At Nintai Investments, we utilize roughly 16 measures that help us create a list of “quality” companies based financial, operational, strategic, market-based, and competitive characteristics. This leaves us with 41 of 3,671 (1.12%) total United States publicly traded companies, 305 of 17,602 (0.23%) total Asian publicly traded companies, and 88 of 8300 (0.49%) total European publicly traded companies. As one can see pretty quickly, the amount of companies that identify as “quality” is less than 1% world-wide.
Last month I reviewed what we defined as poor quality at Nintai Investments. One might think that high-quality companies simply feature the opposite traits of poor-quality companies, but that’s not entirely accurate. A quality company has characteristics unique to their category - in much the same way as poor-quality have their own. As Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
The kind of qualities we look for in at Nintai Investments fall into four key buckets. These include:
Excellence in Management: We look for management that have a vested interest in how the company performs (by purchasing shares in the open market, not stock option grants), provide a history of outstanding management candidates (similar to GE’s top 3 candidates for CEO - when one was chosen and the other two were considered outstanding managers in their own right and are expected to leave the company as CEO of another firm), deeply understand they work for both shareholders and their respective community, and finally achieve outstanding results in both operational measures (ROE, ROA) and strategic measures (ROIC, FCF margins). Most important than all of these, we look for management with a clear moral compass. This presents itself in forbidding financial transactions that profit management (such as renting a building they own directly or through corporate ownership), not using off-balance sheet gimmicks (such as special investment vehicles - SIVs), forbidding any type of family interactions with the business (such as placing family members on the Board), and the use of stock options as a transfer of wealth from corporate coffers to management’s pocket book. We feel strongly the fish rots from the head and it won’t be long before that rot works its way downwards.
Create Deep External Facing and Inward looking Moats: In both good times and bad, we look for managers who can create exceptional defensive moats that can keep competitors at bay as well as drive significant value for their customers creating a moat that keeps them from seeking out replacement products and services. Sometimes managers can spend blood and capital digging a defensive moat but they spend little time listening to their customers’ needs. This type of one-way thinking can create significant weaknesses in looking for new offensive opportunities in existing customers, markets, or adjacent markets. An inward looking moat means management has developed the means to make their products and services essential to their customers’ strategy and operations. This type of in-depth value - for lack of a better term “the tape worm approach” - demands a nearly constant improvement in quality, scope of offering, and new products/services on a daily basis. It’s hard to find management and corporate structures that have the drive to approach each work day as means to radically improve their value to their clients. A great example of this is Veeva’s constant evolution of products and services in the biotechnology industry. In the past 5 years the company has launched 116 new offerings and made over 1200 changes to existing offerings. That’s a launch or change nearly every 2 days.
Creates a Rock Solid Financial Castle: At Nintai Investments, we look for investment opportunities that can survive the most violent shock to its foundations. This can include a sudden elimination of access to any capital (the type of shock that overcame the financial markets in 2007 - 2009), a rapid increase/decrease in the Federal Reserves’ prime rate, or the LTCM failure demanding government intervention to stave off financial disaster. All of these led to some form of catastrophic market failure. We look for a company that is reliant upon no one or no institution for survival or financial bailout in a time of market crisis. This requires a balance sheet with little to no debt (or the ability to pay 100% of liabilities with 1 year of free cash flow), high free cash flow yield, and outstanding returns on capital, equity, and assets. This demands we focus on cash rather than earnings because we believe in Alfred Rappaports’s “profits are an opinion, cash is a fact”. We recognize its is very difficult to sniff out financial shenanigans if management is intent on cheating and the consequences be damned. But we think keeping a hawk eye on cash gives us the best chance to avoid partnering with an unethical management team.
A Singular Focus on Market Domination: We look for companies that seek to wholly dominate a market so large that the runway for growth is roughly 15 - 20 years. We want to know with some assurance the company will be in the same markets (or adjacent ones) dominating them with high market share, outstanding returns, and great gross and net margins for an extended period of time. Obviously it is difficult to find a company that operates in a monopoly or duopoly environment at a discount to our estimated intrinsic value, but it is possible in the micro to small-cap markets. Examples of this include iRadimed (IRMD), Computer Modelling Group (CMDXF), and Veeva (VEEV). Finding these hidden gems - which requires an awful lot of research and industry knowledge - can successfully drive investment returns for decades. We’ve often stated that two companies - Factset Research (FDS) and Manhattan Associates (MANH) - drove nearly 80% of the Nintai Partner’s internal investment fund’s outperformance. We still believe a combination of these gems with some larger companies that meet our criteria can provide outperformance with less risk.
A Final Note
I would be remiss to say that successful investing isn’t about just quality companies. We firmly believe your financial investment advisors core intellectual (and emotional) models matter equally. These models should include acting on facts rather than emotions (in both bull and bear markets), always being intellectually open to new ideas, new industries, and new companies, being humble about your success and even more humble about failures, and reveling in diagnosing and discussing investment screw-ups. I’ve found over the years the latter is one of the greatest Nintai and our competitors. While we have the same animal spirits as others in this field and are driven by our competition, we actually enjoy writing about our mistakes. Perhaps enjoy is too strong a word (after all we hate losing our investment partners’ hard earned capital), but we find discussing these occasional debacles helps ground our egos and forces us to better understand what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. So while quality investments drive returns, an investment manager should have qualities of excellence as well.
DISCLOSURES: Nintai Investments currently owns shares in Veeva, iRadimed, and Manhattan Associates. Shares are also owned in Mr. Macpherson's personal portfolio.