Australian business has traditionally been hopeless in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry.
We’ve never produced a global FMCG company like Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, Heinz or Unilever. CSR even sold its local branded sugar business to Singaporean firm Wilmar five years ago, and Goodman Fielder, manufacturer of Meadow Lea, has also just fallen to Wilmar after under-performing on the share market for years.
John Elliott tried to Fosterise the world in the 1980s, but now even our major brewers are foreign-owned. The wine industry flourished for a while, but the biggest player, ASX-listed Treasury Wine Estates, ultimately cost Foster’s shareholders some $4 billion to $5 billion in losses.
We enjoyed some success courtesy of the surf and street wear companies Billabong, Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Globe, but most of them ran into different degrees of trouble and haven’t created a lot of overall value for Australian investors.
But then along came the privately owned company Swisse Wellness and, boy oh boy, there’s never been a turnaround story anything like this one.
Just 12 months ago, Collingwood-based Swisse was on its knees. Chief financier Goldman Sachs almost got control of the whole company for just $30 million. Instead, a debt rollover was achieved, which involved giving Goldies 4% for free.
Huge losses were being wracked up in a faltering US operation and the marketing spend was just over the top, running at close to 30% of sales.
Swisse chairman Trevor O’Hoy — who only joined the board in January 2014 and became executive chairman six months later — and a few others tipped in some funds to keep Malcolm Turnbull’s old Wall Street firm from seizing complete control, and then set about turning the business around.
Then, almost by accident, Swisse hit a series of extraordinary sweet spots.
Health scares in China had Chinese consumers looking offshore to trusted countries, and few have a better reputation for reliable food, supplements and medicines than Australia.
Combine that with Australia’s strong and growing Chinese community — underpinned by our rapidly expanding Chinese connections in higher education — and suddenly Swisse found itself receiving very large orders from pharmacists and Chinese entrepreneurs in metropolitan areas with large Chinese populations.
There was never any Swisse business plan that said “Let’s target local Chinese entrepreneurs and have them become online wholesalers of vitamin supplements for us”.
It initially happened by accident, and it was particularly helped by the plunging Australian dollar, which made Swisse products more competitive than US and European rivals.
Once the game-changing phenomenon became apparent, Swisse did make some management moves that turbo-charged the China sales.
One of them was to join 29 other Australian companies that Australia Post herded together to create an online mall on the Chinese shopping website Alibaba.
This deal was struck in May 2014 and after Swisse joined, it was shocked to find that its inventory was completely selling out. A great problem to have.
While certainly not hands on, don’t forget that Australia Post is government-owned, so chalk that one up as an innovative win for Malcolm Turnbull, as he was communications minister and responsible for Australia Post at the time the Alibaba deal was clinched.
The Swisse turnaround is also a feather in the cap for innovative Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour.
The online China phenomenon explains why revenue from continuing Swisse operations more than tripled — from just $115 million in 2013-14, to a whopping $390 million in 2014-15. And this was a business that started in 1969!
Largely foreign-owned mining companies may be making less profit selling Australian coal to China these days, but this Swisse story is perhaps the best example yet of the threats and opportunities that China presents.
Malcolm Turnbull is right: you have got to be nimble to seize the opportunities. Swisse certainly was, so the likes of executive chairman Trevor O’Hoy, founding shareholder Stephen Ring, current CEO Radek Sali and former CEO Michael Saba deserve their enormous pay day after last week selling the business for $1.67 billion to Hong Kong-based company Biostime.
And considering that Biostime shares rocketed 34% on the day the deal was announced, perhaps Swisse sold too cheaply.
Blackmores was Australia’s naturopath pioneer, and the company has enjoyed a similar China-driven run, as its shares have more than quadrupled this year to give it a market capitalisation of $2.24 billion.
The controlling shareholder and chairman, Marcus Blackmore, owns about 25%, or some 4.4 million shares, which are now worth a cool $580 million.
And having held these shares for decades, if Marcus were tempted to follow the Swisse lead and sell, he wouldn’t be liable for any capital gains tax.
As this fascinating 2014 interview and profile with Marcus Blackmore demonstrates, the natraceutical powerhouse is already very well politically connected.
He’s mates with health fanatic and former prime minister Tony Abbott. Maybe he could offer Tony a job as company ambassador and chief lobbyist. Alternatively, how about announcing a seat on the board at the AGM in Sydney on October 29? This will be a buoyant affair to say the least with the stock closing at $131.99 on Friday night.