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Geoff Gannon April 27, 2016

Distributors Like Grainger (GWW) Can Benefit From Their Biggest Corporate Customers Wanting to Consolidate Suppliers for Decades to Come

(This post is a reprint of one of the nine sections that make up the Singular Diligence issue on Grainger.)

Grainger distributes the products needed to keep a large business running smoothly. It sells light bulbs, motors, gloves, screwdrivers, mops, buckets, brooms, and literally thousands of other products. About 70% of the orders customers place with Grainger are unplanned purchases. By unplanned we mean things like the filter in an air condition system, the up / down button on an elevator’s control panel, the motor for a restaurant kitchen’s exhaust fan. The customer knows these things break eventually. But, they don’t know when they will break. These aren’t cap-ex purchases made when the place first opens. And they aren’t frequent, predictable purchases. Things like light bulbs, safety gloves, and fasteners – a key part of Fastenal’s business – are bought more frequently in greater quantities as part of planned orders. Grainger sells to both large customers and small customers. And customer orders are sometimes planned and more frequent, sometimes unplanned and less frequent. But, the biggest part of Grainger’s business is unplanned purchases made by large business customers who have a contract with the company. Almost all of the company’s profit comes from the U.S. So, when you think about what Grainger does – think unplanned purchases by big U.S. businesses.

Grainger was founded by William W. Grainger (hence the W.W. in the company’s name) in 1927 in Chicago. The company is still headquartered in Illinois. It started as a wholesale electric motor distributor. At the time, manufacturers were switching their assembly lines from a central DC driven line to separate work stations each with their own AC motor. Grainger focused its business on customers with high volume electric motor needs. It was a catalog retailer. The original “Motorbook” catalog was just 8 pages. Today, Grainger’s “Red Book” catalog is over 4,000 pages. It features more than 1.4 million stock keeping units. Grainger started opening branches in the 1930s. From Chicago, it expanded into Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco. By 1937, it had 16 branches. In 1953, Grainger started a regional warehousing system. The company added distribution centers to both replenish stock at the branch level and to fill very large customer orders. The company eventually added distribution centers in Atlanta, Oakland, Fort Worth, Memphis, and New Jersey. As alternating current became standard throughout the U.S., Grainger focused on doing more than just selling motors to American manufacturers. It sought out smaller scale manufacturing customers, service businesses, and other parts of the economy. Today, Grainger’s customer list is very diversified. It is much less dependent on the manufacturing sector than publicly traded peers like MSC Industrial and Fastenal. Grainger basically sells to any U.S. business customer who makes a lot of small orders. So, high frequency combined with low volume per order. Grainger is best at dealing with big customers. The company’s competitive position is strongest where the customer has a contract with Grainger and is served by a …

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Geoff Gannon April 24, 2016

The Moat Around Every Ad Agency is Client Retention

(This post is a reprint of one of the nine sections that make up the Singular Diligence issue on Omnicom)

Moat is sometimes considered synonymous with “barrier to entry”. Economists like to talk about barriers to entry. Warren Buffett likes to talk about moat. When it comes to investing, “moat” is what matters. Barriers to entry may not matter. Thinking in terms of barriers to entry can frame the question the wrong way.

If you’re thinking about buying shares of Omnicom and holding those shares of stock forever – what matters? Do barriers to entry matter? Does it matter if it’s easy to create one new ad agency or a hundred new ad agencies? No. What matters is the damage any advertising company – whether it’s WPP, Publicis, or a firm that hasn’t been founded yet – can do to Omnicom’s business. How much damage can a new entrant do to Omnicom’s intrinsic value? How much damage can Publicis or WPP do to Omnicom? The answer is almost none. In that sense, the barriers to entry in the advertising industry are low but the moat around each agency is wide. How can that be?

First of all, the historical record is clear that among the global advertising giants we are talking about a stable oligopoly. The best measure of competitive position in the industry is to use relative market share. We simply take media billings – this is not the same as reported revenue – from each of the biggest ad companies and compare them to each other. If one company grows billings faster or slower than the other two – its competitive position has changed in relative terms. Between 2004 and 2014, Omnicom’s position relative to WPP and Publicis didn’t change. Nor did WPP’s relative to Publicis and Omnicom. Nor did Publicis’s position relative to WPP and Omnicom. Not only did they keep the same market share order 1) WPP, 2) Publicis, 3) Omnicom – which is rarer than you’d think over a 10-year span in many industries – they also had remarkably stable size relationships. In 2005, WPP had 45% of the trio’s total billings. In 2010, WPP had 45% of the trio’s combined billings. And in 2014, WPP had 44% of the trio’s combined billings. Likewise, Omnicom had 23% of the trio’s billings in 2005, 22% in 2010, and 23% in 2014. No other industries show as stable relative market shares among the 3 industry leaders as does advertising. Why is this?

Clients almost never leave their ad agency. Customer retention is remarkably close to 100%. New business wins are unimportant to success in any one year at a giant advertising company. The primary relationship for an advertising company is the relationship between a client and its creative agency. The world’s largest advertisers stay with the same advertising holding companies for decades. As part of our research into Omnicom, Quan looked at 97 relationships between marketers and their creative agencies.

I promise you the length of time …

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