Realism provides only amoral observation, while Absurdism rejects even the possibility of debate.
FRANCES BABBAGE, Augusto Boal
The firm stuck in the middle is almost guaranteed low profitability. It either loses the high-volume customers who demand low prices or must bid away its profits to get this business away from low-cost firms. Yet it also loses high-margin businesses — the cream — to the firms who are focused on high-margin targets or have achieved differentiation overall. The firm stuck in the middle also probably suffers from a blurred corporate culture and a conflicting set of organizational arrangements and motivation system.”
Porter, Competitive Strategy, p. 41-42
“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Bibby/York Offshore, DOF Subsea, and Ocean Installer are all tied into the same economic dynamic in the offshore market: the improvement in the market is coming in IRM spend (marginally), large-deepwater projects, and step-outs associated with existing deepwater infrastructure, not the markets that made these firms viable economic entities (although the DOF Subsea question is just as much about leverage and overcommitting to assets). These companies highlight that although offshore spending may increase in 2018 over 2017, though DNB notes risk to the downside, a recovery will not benefit everyone equally: asset choice and strategy that recognise different market segments are important to identify.
I have read the Bibby Offshore “Cleansing Document” that was sent out as part of the takeover/recapitalisation notice. A cleansing document is required when investors, who are classed as “outsiders”, gain confidential information as part of deal and therefore become “insiders”, who learn confidential information, and must make all the investors aware of what they know. It’s an extraordinary presentation, a business plan so outrageous that it can’t be taken seriously. The document obviously has its origins in the EY attempted distress M&A transaction, that couldn’t be funded, and when you read this you can see why. Worringly the new investors must accept something similar or they are involved in a gigantic scheme to knowingly lose money.
The most obvious affront to intelligence is the 2017 growth rate for revenue pegged at 52%!!! Seriously, in this market someone is telling you they are going to grow at 52% and they actually have enough chutzpah to put it to paper… words don’t often fail me. Not only that they then double down and state it will rise 50% again the year after. I can tell you there is a 0 (zero)% chance of that happening. There is more chance of drydocking the Sapphire on the moon to save money. It’s not just the fact that IMR spend, the core Bibby/York offering, is set to grow at 3.3%, or the fact that total market spend is due to grow at 6.7%, that is just a common sense point: if the market grows at 6.7% and you are growing at 53% then 46% of your growth is coming from winning market share. Does anyone really think Bibby’s competitors are just going to wake up one day and allow them to be the only company in the entire industry that can grow that fast and let them take all that market share? Really?
Fictional Revenue and EBITDA Forecast
Source: Lewis Carroll
To be clear the previous best year of growth was 2013-2014 when Bibby chartered in tonnage, in the greatest North Sea DSV boom ever, and it grew a measly 46%… seriously you can’t make this up.
The fact is this forecast shows the core Bibby/York IRM market declining after 2019 and all the growth is coming in windfarm work. A portion of the windfarm work is likely to be bundled with installation workscopes, and that leaves Subsea 7 and Boskalis well positioned with their topflight installation capacity. And I have said many times the lack of oil and gas construction work (the light grey bar EPCI) will leave a surplus of DSVs as there are no multi-month construction projects to soak up capacity. There is an even more absurd graph later on designed to show a market shortfall in a few years that ignores latent capacity in meeting supply challenges.
Bibby/York will turnover £85m if they are lucky for 2017. In this market, if they have an amazing year next year they will turnover £95-100m, and if they have a bad year they will come in at £70-75m. And the risk is on the downside here because the first six months of 2017 included ROVs in Asia that were sold, most of which were working. But in offshore contracting in general some jobs will go your way and some won’t, so everyone in the industry budgets a modest increase and some get lucky. But what definitely won’t happen is putting 15 Red on at the casino and winning 30 times in a row, and talk of £130m in revenue is more unrealistic mathematically than that.
Even more the Sapphire now looks to be going into layup! So not only is turnover going up 53% but DSV capacity is going back 33%. It’s a miracle I tell you! That’s not profitability that is top-line!
The US office is of course a giant millstone and is put in the presentation as a “Diversification” play rather than as a cost centre – and certainly no spefic financiakl data on the office is offered. The US must be costing Bibby/York c.USD 250k per month in cash terms and now has no boat to bid. That puts them Bibby against DOF Subsea and OI for any significant project except they don’t have a boat? Zero chance. Literally less than zero. Only someone who really didn’t understand, or didn’t want to, the reality of the current market would sanction such move. Operating margins of similar competitors, following exactly that strategy are less than 10%, which means you will be losing cash forever. Nuts. Not needed and not wanted in an oversupplied market, it is simply a matter of time before that office is closed.
But I don’t want to get into it in a micro level because it degrades the wider point: in this market businesses don’t grow organically at 53%. It is a preposterous statement and needs to be treated as such on that basis only.
Not only that, Bibby claim they will make an EBITDA of ~£12m on the 2 x DSVs in the North Sea, and a staggering c.£11m using vessels of opportunity. So not only are they betting they will take enormous amounts of market share off their competitors they are also planning to do it at margins way above anyone else in the industry. And this from a management team, with exactly the same asset base, who presided over a revenue decline of 56% in 2016 and is on target for a 45% decline in 2017. The first few people who got this presentation must have phoned up and asked if the printer had had a typesetting error, not believing that intelligent people would send them this.
The only certainty of this plan is that it will fail. Statements around its release confirm the company ~50 days of work for 2018 yet they are planning 78% utilisation (up from 53% in 2017), yet if the first quarter work isn’t booked in now it won’t happen in a meaningful sense. And once you are chasing you tail to that extent a dreadful dynamic sets it because you have committed to the cost and the revenue miss means you know early in the year you are facing a massive cash flow deficit. The fixed cost base is so high in the operation that a miss on the revenue side produces catastrophic financial results; just like a budget airline, the inventory is effectively disposable (i.e. after a possible days sale has passed) yet the cost base is committed. This of course explains how the model was created I suspect: a revenue number that magically covered the costs was devised, how real management believed that number to be at the time will be crucial by March (only 12 weeks away) when the plan is revealed as a fantasy. I’m not saying it’s deliberate, humans are strange, it took Hiroo Onoda until 1974 to surrender, so if you want to you can believe a lot of things, and unless you believe the revenue number then the whole economic model falls apart.
York clearly got into this late in 2016 and early 2017 not believing the scale of the decrease going on in the business in revenue terms, and without clearly understanding how the competitive space was directly supported by the construction market. Instead of pulling out they have doubled down and appear set to pump more in working capital into the business than the assets are worth (one of which is going into lay-up for goodness sake). York appear to have confused a liquidity problem with a solvency one.
The funds this come from are large but this is till going to be a painful episode for York while doing nothing to solve the long-term solvency issues at Bibby who now only have a 6 month liquidity runway based on current expenditure. At an Enterprise Value of £115m it values a business with one DSV on lay-up and a cost centre with no work, and an operation with a 1999 DSV and one chartered asset, losing substantial amounts of money and with historic liabilities, way above a the operation Boskalis are building with 2 x 2011 DSVs at a blended capital cost of ~USD 80m. Good luck with that.
I still wouldn’t rule out a Swiber scenario here where as York get close to the drawdown/ scheme of arrangement date they get lawyers to examine MAC clauses (e.g. Boskalis buying the Nor vessels), or simply not pay and worry about getting sued by the administrator. They must know now this is a terrible financial idea.
DOF Subsea on the other hand have the opposite issue: First Reserve looked to reduce their position earlier in the year via an IPO and couldn’t. Now DOF are slowly diluting First Reserve out in the latest capital raise… there is no more money coming from First Reserve for DOF Subsea. I get the fact that some technical reasons are in play here: it is difficult for late-life private equity funds to buy inter-related holdings, but they always seem to manage it on the up but never on the down.
DOF Subsea might be big but the problem is clear:
DOF Subsea isn’t generating enough cash to pay the scheduled debt repayments. And in these circumstances it is no surprise that the private equity fund is reluctant to put more equity in. DOF Subsea could sell its crown-jewels, the flexlay assets, to Technip but that would involve a price at nothing like book value; or maybe DOF/Mogsters’ bail them out but that will further dilute First Reserve. Either way First Reserve, some of the smartest energy PE money in history on a performance basis, have decided if you can’t get someone else to buy your equity then dilution is a better option.
Ocean Installer is a riddle wrapped in a mystery. OI has some chartered tonnage and some smart people. But it is subscale in nearly everything and I doubt it was even cash flow positive in the boom years as they were “investing” so much in growing capacity. The company had takeover talks with McDermott, that failed on price, and seems to exist solely because Statoil is worried about having an installation duopoly in Norway. It can’t continue like this forever. Rumours abound that Hi Tec have now installed staff in the Aberdeen office and are seriously looking at how to cut the burn rate.
There is nothing in OI that you couldn’t recreate for less in todays market, and that unfortunately means the equity is worth zero. Hi Tec, whose standard business model of taking Norwegian companies and opening a foriegn office, expanding both the quantum and size of the acquisition multiple (admittedly a fantastic idea in the boom), will not work here. Now it’s hunker down and build a substantial business of scale or exit. All the larger players have to do is sit this out, no one needs to pay an acquisition premium, buying work at a marginal loss, which will eventually reduce industry capacity, is a far more rational option.
Not all of these companies can survive as they are simply too similar and chasing the same projects that are also now being chased by the larger SURF contractors. Clearly DOF Subsea is in the best position as OI and Bibby/York have a very high cost of capital and owners with unrealistic value assumptions.
All these firms suffer from two problems:
- In strategic terms they are “stuck in the middle”. In 1980 Michael Porter wrote his famous text (“Competitive Strategy“) positing that a company chooses to be either low cost or value added; firms that didn’t were “stuck in the middle” and destined to low profitability forever. In subsea the deepwater contractors are the value-add and the contractors without a vessel, or the regional companies with local tonnage, are the low cost. Bibby/York, DOF Subsea, OI are stuck in the middle – not deepwater/rigid reel to add value and with too high a cost base to compete with the regional low cost operators – given their funding requirements this will not carry on indefinitely
- The projects that made these companies profitable (if OI ever was) have suffered the largest fall in demand of all the market segments. Small scale field development, with flexibles as the core component, just aren’t big enough to move the needle for the the larger companies and the smaller E&P companies can’t raise the cash. All the FID stats show these developments to be almost non-existent. These were projects commissioned at the margin to satisfy high oil prices and therefore are the first to fall off as the price drops. That is why these companies have suffered disproportionately in the downturn: they have lost market size and market share (Bibby Offshore revenue has dropped by 77% since 2014 where as Subsea has (only!) dropped 45%
The subsea/SURF market is an industry that private equity/ alternative asset managers struggle with: a market with genuine advantages to industrial players with economies of scale, scope and knowledge. In an age of seemingly endless debt and leverage these equity providers are not used to coming across industries where their organisational advantages of capital and speed cannot work. But for the next few years, as the industry requires less capital not more, the smart money here will be on the industrial companies. It wasn’t the distressed debt investors in Nor Offshore who made money on the liquidity bond (issued this time last year), it was Boskalis when the reckoning came for more liquidity. That is a parable of this market.