Treasury Wine – a wine perspective for financiers; a finance perspective for wine businesses.

The ongoing takeover saga concerning what is now Treasury Wine Estates goes back to the misguided strategies of previous owners, made worse during the era of Fosters ownership.

Nevertheless, it appears that there may be some perspectives missing from the public discussion around the actions taken by Treasury, the manoeuvrings of the parties involved and the implications of change. In particular it always astounds how little the wine media understands the philosophies and the tactics of private equity (let alone the position of investors in public companies as Treasury presently is). By the same token, the financial industry and media often seem to display extraordinary naiveté concerning the business models and drivers of wine businesses. In this respect the fact that wine businesses are so markedly different to beer or spirits brands in terms of capital intensity, working capital seasonality, competitive pressures, brand and portfolio requirements and elasticity of demand are commonly misunderstood or ignored.

This was a problem for the now Treasury businesses during the Fosters era and long before that. Some would argue that the rot set in even before the Southcorp and Rosemount merger in 2001, when the two different business models collided in a catastrophic case study of what can happen when the new managers completely misunderstand both the drivers and the key relationships then underlying the business. The weakened Southcorp fell into the Fosters fold in 2005 and the process of value destruction continued for similar reasons.

Part of the problem is the nature of the key Treasury businesses. Penfolds virtually invented the icon-halo effect business model, centred on the image of desirability that spreads from Grange to the Bin series wines and then down to the mass market labels. This was a model that Rosemount had tried (with its Balmoral Syrah and Roxburgh Chardonnay) but never mastered. Its success had been driven by producing large volumes (especially of chardonnay) to a set formula using low price Riverlands fruit. Other brands within the portfolio had similar top labels, but these never achieved the same relationship perceived in the case of Penfolds (whether or not the so-called halo effect ever produced an economic benefit, which is open to argument).

This misunderstanding has been perpetuated through the Fosters and then Treasury corporate structure and hiring practices. For a long time Fosters wine divisional structure was based upon the end markets, which probably works well for beer but only created a gulf of separation from the production side of the business. Subsequently the structure has moved slowly back towards the production side as the imbalances between production and sales have become exaggerated. Even so, the company has still been caught doing what all of the other international drinks brand companies have done building up stock levels in China in anticipation of a boom, only to have found that the market was not as predictable as expected. For all the good ideas they may bring, both Fosters and Treasury hired consumer brand managers to run the business, not wine people with a deeper understanding of the industry (with consumer branding experts under rather than over them), and this has been a telling factor. It is a mistake that it is quite plausible private equity owners will also make if they have misunderstood the business.

Part of the problem is that Penfolds (and several but definitely not all of the other Treasury brands) is really an oversized boutique wine business. Its drivers aren’t entirely in common even with other mass market wine businesses. In its efforts to boost short-term profitability (partly based on the China blue sky myth) Treasury has been through a phase of aggressively lifting prices of Penfolds products and creating a range of new luxury Penfolds wines – possibly trying to emulate some of the value add strategies of spirits producers in recent years. The unsurprising consequence is that not all customers are happy with the perception that their loyalty is taken for granted. Even Penfolds Grange has lived in denial of certain realities: it is a multi-region blend at a time that the Australian wine industry is turning back to industry marketing based on provenance, while at the same time production levels are massively higher than they used to be so that Grange is far from being the rare luxury it once was. Once a mainstay of the independent wine trade it is now readily available (at a price) in supermarkets across Australia and New Zealand.

As a consequence many of the actions taken by Treasury in recent times have been misunderstood by both the financial and the wine press, albeit for different reasons. To many the changes in the Penfolds release calendar and the recent initiative to sell discounted wine fridges to boost wine sales have been perceived as attempts to boost short-term profitability in order to save the business from predators. This completely misunderstands the relationship between short-term profitability and economic value, especially since the most obvious consequence of both initiatives is largely to shift the timing of profits rather than the quantum. It was no surprise when a new bid emerged after all.

To state the obvious, the price at which KKR made its original approach to Treasury will not have been its best price. It was, nevertheless, rejected by the board. Few of the changes made by the company since, whether on costs, process improvements, marketing changes or sales initiatives, will have materially increased the value of the overall business. Nor are any of them things that a private equity buyer could not also do if it chose.

Moreover, it is clear that private equity buyers will have some options available to them that the present board either is unwilling to do or considers unpalatable. That means that private equity buyers may have the ability to enhance the value of the business in ways that the company cannot do.

The sum of the parts?

The simplest way of all is to recognise that the value of the parts of Treasury today is likely to still be greater than that of the whole (notwithstanding the fact that some of Treasury’s historically valuable brands have been neglected to the point they are already as good as worthless). This factor is most likely the reason why the takeover competition has developed the way it has. The fact there are two competing bids at the same price indicates that for TPG a matching price was really about having a seat at the table. This implies that the process may devolve into a behind the scenes auction of some of the parts to be followed by a formal offer being made (and recommended by the board) for the balance of the company. It is worth noting that while often competing, TPG and KKR have a long history of partnering on investments as well.

Treasury (and Fosters before it) has been a problem for Australian wine, but not always in the ways perceived in the media. It has simultaneous promoted the virtues of Australian wine but also unconsciously undermined the global market for Australian wine as well as for many of its own brands.

In a world of brands, brand hoarders often destroy value. The value of a brand is heavily dependent on both use and potential, but the lack of one of these can undermine the other. It can simply be impossible to maintain the level of marketing prioritisation required to maximise the potential of each of a portfolio of brands once a certain level of brand hoarding has occurred. Inevitably some good brands will be utterly devalued. By way of contrast LVMH is an example of a company owning a large collection of luxury brands that has developed clear strategies for what it adds to its portfolio and how it will seek to promote and add value to each brand.

Paradoxically, one of the most value additive strategies open to Treasury, or to a future owner, may be to sell Penfolds – the clear jewel in the crown. The problem with Penfolds is that its influence over the Treasury portfolio has continued to grow, and to assume increased internal prioritisation, so that it has become a dead weight on top of the rest of the business. The emphasis on marketing and selling Penfolds products has come at an enormous cost to sales of other brands. It is not inconceivable that the US stock glut, a consequence of poor market information, planning and inventory controls, was accentuated by the internal marketing priorities (whether of Penfolds or other US brands) suppressing demand for many competing products.

Treasury’s Australian wine portfolio alone includes more than 30 brands, a mix of famous old names and newish names somewhat obviously invented by marketers. Some of these brands, once household names in Australia, now either languish as homes for cheap supermarket bargains or are rarely seen. Even those brands receiving a little more love from the marketing department are still often competing against sibling brands or worse, have been formally de-prioritised in some markets. One of the difficulties with a demerger of the brands will be the extent to which previous management has closed down many smaller regional wineries, originally attached to individual brand companies, in the pursuit of a phantom holy grail of scale and lower costs.

The roll call of brands that once held significant (often quality-driven) positions in the domestic Australian and export markets, but which have now been relegated to bit rolls as multi-regional blends or price point gap fillers, is extensive. Some of these brands could recuperate and flourish with some love and investment. For others that could no longer be said, even for names with significant historic resonance.

Treasury Australian brand Roll Call (not comprehensive): Annie’s Lane, Bailey’s of Glenrowan, Coldstream Hills, Devil’s Lair, Great Western, Heemskerk, Ingoldby, Jamieson’s Run, Leo Buring, Lindemans, Maglieri, Metala, Mildara, Penfolds, Pepperjack, Robertson’s Well, Rosemount, Rothbury Estate, Rouge Homme, Saltram, Seaview, Seppelt, St Hubert’s, T’Gallant, Tollana, Wolf Blass, Wynns, Yarra Ridge, Yellowglen.

Even so, the parts are still worth more than the whole because the way the whole company works stifles the real potential of too many brands. New owners of parts might change that.

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