ITC Limited – An Arrogant Company with 10 Blunders

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This post has originally been written by Professor Manu Rishi Guptha here.

Dear Board Members,

As a minority shareholder, while I sift thru the 368-page Annual Report (AR) of my company, ITC Limited, it seems and appears to be a manifesto of a large political party that is proud of what its done in the past and what it hopes to do even if nothing sounds or appears to be value accretive for the shareholders.

Markets are wise and perceptions are strong and the 1.5 million investors who have reposed their faith and trust in you, seem to be losing the confidence in Your leadership.

Else ITC Limited that was once the most respected company wouldn’t have performed so miserably on the bourses inspite of the 368 page chest thumping manifesto.

ITC Limited

I must say you are failing miserably while sitting in the comfort of your mahogany and leather-lined offices, a mutual appreciation club of 14 people presiding over an annual revenue of over 50,000 Crores each one building large personal empires thru generous grant of stock options and over the top compensation while I am seeing my wealth erode by the hour.


The unbridled power that you wield without being questioned by a real promoter / entrepreneur has spelt a real disaster as I fear that my company, ITC Limited, is being taken on the same self destruct path that General Electric, Nokia, Blackberry, and Exxon Mobil have been taken in the last 2 decades and the less said the better as to how value destructive this journey has been for them because there was no one to shake up Jack Welch at the right time (he became the greater God without being one).

For way too long these companies and their respective managements suffered from Hubris not able to see a fast approaching train while being frozen on tracks, not able to course correct – eventually leading to their demise.

While I will ask some specific questions, the crux of this note is that if you cannot protect my wealth thru the alleged magic of your strategy and leadership – You don’t have the moral right to hold these positions and lead my company – ITC Limited.


The First Blunder of ITC Limited

The biggest blunder of diversifying into hospitality and continue to burn cash and capital in this black hole using cash generated by the cigarette business (which is the only meaningful cash flow division) is nothing short of financial hara-kiri on minority shareholders.

You have acted no differently than most of the real estate developers who want to own a hotel / hotel chain from their free cash flows because its sexy to own one when it’s the most unprofitable industry and most susceptible to economic mood swings.

‘Dala Bhukara’ is fine – I appreciate it and love it too, You should have stopped at that, but then it was simply stupid to burn thousands of crores of my money by assuming that every hotel will be as successful as dal bhukara.

I would like You to share with the public – Who is advising you to spend thousands of crores of shareholder wealth to build these large hotels (and overspending on most of these).

Who (employee or consultants) is regurgitating on excel sheets – the potential of new hotels and how are these people made accountable? The AR must include a detailed P&L and BS of each of my subsidiaries hereafter clearly mentioning the ROCE on a quarterly basis.

At Rs.17.9 lacs revenue per room per annum of revenue you have missed the bus of being any formidable hospitality brand even while you can’t stop gloating on all the awards and accolades that the hotel division has got.

Mind You – most of these are all subscription based awards (awards and accolades is a paid international scam at the cost of the hospitality industry) the sooner we realize this the sooner we will stop burning cash.

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I would like to know how much money has been burnt in the annual subscription of these awards.

ITC Grand Bharat with 104 keys is generating a mere revenue of 28 Cr p.a, that’s is lesser than some successful Lemon Tree Hotels on a revenue per key per annum basis.

It is pertinent to ask what’s the spend per key of all the hotels that have been built grounds-up in the last 10 years.

If it is anything more than 2 Cr per key (all in) there is something dramatically wrong with our projects team and financial forecasters.

How many hotels have performed in line with approved financials from the time of board sanction of these projects within the next 5 years. This is an important analysis that You should seek and make the same public.


The entire rigmarole of Fortune Hotels with 4000 rooms is generating a mere profit of 2.76 Cr – who is responsible for this and why is this abysmal performance being tolerated at my cost?

Welcome Heritage does an NP of a mere 40 lacs with 36 hotels, 900 rooms, and the management bandwidth at my cost.

Which international brand / concept are we benchmarking ourselves against to justify our investment in the business and which of my employees has his/her skin in the game in this business and how is the executive compensation tied to the performance of the Hotel Division.


The Second Blunder of ITC Limited

Small irrelevant businesses that we have ventured into must be taking immense bandwidth and time (board meetings, audits, finalization of accounts, consolidation) why are we in the businesses such as Antrang Finance that generate a mere 6 lacs a year.

I would like to know the details of every business / subsidiary that generates less than 50 Cr of NP after taxes.

In the scheme of things and larger objectives, there should be a board resolution passed that defines/disallow continuity if certain thresholds aren’t met by any subsidiary.

The Third and Series of Blunders of ITC Limited

Our acquisition history and parameters are abysmal.

That eeks of internal misjudgements. I might not need to tell you that a series of these judgemental calls, gone wrong with alarming regularity, might be perceived to be fraud. Nimyle, B Natural, Savlon – have you ever calculated the price paid for acquiring these businesses and the value accretion/destruction that these businesses are doing for me.

Your endeavor to build on these brands might be noble but the subsequent performance is abysmal.

Enron wasn’t a fraud at the beginning, But they lost their way alongside because they didn’t know when and where to diversify and how to wisely allocate capital and burnt cash and rapidly eroded shareholder wealth.

Don’t take my company, ITC Limited, down that path or history will find it difficult to forgive You.

When I read about the ITC Sangeet Research Academy I couldn’t stop laughing for 5 minutes.

The cacophony of the music of frustration is still ringing in my brain.

While I would like to know the total cumulative annual spend in this musical initiative since 1977, I kept wondering that the music for all the gurus and the budding musicians is playing fine while the music for the shareholders is dimming with an alarming speed or might already have stopped a few years ago. What a paradox..


The Fourth Blunder of ITC Limited

The FMCG division launched in 2000 generates just 3-5% PBT, thats a meagre 6% segment ROE (vs >35% of other FMCG players) – put Your hand on your heart is this justified.

The QOQ and YOY narrative, propagated by You that ‘we are becoming a global FMCG brand’ is fine – how is it value accretive for me – because our operational performance is miles short of our competitors.

Are our employees lackadaisical and suffering from sloth because they don’t have a real BOSS or there is something drastically wrong with our strategy and execution.

How have we benchmarked ourselves against the top 5 competing FMCG companies?

I would like to know if the salary growth of all the people earning over 35 lacs per annum is directly correlated to Revenues and EBIDTA of those divisions and if NO – it tantamounts to the very premise where we begun – My cash business is being used to fund the inefficiencies of the entire company (ITC Limited) without a credible benchmarking against other brands / businesses that are doing well.

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How are we different today from an inefficient PSU.

The so called Dividend Yield is a paradox – How would You justify the same to investors who entered the stock on ~14th July 2017. Yes agreed i am getting some 7-10 Rs a year in dividend while losing a major part of my capital.

The Fifth Blunder of ITC Limited

For a Balance Sheet of my company’s (ITC Limited) size you have failed repeatedly to disclose Your CAPEX plans and capital allocation plans in advance – isn’t that taking the executive power to a level of unsanctioned discretion?

While I am suffering with my capital erosion you guys are building personal empires of reputation and brand building.

ITC Infotech @ 2300 Cr per annum of revenue and single digit PAT must be the most underperforming IT company in the country.

Do we take pride in investing in businesses that underperform and continue to make the shareholders believe that the future is bright (why has the board not thought of divesting this and all such small divisions) and if NO – what’s the boards commitment on revenues and PAT in the next 5 years for this company – ITC Limited.

The Sixth Blunder of ITC Limited

You recently acquired Sunrise at approx. 3.7 X the FY 1920 revenues of 591 Cr at a PE of 37.

How does this deal add to my geographical diversification? How is this value accretive to me? And why would you pay this valuation when you aren’t able to sustain a 15 PE for my company, ITC Limited?

How did the board approve an acquisition at 37 PE while struggling to keep my valuation even at 15 times.

Why could we not expand our own spices division to strategically expand our geographical reach with internal talent and resources and had to go thru the path of an expensive acquisition?

Norway’s food major Orkla acquired Eastern Condiments (almost double the size of Sunrise) at 1.4X Sales and at 12X earnings.

Which team was responsible for the due diligence of Sunrise and it would be in the interest of the shareholders if the negotiation documents and files are brought out in public domain.

For a minority shareholder watching from a distance, this is nothing short of internal fraud.

If my company (ITC Limited) is receiving the Outstanding Performance Award by CII for its spices, does our management not have the wherewithal and talent to setup and expand our products’ geographical reach rather than paying a hefty premium just to capture a market share.


The Seventh Blunder of ITC Limited

The executive compensation keeps going up and shareholder wealth keeps coming down. It’s a shame that in the last approx. 12 years the revenue has gone up from 16000 Cr to 50000 Cr and the employee cost is almost stagnant at 9% or has marginally inched up.

Where is the operational leverage? Where is the demonstration by the management to incrementally and geometrically increase revenue and thereby profitability for every additional crore spend in Executive Compensation?

Some of the most progressive companies on the planet (such has Amazon) have a cap on executive compensation at less than 160000 USD per annum and all additional comp is through stock awards.

Our compensation system acts as a disincentive for executive outperformance and in the absence of a real my-baap of my company – ITC Limited, I – THE MINORITY SHAREHOLDER am suffering.

In 12 years the revenues are up approx. 3.12 times and employee cost is up 3.26 times. And most likely the perks, hidden benefits, Pension Plans, Travel Plans, Drivers, Cars, Leave Encashments are not even a part of this metric.

I would like a declaration / system – where every penny spent on every employee is a function of CTC that’s declared and filed without any benefit being accrued under any other account head.

Do you – dear Board Members understand the concept of operational leverage?


The Eighth Blunder of ITC Limited

Our stakes in EIH and Leela have a MTM loss of approx. 1250 Cr in just one last FY. What’s the rationale in holding onto these investments when we don’t really know how to manage our own hotels in the first place or make them world class by any stretch of financial performance.

Not a single rupee should be allowed to be invested in the hospitality business to fund losses or any further CAPEX.

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And every business balance sheet should fend for itself for its OPEX and CAPEX without dipping into our cash generated from the primary business – Cigarettes.

The Sri Lanka investment of 1800 Crores (~236 M USD) so far, baffles me as a shareholder. And I understand that the project is far from complete.

Who are we building this empire for and how will we get our investment back? Do You have a plan besides just an excel sheet to justify this black hole.


The Ninth Blunder of ITC Limited

Our abysmal ability to engage with capital markets / investors / analysts is nothing short of abject neglect (no mybaap syndrome).

If you had succeeded in creating any mentionable shareholder value – this attitude is pardonable.

But while You are all doing exceptionally well, with your compensation and hefty sitting fees and perks, the lack of investor and market engagement is taking me and my shareholding for a ride.

Why cant we have a mature set of professionals who have the knowledge and the art of engaging with investors and the media.


The Tenth and the Biggest Blunder of ITC Limited

You are conducting an average of 41 committee meetings a year.

Take out the weekly offs and holidays, you are meeting approx. every 5th day. FOR WHAT? And what are you achieving for me? Except strategically destroying my wealth and value of my shareholding at my cost and charging exorbitant sitting fees?

Gentlemen, the average age of my board is approx. 65.6 Yrs.

May God give You all a happy healthy life but don’t treat my company – ITC Limited like a retirement resort.

You talk of Triple Bottom Line repeatedly trying to be the ‘pallbearer’ of goodness – While every section of society gets a mention – the shareholder is left out of that focus – high and dry.

If I was on Your mind – You wouldn’t waste a single rupee in reputation management through charity and social activities and alleged multiple bottom-line spiel till the interest of minority shareholder is protected and demonstrably served.

While every corporate house has declared salary cuts in view of the pandemic – there is no evidence of any salary cuts in my company – ITC Limited. On the contrary, you have recently chosen to reward yourself for destroying ITC Limited shareholders’ wealth.

Is that morally and ethically correct even while the latest Tax filings reveal that our advance tax returns are lower by almost 50%.

That portends that the Net Profit is likely to fall dramatically – At whose cost?? – MINE!

Another large conglomerate / business house indulged in empire building, international acquisitions at obnoxious valuations, over leveraging, failed product/car launches all at the cost of minority shareholder and to sate the ego of a few top guys in position of authority and they have reached a precipice of existential crisis.

Its becoming increasingly irritating to be repeatedly reminded through media, about the deep value and future potential of ITC Limited under Your leadership – Lets stop behaving like the state that talks of glorious vision in year 2050 (safe distance away) – because by that time none of us will likely be alive.

It’s not to take the credit away for many good things that are happening in ITC Limited but pls remember Good is not Good enough because we need to be Great. I must confess we are far from Great and not even looking in that direction.

Pls get Your act together and don’t allow my company ITC Limited to get to a point of no return.

A few more mistakes and a little more neglect – And you would have succeeded in destroying one of the finest companies in the country to a mere HAD BEENS…… Remember markets are unforgiving and it would take no more than a few quarters to get our share-price to double digits.

God Bless You and God bless ITC Limited

A distraught shareholder…………

Co-authored with Ravi Sharma & Uday Bhaskar

LinkedIn Profiles: Ravi Sharma | Uday Bhaskar

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Manu Rishi Guptha

Manu Rishi Guptha

Manu is an Investor, Blogger, and a Professor of Fearlessness & Minimalism.
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