“There’s so much you can tell in a 10-minute tour of a plant.
I can tell you right away whether we’re making money, if we have quality or delivery issues (so customer issues) and if there’s a morale problem. It’s easy to tell.
But you can’t tell until you go there.”
– Linda Hasenfratz, CEO Linamar Corporation, in conversation with The Women of Burgundy, September 21, 2016
One of the familiar tensions underlying the quality-value investment discipline is the balance between quantitative and qualitative research. Many investors intuitively understand the importance of assessing the quantitative aspects of a business. We analyze the numbers to understand what level of return the business is generating for its shareholders, what level of debt sits on the balance sheet, and whether the cash flows into the business are stable and recurring, for example.
While a quantitative assessment is vital to an investment decision, it is not complete without a qualitative framework to guide its meaning. For instance, it is not just the level of debt on the balance sheet that matters, but whether those debt levels are appropriate for the business. It’s not just a historical record of stable cash flows that gives us confidence, but rather an understanding of the economic moat that protects those cash flows from future competition.
It is with this background that I find Linda Hasenfratz’s quote truly compelling. As CEO of Linamar, she is responsible for running a global manufacturing business that spans 13 countries around the world. She may be able to look at the financial metrics to assess how her business is doing, but for Hasenfratz it is clear that a true, holistic understanding of the business comes from walking the halls of manufacturing plants and speaking face-to-face with her management teams around the world.
Her words were a welcome reminder about the importance of being there, on the ground, to gain a complete qualitative understanding of the operations. As I listened, I felt as if a member of our Investment Team had been dropped into her seat. Take, for instance, the excerpt below from the June 2016 issue of The View from Burgundy, “Boots on the Ground,” which brings us along on a site tour of a Chinese flavour and fragrance company’s R&D facility:
“Normally lab environments are tightly controlled, but in this case, rooms labelled ‘temperature controlled’ had open windows, letting in both the hot summer air and a fair share of local insects. What’s more, the facility was curiously devoid of employees, and the few research staff we did encounter were surly and unapproachable. It seemed odd to us that a company could have its main R&D facility in such a state of inactivity and disrepair, while reporting seemingly world-leading profitability in a highly competitive research-driven industry.
Our negative impression from the site tour provided useful information that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to acquire had we not done the on-the-ground work. It prevented us from making an investment in what had appeared on paper to be an attractive business, provided one didn’t scrutinize its operations – an example of why relying on company-produced financial statements alone is not sufficient when conducting due diligence.”
In other words, the science of investing is never complete without the art.