A slice of retail success

There's much to like in the strong growth and expanding margins of Domino’s Pizza.

PORTFOLIO POINT: Despite the headwinds facing retailers in Australia, Domino’s Pizza is growing and expanding its margins. Much of that growth, however, may already be priced in.

Retailers in Australia are facing a perfect storm of weak consumer spending, online competition and a rising Australian dollar. But despite these headwinds, there’s one company that is not only expanding its physical footprint, but is becoming a serious force online. It’s also notching up double-digit growth in Europe, in spite of the economic climate, and breaking records to boot. You may be surprised to learn that this success story is in fact Domino’s Pizza Enterprises (ASX: DMP).

Domino’s Pizza listed on the Australian stock exchange in May 2005, and opened its 400th store in the same year. The company is the largest pizza chain in Australia and enjoys a growing presence in France – a country that, with the exception of the United States, consumes more pizza per head than anywhere else in the world – Belgium and the Netherlands, having bought existing operations in those countries in 2006 and becoming the largest Domino’s franchisee in the world. Domino’s Pizza now operates more than 889 stores, employs more than 16,500 people and, according to one report, makes more than 60 million pizzas per year. And all of this is run by a Lamborghini-driving CEO, who is as obsessed about Domino’s today as he was when he merged his 17-store franchise company into what is now Domino’s Pizza Enterprises.

The company’s online strategy has been a raging success, not only for pizza ordering but also for recruitment. When the company launched its iPhone App in 2009, it became the number one free app on the iTunes site within five days. Today, 40% of orders are made online and the company expects this to be 50% in the next six months, with a third of these orders to come from mobile devices.

Domino’s recently reported its half-year results and saw an improvement on almost every KPI. Same-store sales growth was strong, exceeding expectations in both Australia and Europe; margins improved and stall rollouts continued; the balance sheet strengthened, as did free cash flow; and, despite even lower debt, returns on equity increased. Domino’s concluded by upgrading its full-year 2012 guidance.

My friends at American Express should be able to confirm that while fashion retailing is one of the hardest gigs to be in, restaurants and cafes are one of the best. This is something Domino’s Pizza CEO Don Meij would know only too well. Despite challenging economic conditions, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, same-store sales grew by almost 9% and total sales were up 11.2%. In Europe, where conditions are arguably much worse and youth unemployment is in the high double-digits, Domino’s recorded 12.6% total sales growth and 7.5% same-store sales growth. By the end of financial year 2012, another 60 to 70 stores will have been opened, net profit is expected to grow by 20% (despite adverse currency movements), and same-store sales growth is expected to be in the order of 5 to 7%.

In the last three years, earnings per share have doubled (no doubt the company has also taken market share from its peers, such as KFC) and despite a substantial decline in borrowings, return on equity has increased from 17% to 23%. Rising returns on equity, with little or no debt, is an indication of powerful business economics. Generally, as a company gets larger, its returns on equity stabilise or decline. Domino’s, however, enjoys an ability to raise prices and, some say, reduce pizza sizes without a detrimental impact on volume sales. This is, in my estimation, the most valuable competitive advantage it has. Granted, it’s a surprising conclusion to put forward for a franchisee (for a look at how things can go wrong for a franchisee company, look no further than Collins Foods).

Analysts worry about the risks associated with growing a business in Europe in the present climate. Rising commodity input prices, including oil for delivery vehicles and wheat for flour, and the stronger Australian dollar are also points of concern. In the face of these perceived challenges, the company continues to grow and expand its margins. It also expects greater than 25% profit growth from Australia within three years. Clearly, Domino’s competitive advantages are proving those analysts who said Australia was 'ex-growth’ wrong. And the company is also moving to electric delivery scooters to hedge against higher fuel prices.

I have not been able to buy Domino’s shares – as much as I would like to – because they have never been cheap enough for me. My valuation is based on the idea that I want to reduce my risks as much as possible by ensuring I obtain a bargain. DMP has simply never traded at a bargain price. But with a price close to $9.00 today, you could (admittedly with the benefit of hindsight) put forward the argument that the $2.65 the shares traded at in 2009 was every bit a bargain. The issue is simply the discount rate that I am willing to use to arrive at my valuation. If I use 8% to 9%, my valuation approximates the current price. But is 8-9% enough? I think not.

What would you pay for a business earning $25 million this year and $29 million next year, perhaps $35 million the year after that? If you said $300 million or $350 million, I’d label you a value investor, but today the market capitalisation is more than half a billion dollars. At that kind of multiple, I would guess the growth has been 'priced in’. I would rather be certain of a modest return than hopeful of a great one, and at current prices – despite the obvious track record of the company and the very great skill of its management – I think buyers are being hopeful. Unless, of course, they believe a takeover is imminent.

Roger Montgomery is an analyst at Montgomery Investment Management and author of Value.able, available exclusively at rogermontgomery.com.

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