I have a constant struggle in my mind – Do I pay for quality (overpay?) or do I buy cheap stuff, which may turn out to be a value trap.

The ideal situation would be to get a high quality stock at a cheap price. But then if wishes were horses!, I would be a good looking billionaire with my own private island 🙂

So let’s look at my current dilemma

Akzo nobel

Akzo nobel is a global company in the business of decorative and auto paints and other industrial chemicals. The company acquired ICI plc a few years back and thus got the Indian business of ICI with the acquisition.

 ICI paints (atleast in the late 90s) was a company with good brands and was fairly aggressive in the paints business. At one point, they even tried to acquire asian paints by buying out the stake of one of the promoters.

ICI paints is one of the oldest paint companies in India and is fairly strong in geographical pockets (West Bengal) and in specific products (premium paints). The company has however not been able to capitalize on its strength in the past and did not seem to have a focused strategy. The new management however seems to be developing a focused strategy of introducing new products, expanding distribution and spending on brand building.

The paints business is a very profitable business with very high entry barrier (I saw this first hand when I was working in the industry). As a result, most of the companies in this business have enjoyed above average growth and high returns on capital

Akzo nobel india has a Return on capital of 100%+ (excluding excess cash on the books) and has been able to grow the topline  and profit by 30% in the last 5 years . In addition the company has been shedding the non-core businesses and freeing up capital. The company is also investing in manpower, its brands and expanding its distribution.

My hesitation in investing is the valuation. If one excludes cash, the company is selling at around 18-19 times earnings. On a comparative basis, the company is cheaper than other paint companies such as asian paints (around 30 times earnings). However I don’t believe much in comparative valuations and find the current valuation a bit high compared to the prospects.

Techno fab engineering

Technofab engineering is in the EPC space and is involved in various turnkey engineering projects in  industries such as power, industrial and oil & gas.

The company came out with an IPO in 2010 at a price of around 235 per share. The stock currently sells at around 142 / share (selling below the IPO price does not mean it is a bargain!)

The company has been in this business from 1970s. The company has grown its topline and profit by more than 30% per annum in the last five years (which means that in the past the business barely grew). The company clocked a turnover of around 290 Cr in 2011 and has around 900 Crs open order book (almost 3 yr visibility)

In addition to the above, the company has around 100 Crs of cash on the books (some of it due to the IPO) which will be invested in expanding capacity to manage the higher order volumes. The company is thus selling at around 2 times earnings, has shown 30% growth in the recent past and delivered a 30%+ return on capital during this period.

The company looks like a complete bargain?

I am not so sure. The EPC industry is characterized by moderate to low entry barriers, high levels of competition (from the likes of L&T and others) and high working capital needs. In addition it is also a very cyclical industry with drop in margins and cash flows during the down cycle.

The dilemma

So the dilemma is whether to invest in an above average business which may be fully priced or in an average business which is very attractively priced.

There is no obvious answer in the above case and it depends on each individual’s mindset. I have invested in technofab types of businesses  in the past with decent, though unspectacular results. In contrast if I am able to invest in a good business at decent prices , then the returns are fantastic

I have not made up my mind yet and have no position in either stock. I plan to dig deeper into Technofab engineering to get a better picture of the industry.

It is quite likely that I will just file away these companies and watch them till either the price is better (in case of akzo noble) or the business quality improves (in case of technofab engineering).

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