/entrepreneur at the helm. Furthermore, a possible P/E of just 7 suggested the shares were a bargain.

However, events have since not gone my way as I will explain in a moment. And I dare say some investors would have never touched WOR in the first place due to its humungous bid-offer spread and dominant 80%-plus family ownership.

At A Glance

  • Developer of recruitment software for major employers
  • Accounts generally blessed with high margins, robust cash flow and substantial net funds
  • Dominant founder leadership appears focused on the longer term

This man from M&S uses WOR to hire 35,000 people a year

World Careers Network (WOR) was established during 1995 when Charles Hipps spotted the potential for employers to recruit university graduates through the Internet.

During the group’s early days, WOR’s clients were provided with website-design, online-advertising and applicant-tracking services. The product suite has since evolved into a comprehensive recruitment system that can even handle open days, fitness tests and contract production, as well as the usual CV storage and interview scheduling.

WOR’s software is used by large employers, and clients include retailers such as John Lewis, banks such as HSBC, government departments such as HMRC and universities such as Birmingham.

Perhaps the best explanation of WOR’s software is contained within this video, which sees the recruitment manager of Marks & Spencer no less explain why his employer uses WOR.

The man from M&S says the retailer recruits about 35,000 people from more than 200,000 job applications every year — the administration for which is handled by a WOR product. The M&S man reckons WOR’s system allows his group to recruit people within three days of posting the job advert.

Anyway, the video is certainly worth 5m58s of your time.

(A second video featuring WOR founder Charles Hipps is worth a watch, too.)

I must admit to not having any special insight into WOR’s software or competitive position. For what it is worth, the firm claims its “broad experience, award-winning functionality and best-in-class service” all differentiate it from the competition.

I noted in particular that the 2014 annual report claimed: “Strong market positions in a number of sectors, compelling value propositions, world-class technology and functionality, and long-term client relationships, provide a solid foundation to take advantage of the opportunities and navigate the challenges in a very dynamic market place.

All I can say is that if WOR can persuade the recruitment manager of M&S to use its product — and for him to provide a video testimonial as well — then it’s fair to assume the service is reasonably good.

You can find full details of WOR’s software for yourself on the group’s website.

Respectable growth progress, a static dividend and an awful spread

WOR joined AIM during March 2000 and that year saw revenue of just £208k produce an £85k operating loss. The dotcom crash then created further losses during 2001 and 2002, but by 2003 revenue had reached £1.8m to deliver a £115k operating profit.

The respectable progress continued through to 2008, by which time revenue had reached £5.2m and operating profits had breached £1m. WOR did suffer in the banking crash, however, when certain clients went bust or merged to push profits down to about £600k.

The subsequent recovery is detailed in the table below:

Year to 31 July20102011201220132014
Revenue (£k)4,1475,3517,1567,2468,584
Operating profit (£k)5571,1301,9331,7582,431
Finance income (£k)2836488644
Pre-tax profit (£k)5851,1661,9811,8442,475
Earnings per share (p)5.6513.8319.4618.3425.25
Dividend per share (p)3.503.503.503.503.50

Just so you know, WOR’s quoted history has not involved any acquisitions and has not involved any reporting of exceptional items.

I must admit that WOR has been very tight with its dividend payments. A maiden 1p per share payout was declared in 2004, which was followed by a 2.5p per share handout for 2005. But from 2006 onwards, shareholders have received only a static 3.5p per share dividend — which in 2014 was seven times covered by earnings.

(Following WOR’s recent bad news, I now understand why the firm kept its dividend cover so high!)

The shares joined AIM at 110p and the tech bubble instantly pushed the price to 450p. By 2003, though, the price had fallen to less than 50p. Earlier this year, buyers — including me! — had to pay more than 300p for their shares.

I should state that this share has always suffered an awful spread — right now it’s an enormous 200-275p. Clearly that spread is going to affect my future returns.

At the time of my purchases, I imagined the spread would narrow over time as the company would progress well, its market cap would increase and more investors would become interested in the stock.

But such a narrowing may now take somewhat longer than I first thought…

Surprise! Profits have just collapsed by 71%!

Interim results issued during April contained a bombshell.

WOR admitted its first-half revenue had dropped 16% to £3.5m following “delays in the sales of online tests” combined with “a significant decline in the value of a major contract”.

Operating profits in turn collapsed 71% to £287k as the group continued to invest “in the resources required” to generate overseas sales and to further enhance its products.

The rest of the 2015 financial year may witness a small improvement though:

We expect to see some recovery in sales and profitability in the second half of the year, as major new contracts come fully online and delays in the sales of online tests, albeit at a lower level, are made good.

But overall, profits for 2015 are likely to be substantially lower than those generated during 2014:

However we do expect profits to continue at significantly lower levels than last year as we make further substantial investments in the business particularly in the areas of sales, marketing, product development, delivery and customer success, all of which are aimed at generating future long term growth.

Past results had been cautious, too… and yet profits then soared

I have to say, April’s interim results were a real shock. True, WOR’s preceding 2014 annual results had hinted at rising costs (my bold):

During the current year we expect to make significant ongoing investments in our capabilities across the board: in sales & marketing, in the size of our delivery team, in customer support and satisfaction, in our own processes and management capabilities and in our software solutions.

But then again, WOR had clearly hinted at something similar during 2013 (my bold):

Whilst these investments inevitably increase our cost base they ensure we are in a position to take advantage of new opportunities.  At the same time a competitive market, unsettled economic climate and the increased scale of some of our projects make growth less predictable and more erratic which taken together make the maintenance of our current level of profitability unlikely”.

…only for operating profits then to jump 23%.

WOR’s 2011 results had offered some caution, too:

“We are hopeful that ongoing revenues from projects delivered in 2010/11 and the completion of implementations started in 2010/11 should provide a certain level of momentum in 2011/12.  However greater dependence on implementation revenue and the increased scale of some of our implementations is likely to make growth less smooth and more erratic.  A highly competitive market and an extremely unsettled economic environment make it difficult to assess prospects for the coming year.

…only for operating profits then to surge 71%.

So I’d happily assumed WOR’s managers were once again hoping to under-promise and over-deliver… but I was caught out.

He owns 72% and has never sold a share

An important attraction to WOR for me is the ongoing executive presence of the group’s founder.

The aforementioned Charles Hipps continues to run WOR as chairman and chief executive — and impressively, never sold a share at the group’s flotation and has never sold a share since. I feel that shows a remarkable commitment to the business.

Mr Hipps boasts a 72%/£13m shareholding and other members of the Hipps family control a further 13%/£2m.

I would not say Mr Hipps is underpaid for running a business that has delivered a maximum annual profit of £2.4m. During 2012, 2013 and 2014, he took home an annual salary and bonus of £300k-plus.

However, his pay prior to 2011 was very modest and I’m pleased he holds no options. Mr Hipps has recently turned — or will soon turn — 50, so I expect he could be leading WOR for some time to come.

Assisting Mr Hipps are two other executives, one of whom has served as technical director since the flotation (WOR’s operations director was appointed in 2009). Both men do not receive extravagant pay, but have options representing 2% of the share count. Total outstanding options represent 4.6% of the share count.

The last few years had seen the cash pile double

One unusual feature about WOR’s accounts is that they are presented in the ye olde UK GAAP format. (AIM rule 19 allows companies that have no subsidiary companies to publish their books in this way — Bioventix does the same).

Irrespective of the accounting convention applied, it’s plain to see WOR offers some great numbers — or at least it did before the nasty interim results!

In particular, operating margins were a mighty 28% during 2014 and had topped 15% during eight of the preceding ten years. When I bought WOR shares, I had presumed such consistently high levels of profitability indicated the business enjoyed some sort of competitive advantage.

The superior margins also contributed to some attractive return on equity calculations. During 2014 for example, average net assets of £7.4m generated after-tax profits of £1.9m — a return of 26%. The same annual calculation has dropped below 15% only once since 2004.

When I decided to buy, I’d also seen no problems within WOR’s cash flow:

Year to 31 July20102011201220132014
Operating profit (£k)5571,1301,9331,7582,431
Depreciation and amortisation (£k)908410510088
Cash capital expenditure (£k)(78)(114)(94)(71)(96)
Working-capital movement (£k)(180)351590(679)(196)
Net cash (£k)3,3894,4796,5166,7268,171

During the last five years for instance, total cash capital expenditure had been covered entirely by the depreciation and amortisation charged against headline profits. Meanwhile, aggregate working-capital movements had led to a relatively small outflow of cash.

The robust cash generation meant WOR’s bank balance had more than doubled to £8m between 2010 and 2014. I deemed almost all of that money to be surplus to requirements.

I also noted the books carried no freeholds, no debt and no defined-benefit pension obligations.

These valuation sums have since become redundant

Prior to April’s interim results, I had believed WOR could sustain its 2014 operating profit of £2.4m and earnings of close to 26p per share.

When I bought, I calculated WOR’s enterprise value (EV) to be 214p per share — that is, my 320p purchase price less my 106p per share estimate of surplus cash. Dividing that EV by my 26p per share earnings guess gave a P/E of about 8.

(Perhaps being a little greedy, I’d also calculated that doubling the second-half figures for 2014 would produce earnings of approximately 30p per share. You see, I had noted that, for nine of the last 13 years, annual profits had been more than double the preceding H2 result. Anyway, the underlying P/E on that earnings calculation was 7.)

For a business that was blessed with superior accounts, loyal management and a respectable track record, I had felt that a single-digit P/E rating was just too low — and could offer notable upside possibilities… assuming profits could sustain their upward momentum!

Here’s where I went wrong 

What I hadn’t appreciated with this business was its dependence on sizeable contracts and the resale of third-party tests.

Past annual reports had referred to initial “implementation fees”, which by their very nature can be somewhat haphazard. But there were also mentions of “ongoing service fees” from existing clients, which I’d hoped would lead to some predictability to the top line. A long list of clients on WOR’s website suggested a good spread of income, too.

As it turned out, it was the renewal of a major contract — at a price much less than before — that helped cause profits to dive.

Clearly the customer in question has decided to scale back its involvement with WOR — perhaps due to finding a replacement product or perhaps because it simply no longer needs as comprehensive a service.

Whatever the reason, other WOR clients could obviously act in a smiler manner and hurt profits even further.

Blaming the lack of third-party test sales was interesting. Such revenue had never been mentioned in WOR’s annual reports and it had never crossed my mind to wonder whether the firm was in any way dependent on selling outside services.

Still, as investors, we live and learn and any third-party dependence is perhaps something to add to our checklists for the future.

And here’s another reason for things going wrong 

I guess the other risk with WOR is dominant executive Charles Hipps turns the business into a personal fiefdom that one day leads to a de-listing.

I suppose I am more relaxed about this risk than most other investors. For a start, WOR has already been quoted for 15 years and I feel if the boss was ever going to do the dirty on shareholders, he’d have done so by now.

I don’t know for sure with WOR, but my research into family-dominated firms suggests a stock-market quotation offers:

  • Greater transparency and reassurance for customers and suppliers;
  • Operational benefits and greater financial discipline from the additional reporting;
  • The opportunity for smaller family shareholders to dispose of their investments, and;
  • The ability to raise funds through further share issues or to motivate staff with share options (although many family firms I have come across do neither!)

I trust one of those reasons will keep WOR on the stock market for some time to come.

A worthwhile gain could involve a very protracted wait

So now I am stuck holding a load of WOR shares with a quoted spread of 200-275p. Based on the depressed interim results, I have to admit the current price does not look like a bargain.

But I am hopeful earnings can recover within the next few years. During 2010 for instance, first-half profits sank to £161k — only to have cleared £1m by 2012. I would obviously welcome a similar rebound! Trouble is, that may only get the share price back to where I bought in.

My over-riding investing belief is that a collection of companies that offer a mix of respectable track records, asset-rich balance sheets, attractive margins, decent cash generation, loyal management, high insider ownership and lowly valuations can generally deliver worthwhile long-term returns to shareholders.

Such stock-picking won’t work every time, however, and I’ve suffered an unpleasant shock with WOR. Nonetheless, I am happy to hang on here and ride out this setback — although the wait to enjoy a worthwhile gain could now become very protracted indeed :-(

Until next time, I wish you happy and profitable investing!

Maynard Paton

Disclosure: Maynard owns shares in World Careers Network.

7 thoughts on “World Careers Network: How I’ve Become Stuck With A 37% Loss

  1. David (Charvil from CS PRO)

    Mayn,

    That was very bad luck and unfortunate timing.

    What surprises me however is the dramatic share price drop when well over 80% of the family own the shares. I guess that means the fate of the share price is the hands of a very small number of shae holders. Is this the reason for the massive spread?

    Best regards

    David

    1. Maynard Paton Post author

      Hello David

      Yes, the massive spread is due to the dominant shareholding that leaves next to no shares for the rest of us.

      Maynard

  2. Philip Hutchinson

    Maynard,

    These things can happen. My view is that your process for evaluating investments is solid – just keep applying it and you’ll get more right than you get wrong. No need to beat yourself up about this one. I’m not even sure that making the adjustment to your process that you suggest (re third party dependence) would have been effective, given that it wasn’t clear in WOR’s reporting that this was the case.

    I do have two observations (well, one observation and one request)

    1) Diversification.

    From what I understand, you only hold around 14 shares. I appreciate that your system is designed to be demanding and that, as a result, you are going to “screen out” a lot of candidates – but you are investing in quite a lot of small businesses that don’t have any internal diversification, either. Isn’t there a case for relaxing your criteria slightly to let in more shares? To me, 14 or so shares is not enough even in a large cap portfolio but it certainly isn’t enough in a predominantly small or micro cap portfolio. (Following on from that, I’m sceptical about the value of deep research – while I too try only to invest in “quality” companies, I don’t expect to have really superior insights about them – a good business model should be obvious – and I think the more you read about a business the more you become attached to it, without enhancing your decision making. Reading the last few years’ annual reports should suffice, in my view. It also follows from this that a highly concentrated portfolio is inappropriate – the world is simply too uncertain to warrant high levels of portfolio concentration.)

    I think a larger, more diversified portfolio would generate similar returns and would allow you to be more phlegmatic about this kind of event (which will inevitably occur at some point).

    2) Idea generation.

    You’ve talked a lot about how you assess a potential investment once you’ve come across it. I’d be very interested in your process for actually identifying those potential investments though. Do you use a screening programme? Do you limit your research to certain sectors? This is an underexplored area of investment technique in my view – I’d be interested in your approach.

    Cheers
    Phil

    1. Maynard Paton Post author

      Hello Phil

      Thanks for the comment.

      On diversification, I could add more shares if I demanded less on the valuation front. There are plenty of decent businesses around, just that there are not that many that are attractively priced right now (or at least obviously attractively priced). That of course has not stopped a lot of those shares rising! I think in a bull run we can be persuaded to pay up for quality as prices move higher, then all of a sudden a correction occurs and we wonder why we did not exercise any patience.

      I am with you on the deep research point of view.

      Generally I have always run a relatively concentrated portfolio and things have worked out alright over time and I am happy with my results. Whether those results will be sustained is difficult to say, but I have found to deviate from the market (either way!) in a significant manner, you have to be undiversified.

      I am quite relaxed about WOR — it has disappointed and it could be a protracted wait for any sort of gain now.

      On the idea generation front, something I am actually doing today is looking through a long list of every company. I ignore really small stuff (<£5m mkt cap), FTSE 350 stuff, resources stocks, foreign stocks and blue-sky stocks. I then see if I like the type of business, like the management (e.g. big stakes, long tenure), and like the balance sheet (net cash hopefully). Anything popping up I delve a little deeper. Sometimes a few names stand out that I have not come across before. I will always look at new flotations, though they rarely offer much obvious value. I also I plough through every day's RNSs for results and statements. Sometimes you can pick up on interesting developments via RNS well before the stock screeners get hold of the info. Maynard

      1. Philip Hutchinson

        Thanks Maynard, very interesting. No need to change your approach on diversification if it’s working – especially not based on the comments of a stranger on the internet!

        It’s difficult with valuation. My view is that valuation is never a reason to invest – only a reason not to invest – if that makes sense. I.e., I don’t expect my gains to come from multiple expansion (buying cheap) but rather from dividends and earnings increases. So I just try to buy at a price at which I’m not obviously getting stiffed.

        The thing is, valuation is relative – both to other shares and to other assets (you have to hold something). Compared to other risk assets it’s by no means obvious that shares are overvalued now, simply because the nominal return on risk assets generally has shifted downwards, as you’d expect when we are in a low inflation or deflation environment.

        It’s difficult to know how to respond to this. On the one hand it’s logical to reduce your valuation hurdle; on the other, in a low inflation environment cash is a more attractive asset, for two reasons – firstly because it is losing less purchasing power, indeed may even be increasing in value; and secondly because, if there is a sharp upwards adjustment in interest rates – say due to increased inflation – then the erosion of value in cash will be FAR outweighed by cash’s ability to buy risk assets at much superior prices.

        Another complicating factor, for me, is that when I look back at my mistakes, most of them have been because I bought poor or average companies, and not because the multiple was too high. Where I’ve suffered a loss due to a poor trading statement or profit warning, and the multiple has been adjusted downwards, but the company was still fundamentally ok, the shares have generally recovered.

        Oh, and when I’ve sold good companies because they were a bit pricey, I’ve generally regretted it.

        So my view is that a 5% free cash flow yield is ok in the current environment, but I do hold other assets (cash, bonds, gilts) so that if there is a crash I’ll be able to, at least partially, take advantage.

        Fully understand (and, frankly, admire) your valuation discipline though.

        The stuff on idea generation is really interesting, thanks.

        Phil

        1. Maynard Paton Post author

          Hello Phil

          Yes, I agree with your thoughts on valuation and mistakes etc. I think the more experienced you are, the more ‘burdened by history’ you become. I don’t know about you, but I’ve invested (publicly) through two deep bear markets in the last 15 years and those occasions always tell you that depressing times do come along every so often. Maybe another crash is not around the corner, but a correction might well be. I am 90% invested anyway, so if a downturn does not occur I should be ok.

          Maynard

  3. Maynard Paton Post author

    WCN:

    Glimmer of hope:

    http://www.recruitment-international.co.uk/news/wcn-appoints-new-marketing-director–27895.htm

    New marketing director. Hopefully this appointment was not prompted by his predecessor under-performing. Anyway, the interesting bit of the text says:

    This senior appointment comes on the back of numerous business wins for WCN, including the Medical Research Council and Haringey Council.

    I hope “numerous business wins” is code for growing sales.

    Maynard

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