The public markets’ competitor

Q: Do you ever wish you were publicly traded?

A: Oh God, no. I have the greatest job in the world, because I work for a guy who runs the company for the next 20 years, not the next 90 days. It’s tough being a public company, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

 –  Steve Feilmeier, executive VP & CFO
Koch Industries, Inc.

As investor relations people, we rub elbows mostly with publicly traded companies. We think about how to get our message out to the capital markets in competition with other public companies, especially our peers within narrow industry sectors.

But a whole other class of competitors exists in a parallel universe – competitors for capital and, in our businesses, for customers. Maybe we ought to pay attention.

What started me thinking was Steve Feilmeier, CFO of Koch Industries, who spoke this morning to the Kansas City chapter of Association for Corporate Growth. Known to outsiders mostly for media attention in political controversies, on the business side Koch is a $125 billion company with 67,000 employees – the No. 2 privately held business in America. No. 1 in profitability, Feilmeier hastens to add.

Right at the start, Feilmeier says being privately held is a competitive advantage:

We benefit from not having to report earnings every 90 days. All of our decisions are based on, How is this going to work out in the next 10 years?

And it’s working out just fine for Koch (sounds like “coke”). The firm is doubling revenue every five or six years with a dozen operating companies in agriculture, energy and manufacturing. Although Koch doesn’t report publicly, Feilmeier makes it clear those businesses are delivering even better growth in EBITDA (slides here).

An example of Koch’s presence: AngelSoft, its toilet tissue brand, is the No. 1 SKU in Walmart stores. No. 1. Feilmeier says 60 truckloads a day leave Koch’s Georgia-Pacific subsidiary loaded just with AngelSoft four-packs bound for Walmarts.

The ongoing shift in institutional investor preferences among asset classes is the other thing that got me thinking. I keep hearing about pension funds, endowments and real people putting more money into alternative investments – capital that isn’t flowing to publicly held companies represented by IR pros.

Consider these stats: In 2001 U.S. pension funds held 65% of assets in equities, but that dropped to 44% by 2011, according to the Towers Watson Global Pension Assets Study 2012. in those 10 years, the “Other” category in asset allocation – real estate, private equity and hedge funds – quintupled from 5% to 25%. Apply those changes to $16 trillion in U.S. pension assets and you’re talking real money.

Without getting in over my head further on macro views of the capital markets, my point is that public companies ought to think strategically about their investors. Institutions and individuals don’t have to invest in any particular public company. They might even flee the stock market, with some of their funds, for “alternatives.”

And this brings me back to Koch. Feilmeier’s description of why Koch keeps growing at the top line – and especially the bottom line – holds lessons that public companies and IR people might take to heart. A few interesting ideas:

  • Do investors see management-by-quarterly-numbers, or something like Koch’s “patient & disciplined” creation of wealth? How do we discuss performance?
  • Can we demonstrate how our incentive pay turns managers into entrepreneurs, who get paid when they deliver (and not when they don’t)?
  • Do we have real accountability? Koch doesn’t believe in subsidizing any of its businesses, so operating execs are responsible for balance sheets and P&Ls.
  • How do we make decisions? Koch demands rigorous comparison of every capital project with alternatives – will this investment deliver the best return?

Koch, of course, is a giant company. There are well-managed and poorly managed firms of every size in both the public and private arenas. But the principles Feilmeier discussed are common private-equity approaches to driving performance.

Private vs. public is a common debate among CEOs and finance folks. Some private companies long for public status – and a fortunate few make it through the IPO process to get listed. On the other hand some micro-cap and even mid-cap public companies wish they were private, to escape the hassles of quarterly reporting.

Whether public or private, maybe we need to get back to basics of running companies by rigorous disciplines of wealth creation. And public companies need to communicate how those disciplines create real shareholder value.

What do you think?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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