I am obsessed as to what the due-diligence on Focus Media done by the private equity firms might look like and what it might find.
Lets start with the easy stuff.
Probably the easiest place to do due-diligence on Focus Media is the theatre screen business. Focus Media claims to display advertising on roughly a quarter of the cinema screens in China - but this is still a relatively small number of cinema complexes (316 at last annual report).
It is almost impossible to audit more than 100 thousand LCD screens - at least without a small army and a sampling method. But checking out whether the numbers make sense in 316 theatres is relatively simple. A sample could include a large proportion of the total without being prohibitively expensive. Those 316 theatres probably have only 30-40 owners (most owners own chains). That will make the testing easier still.
And I think the private equity bidders probably will test this (as part of their due-diligence) because the theatre business raises red-flags which animate the bears in this stock. The central issue seems to be the number of theatres and the size of the multiplexes - however I think Focus have largely cleared up that story.
But I should run you through it anyway.
The controversy around the number of cinema screens Focus places adverts on
You would think that counting cinema screens and number of theatres is easy. They are big things. They don't run away. If I said I was opening a film on 270 screens you would know what I mean. These statistics have well defined meanings - and those meanings don't seem to change much.
Except in the case of Focus Media.
Here is a disclosure that mentions number of theatres focus runs adverts in (from a 20F for the year ended 2009.)
Net advertising service cost-movie theatre and traditional outdoor billboards. We incurred advertising service cost of $56.9 million in 2008, a 99.6% increase from $28.5 million in 2007. The increase is primarily due to (1) our acquisition of Huaguang, the subsidiary operating the traditional billboard business in 2007. We consolidated Huaguang’s results of operation only after the acquisition was consummated, while in 2008 we consolidated their full year costs of revenues; (2) the increase in the number of billboards leased from 492 in 2007 to 542 in 2008 in response to greater customer demand; and (3) increased leasing costs associated with time we rent on movie theatre screens as a result of an increase in the number of theaters we leased in our network from 10,930 in 2007 to 27,164 in 2008.The bold section is pretty clear... a result in the increase in the number of theatres we leased in our network ... to 27,164 in 2008.
This number and similarly large numbers are laced throughout Focus Media's filings. It is not a one-off number.
There is a problem with this number.
A big problem.
There are not that many theatres or screens in China!
In March 2011 the LA Times did a story on the cinema building binge in China. At that point there were 6,200 screens in all of China up very sharply since 2008. According to Government statistics there were only 1545 screens in all of China at the end of 2008.
Focus media says they had 27,164 screens. The government says there were only 1,545 screens in the country.
Unsurprisingly Focus has amended its numbers. Here is what they say in the latest annual filings:
Movie theater advertising network
We operate our movie theater advertising network by selling leased screen time as time slots to advertisers. We have the right to screen time prior to the screening of each movie shown in the theater. As of December 31, 2011, we had rights to lease advertising time on screens in 316 movie theaters (consisting 2,190 screens) in cities across China.
How did they reconcile these numbers?
Well they said that they counted as a "theatre" a "screen in which an advertiser had agreed to buy space". That means if 10 advertisers had chosen to show advertisements in a theatre with one physical screen they counted it as 10 theatres.
As of December 31, 2010, we had rights to lease advertising time on screens in 260 movie theaters (consisting 1,553 screens) in cities across China and Hong Kong SAR. Prior to 2009, we calculated the size of its movie theater network by calculating the number of screens on which each of its advertisers had purchased advertising and then summing the screen count for each advertiser to produce an aggregate number of screens. With a change in management in late 2008, we changed the method for calculating this operating metric beginning in 2009, basing it instead on the number of movie theaters for which we had rights to lease advertising time as of the relevant period, regardless of the number of screens in such theaters or the number of advertisers that had purchased advertising on each such screen. The large decrease in screen count for the movie theater network over this period was a reflection of this change in calculation methodology.That is a mess. At minimum it is a definition of theatres that I was previously unfamiliar with. But Focus now tell us what they say are the true numbers on standard definitions - numbers that I have no ability to prove, nor disprove, but that I would expect would be part of the due-diligence brief that the Carlyle and others will undertake.
The size of this business
Even on the amended numbers this business is large. In both 2010 and 2011 the number of screens is about a quarter of all screens in China. It is a business that should be highly visible and fairly easy for the PE funds buying Focus Media to do due diligence on. Here is a way to do it:
Ask them to tell you a list of all screens. Pick a screen out-of-town. Ask them to tell you what adverts are on it. They should have records because they need to bill the advertiser (if they claim no records you know they are fraudulent). Then take yourself to the cinema. Have some popcorn. If you really want a good time do it on a sample-basis - check five screens and catch up all the films you missed out on.
Who said being an investment banker or PE guy you don't have time to go to the flicks!
Sustainability of Focus Media's margin
Focus Media's theatre screen business has a fat margin. According to the last annual filing the revenue associated with this business was USD50.8 million. The costs USD25.7 million. This is a gross margin a little over 50 percent - considerably larger than display advertising businesses outside China. Indeed this is a fatter margin than any non-Chinese display advertising business I can find.
I guess that is possible if Chinese screen operators are very stupid and lease space to Focus Media at rents that are too low. (Relatively dumb local governments have long been the explanation for JCDecaux's relatively fat margin in street furniture advertising...)
But the margin has been that fat for years. And the multiplex developers are almost by definition large property developers used to screwing as much revenue out of projects as possible. Moreover this company is on-the-numbers very heavily into multiplexes. Between 2010 and 2011 they added 56 theatres and 637 screens. The incremental theatre seemed to have something like 11 screens.
An explanation that large-scale property developers are more stupid than local governments looks difficult to sustain. Maybe they are - but local governments don't stay that stupid (the renegotiated street furniture terms are never as sweet) and Chinese multiplex owners will learn too. The largest Chinese multiplex owner now owns AMC in America. AMC probably know a few things about maximizing the revenue on their screens.
Unless I am mistaken - as the screen owners wise-up (just like local governments wise-up) the margin in this business is going to come down. Unless there is some magic-secret-sauce in this business I don't understand. Sustainability of margin is likely to be a problem.
Revenue per screen
The number of screens started 2011 at 1553 according to the disclosures above. They ended at 2190. A simple arithmetic average suggests the company averaged about 1870 screens.
Revenue for the year was USD50.8 million. That is revenue per screen of USD27,144.
I spent a lot of time trying to work out whether this number was plausible - and found that it was high but still plausible. I found an American media executive familiar with this industry who told me that the revenue per screen in the US was about USD20-30 thousand. Focus Media is on the high-end of that but still within the range.
Advertising rates in China are usually a fair bit lower than the US - perhaps cinema screens are an exception. On these numbers rates look to be about the same as the US.
That Focus Media secret magic sauce
I have no particular reason to doubt the new number of screens that Focus Media claim to run. The old number was false - but according to Focus Media the problem was one of counting methodology - not fraud.
The new number of screens is about a quarter the total in China - that would surely make them one of the major players.
And they are very multiplex focused with average screens per theatre way higher than average and climbing sharply.
Usually I would assume that multiplex owners were a sophisticated lot who did not leave a fat margin on the table for a player like Focus Media. But there is a 50 percent margin here in a business you would normally expect to have a thin margin. After all the eyeballs belong to the theatre owner and not to Focus Media.
They must be doing something special. Some magical secret sauce if you will.
If I were the private equity buyers I would like to work out what that is - because without knowing you can't assume that the secret sauce is sustainable. (My bet is that it would not be sustainable.)
Oh, to be a fly-on-the-wall
As I said in the first post I wish I were a fly-on-the-wall whilst due diligence is done on that company. I want to understand that secret sauce. It is clearly a way of making money and that is what my clients pay me for.