A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Archive for August, 2020|Monthly archive page

Is HWL Limited a buy?

In Articles, Commentary on 30 August 2020 at 12:35 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 27 August 2020.

Earlier this week, the Australian Financial Review reported that HWL Ebsworth (HWLE) was preparing to list the firm on the ASX with a $1 Billion-plus valuation.

While details are scant at this stage, it is worth asking whether stockbrokers will recommend a BUY when the HWLE Limited prospectus is issued?

My prediction is they will give this IPO a thumbs down for five main reasons.

#1 Insufficient surplus

As a listed entity, HWLE partners will have to share a portion of the firm’s profits with external shareholders. For the sake of argument assume the current partners enjoy average earnings of $1.5 million per annum. In the future, partner earnings – salary plus bonus minus profit share – might reduce to say $1 million. The incumbent partners will most likely accept a reduced annual income given their significant capital gain upon listing.

This business case seems logical but misses one key point – there is a fiercely competitive market for top talent. Many of the best HWLE partners are proven rainmakers will still be able to command incomes around $1.5 million or more at other non-listed law firms or by setting up their own practice when their employment and escrow handcuffs come off.

At $1 million – the maximum the firm can pay and still maintain dividend payments – HWLE Limited will be way off the mark in attracting any new ‘$1.5 million’ partners.

Over the long term, there’s insufficient surplus to keep both partners and external shareholders happy.

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#2 Clients don’t buy the firm

When Shine Justice Limited first listed on the ASX, they presented strong evidence that their personal injury clients chose them because they trusted the firm’s brand and were largely lawyer agnostic.  When IPH listed, investors were enticed by a large proportion of annuity income from patent and TM renewals and an ambitious plan to scale.

When it comes to HWLE’s mostly business-to-business relationships, research shows that clients are much more discerning around who does their work.

HWLE external shareholders will not be buying a company with a strong brand with sticky institutional client relationships. They will be buying a collection of individual portable practices, each with their own reputation and client following.

#3 Vague growth story

External shareholders examining the IPO prospectus will be looking for a compelling growth story. They will want to see how a fresh capital injection will drive shareholder value.

Under Juan Martinez’s leadership, HWLE has a solid track record of acquiring legal practices without the need to splash much cash. Economies of scale work well in mining but less so in premium legal where even boutique firms can generate supernormal profits. Despite all the hype, there’s no legal technology yet available that will create a sustainable cost or client service advantage. Creating a multi-disciplinary practice or moving offshore is fraught with risk.

So, unless I’m missing something, the growth plan beyond more of the same seems less than convincing.

#4 Key person risk

From interviews with former staff, it appears that Juan Martinez has a robust directed leadership style. Overheads are kept to a minimum and all lawyers are encouraged to be on the tools all the time to compensate for below-market pricing.

This is the operating model that has been the bedrock of HWLE’s success to date.

Given Mr Martinez’s tenure and track record, the market will have many questions over the strength of HWLE’s bench. If the proverbial bus had to arrive who will keep the firm together and herd the cats? I’d imagine the firm’s value will be discounted heavily because of this key person risk.

#5 More losses than wins

Future investors in HWLE will have a good look at the investment category and proceed with caution. A 20-year analysis of law and accounting firm IPOs in Australia reveals far more losses than wins, especially for external investors. This includes firms like Stockfords, Harts and Slater & Gordon.

One of the reasons for these failures is the loss of the partnership culture that underpins their initial success. This culture comes from the incumbent partners’ sense of proprietorship, stewardship, collegiality and identity. Shifting from partner to employee is a big shock to many. Financial transparency, share price volatility and an added compliance burden all often have a negative cultural impact.

In conclusion

I have drawn strong conclusions about the potential float of HWLE without access to any specific details. I look forward to reviewing their IPO prospectus and seeing how wrong I am. But if I’m not, buyer beware!

How your law firm can limit virus hit to bottom line

In Articles, Commentary on 7 August 2020 at 3:42 pm

The full text of my 7 August 2020 opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review.

There is every chance that COVID-19 will mean a big hit to your firm’s revenue for the 2020-21 financial year. So, what levers are you using to limit the downside impact on profitability?

Greg Keith, the chief executive of accounting firm Grant Thornton, recently indicated he was anticipating a decline of 8.5 per cent in revenue and 33 per cent in profit.

It means that for every 1 per cent drop in income, they are forecasting a fall of nearly 4 per cent in profits.

Accounting firms, like law firms, are mostly high fixed-cost businesses that are super-sensitive to changes in revenue – both on the downside and the upside.

To limit the profit impact, firms tend to first cut non-essential spending like travel and entertainment. After these “easy” savings are exhausted, reducing staff numbers comes into the frame.

While there are obvious short-term benefits – staffing can comprise 60 per cent of all expenses – there’s a significant risk of not having enough of the right resources on hand when demand picks up. So, the 2020-21 saving needs to be weighed up against the full cost of re-hiring and training in the future.

In my view, there are two areas where firms could do a lot better to enhance profitability without letting people go – pricing and the sharing of resources.

Pricing for profit

Over the last few years, most mid-sized and large firms have worked on their pricing practices.

With a significant market downturn and price war on the cards, one firm recently redoubled its support for partners to preserve and capture value through price. This included video training modules on value articulation, gamified programs around price negotiation, improved analytics, new pricing tools [like Price High or Low 😀] and more direct hand-holding for new business pitches.

Some firms are adopting a range of creative strategies to meet client needs rather than merely dropping price. They include:

  • Adjusting payment terms and conditions so strapped clients are more willing to brief the firm rather than others;
  • Offering non-time-based pricing structures such as subscriptions, contingency fees or amortising fees;
  • Special promotions in ‘ring-fenced’ service areas to avoid across-the-board rate cuts and safeguard the firm’s brand position; and
  • Offering options at different price points.

One law firm offers its clients three pricing options on every new matter. They’ve adapted Qantas’ pricing approach by offering the equivalent of the airline’s Red e-Deal, Flex and Business Class options.  As with Qantas, each option has the same core benefits around quality and reliability but differ in terms of the format of the deliverables, roles, timing and scope.

Another firm analysed their top 100 clients to determine how each was being affected so they could tailor messages and offers. In one instance, this led to a new digital service offering as some clients moved to virtual selling and distributed operations. In another case, they shifted to a self-service model for a client going through a major cost-cutting exercise.

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Resource sharing

I was recently advising a law firm where analysis of time records revealed that some individuals and teams were extremely busy while others were well below capacity.

When I asked why resources were not shared to even out workloads, the most common response was that lawyers could not easily work outside their area of specialisation.

Not satisfied with that objection, I delved a bit deeper. My enquiries revealed a range of constraints – cultural, structural and personality – to collaboration. For some partners, “letting my people go” was a sign of failure. For others, they didn’t see any direct financial incentive to share resources, so they didn’t bother. In one office, each practice team saw itself as a self-contained business, and the prevailing mindset was more competitive rather than co-operative.

In good times, there’s often enough fat in the system to ignore these problems, But if your firm is looking at an equation that means every 1 per cent drop in revenue leads to a 4 per cent drop in profits, then you might need to change your thinking.

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