A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘client loyalty’

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.

Screen Shot 2020-08-30 at 12.18.35 pm

#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!

Five ways to improve your firm’s balance sheet

In Articles, Commentary, Legal Technology on 8 February 2020 at 4:19 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 7 February 2020.

Law firm partners focus a lot their profit and loss statements but tend to glance over the asset section of their balance sheets.

This is a missed opportunity.

There are three main reasons assets are largely ignored. Firstly, in ‘zero-in zero-out’ partnerships with 100% dividend payout ratios tracking long-term asset value is relatively less important. Secondly, in some firms, the accountants lump all intangibles into a vague and unhelpful construct called ‘goodwill’. And thirdly, balance sheets tend to list boring things like plant and equipment.

AFR 7 Feb 20 Balance Sheet

Original AFR article

From a strategic management perspective, there is a significant benefit in framing goals around making the firm more valuable. This means identifying all the assets, both tangible and intangible, that the firm uses to create and sustain value.

A more detailed balance sheet can also be useful when it comes to partner performance management. Growth in asset value should be the heart of what’s expected of partners, especially in regard to their non-financial contribution.

Tangible assets are easy to quantify. The intangibles less so.

Here are five important intangible assets in your firm that are worth measuring, protecting and leveraging.

#1 Relationship capital

Relationship or social capital refers to the strength and stickiness of existing client relationships and, where relevant, referrer and community connections.

While there are no simple measures of relationship capital, good proxies include total client lifetime value, client commitment indices, net promoter scores, client loyalty rates, average service mix per client, share of wallet of platinum and gold clients, social network strength and percentage of sole-sourced work.

#2 Human capital

Human capital refers to the quality, performance and commitment of all partners and staff. Management reports often include data on salaries, recruitment, training and turnover, but these don’t get to the heart of tracking human capital growth or depletion. Additional measures might include:

  • Toe-to-toe analysis comparing the quality of key practitioners in the firm versus direct competitors
  • Loyalty and career intention indicators
  • Succession and talent development pipelines by practice area
  • Diversity and inclusion metrics
  • Glassdoor, Seek and social media ratings
  • Employee net promoter scores
  • Leadership capacity and capability
  • Culture maps, highlighting hot spots or blind spots
  • Real-time measures around staff morale, firm climate, employee experience and discretionary effort.

#3 Brand capital

This refers to the strength of the firm’s brand and reputation in key target markets. Traditional measures include brand awareness, consideration, preference, use, board room impact, recommendation and social media following. An ability to attract star recruits is also an indicator of its brand capital.

One benefit of a strong brand is the ability to command a price premium. By way of example, in 2019, Apple’s brand premium enabled it to capture 66% of smartphone industry profits, 32% of overall market revenue while only selling 13% of total handset units.

Proxy measures around the firm’s pricing clout impact might include the percentage of bids won where the firm was priced higher than competitors, depth of discounting and percentage of matters with supernormal margins.

#4 Data capital

Most firms are sitting on mounds of valuable data with most of it stored on disconnected databases collecting digital dust. The main data islands include:

  • client data such as matters delivered, interactions, service feedback, event participation, agreed pricing and billing,
  • staff data such demographics, salaries, tenure, engagement, training, feedback and performance records,
  • operational data such as time records, matters processed, productivity and utilisation, and
  • financial data such as revenue, margins and expenses.

Joining these data sets and applying some smart predictive analytics will allow firms to make much better decisions. For example, the analysis could point to using a specific team with a particular process to do a specific type of matter for a certain client category using a defined pricing model. Each of these choices might mean a 2% improvement, but accumulatively you’re looking at +10% gain without working any harder.

#5 Intellectual capital

The last category is for important bits of firm know-how that don’t neatly fall into one of the other four areas. This might include the proprietary legal products, algorithms, websites, domain names, precedents, templates, applications, patents and trademarks.

Growth in intellectual capital could be assessed by things such as the firm’s investment in research and development and its innovation portfolio. Quantifying the revenue from new products and services can indicate success or otherwise in this asset class.

A call to action…

Take a quick glance over your firm’s strategy papers and board reports over the past 12 months. Is there a way to elevate your firm’s strategic thinking by delving into the intangibles that will sustain your long-term success? I bet there is.

If you enjoy my articles, please consider donating to my team participating in the 100km 2020 Oxfam Trailwalker. Learn more here

Are your practice groups primed to win?

In Articles, Commentary on 26 April 2017 at 8:23 am

If each of your practice groups is primed to win, then there’s a pretty good chance your firm will win as well.

With this in mind, there’s much benefit to be derived by assessing all of your practice groups on two dimensions:

  • A winning strategy – from strong to weak, and
  • Execution capability – from strong to weak.

 

Illustration of portfolio map – not real data

 

If most of your practice groups are in the weak-weak quadrant, perhaps it’s time to take that call from the headhunter. If all the groups are strong-strong, don’t change a thing! If you have a mix of everything, it’s time to get to work…

A winning strategy

There is a range of factors to take into consideration to assess whether a practice group has a winning strategy for the next three years:

  • Does the practice have clear aspirations to win? Is there a stretch intent?
  • Are they competing in sizeable, growing and profitable market segments?
  • Does the practice have a compelling value proposition, that is, clear reasons why clients should choose them over others?
  • Does the practice have a profitable and sustainable business model? Bonus points if the model is scalable.
  • Is there a Plan B if non-traditional competitors strengthen?
  • Are there pilots and experiments in place creating options for future growth?
  • Is there a clear implementation roadmap with accountabilities, measures and timing?
  • Is it clear what they say ‘no’ to, and why?

Execution capability

On paper, the practice group might have a world-beating strategy but it may not have the skills, resources and systems to implement it.

a cup of coffee on the wood table.cafe latte with tulip latte art pattern on the wooden background.

Source: fotolia

The first, and most important, the question is whether you have the right practice group leader. Is she a true leader or merely a convenor? Does she lead or just manage? While she might seek to lead, does she have loyal followers? Does she have the ability to inspire and support team members to be their best? Is she strong enough to stand up to the recalcitrants?

Other questions to ask around execution capability:

  • Is the team a real team or just a loose coalition of colleagues?
  • Does the team generally follow-through on their commitments?
  • Does the team own its strategy and take accountability for it?
  • Does the team have the right talent necessary to win, now and in three years time?
  • Does the group have access to the right technology, processes and systems to underpin its business model?
  • Is there sufficient open-mindedness to adapt to new inventions and work methods?
  • Are there mechanisms in place to regularly review progress and tweak their plans?

The portfolio

While it’s important to assess the competitiveness of each practice, there’s also a lot of value in assessing the inter-dependencies, synergies and gaps across the portfolio. Another portfolio overlay is the amount of partner equity allocated to each group and expected ROE (return on equity).

A review of the portfolio should indicate which practices require investment, divestment or just be maintained. Handling the politics of these decisions is a topic for another post, or three.

In conclusion

While a firm is more than just the sum of its parts, the parts play a critical role in sustaining success. Your firm’s strategy needs to reflect firm-wide themes like overall market positioning, culture, brand, strategic clients, talent, R&D, infrastructure and support. It also needs to deep dive into the practice portfolio, making sure each plays its part and leverages the strengths of the whole.

%d bloggers like this: