February 12, 2020
The Offshore Growers: Why a new breed of Australian companies are taking on the world and winning

If you attended our 2019 Meet the Manager events you will recall our theme “Why a new breed of Australian companies are taking on the world and winning”. Subsequently we have prepared and released a report which we have released in full in our Investment Strategy note this month. It is the result of interviews with CEOs, chairs, directors and founders of Australian-listed companies that have been able to create value for shareholders through offshore expansion. The report offers a deeper insight into the key factors of success, including both the business decisions that enabled companies to capitalise on their potential and how the harnessing of industry-wide changes enabled businesses to remove or overcome traditional obstacles to growth.

The Emergence of a New Generation

Most investors have clear memories of Australian companies expanding offshore. The big acquisition. The hype. The hope of escaping a small domestic market.

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The Emergence of a New Generation

Most investors have clear memories of Australian companies expanding offshore. The big acquisition. The hype. The hope of escaping a small domestic market.

But time and time again, international expansion became a graveyard of ambition. When companies like NAB, AMP and Wesfarmers moved offshore, mostly through major acquisitions, they destroyed billions of dollars of shareholder value. They went overseas and lost.

Investors may be forgiven for thinking that staying in the small Australian market was the only way to go.

From 25 million to nearly 8 billion

But in recent years something has changed. A new generation of companies – 12 companies we’ve dubbed Offshore Growers – have expanded offshore, and are winning.

The Offshore Growers include

These Australian companies have seized the opportunity to massively expand their potential by moving from Australia, with a market of just 25 million potential consumers, to a global market of nearly 8 billion people.

The success of Offshore Growers has delivered significant value to shareholders. If you had invested in an equally weighted portfolio of the 12 Offshore Growers in January 2016, you would be up over 340%, compared to around 50% for the S&P/ASX Small Ordinaries Accumulation Index (to 27 September 2019).

Offshore Growers

Generating growth in a constrained environment
Offshore Growers are a vital component of an investor’s portfolio because they deliver growth and returns at a time when both the global and domestic economies are slowing.

Australian real GDP growth

Source: ABS

The Australian economy is now tracking below its long-term potential and faces a number of headwinds including the effect from weak wages, consumer spending and productivity growth. Global growth is also sluggish. The IMF is forecasting global growth to slow from 3.6% in 2018 to 3.2% in 2019. [1].

That anaemic growth threatens the profits, dividends and returns of many Australian companies, including the large banks. It has forced the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to cut official interest rates to record lows, and even raised the spectre of Quantitative Easing (QE) coming to Australia.

How to spot Offshore Growers early

To gain a deeper insight into the key factors of success, we conducted a series of exclusive interviews with the CEOs, chairpersons, directors and founders of leading Offshore Growers.

In this report below, we outline:

  • The 7 key factors that underpin the success of the Offshore Growers
  • The process they followed in their successful international expansion
  • 12 questions investors can use to identify Offshore Growers

If investors can develop a deep understanding of these factors and steps, they will not only be able to identify Offshore Growers, but they will be able to identify Offshore Growers at an early stage while they are still operating only in Australia, or on the cusp of their global expansion. They will know which companies have the value proposition and business model that will best allow them to take on the world and win.

By identifying these Offshore Growers early in their journey, investors will get in on the ground floor of their remarkable growth and maximise the returns they can earn from this new generation of companies, returns which are becoming vital in this low-growth environment.

The 7 key factors driving the success of Offshore Growers

So why have the Offshore Growers succeeded now when the past is littered with the failed expansion moves of Australian companies? What makes them different? What changed?

Based on our interviews, and extensive experience researching high growth companies, 7 key factors emerged as being decisive in the ability of Offshore Growers to win in the world.

1. Tearing down tariffs – benefiting from globalisation

Australian companies have benefited from the globalisation and greater integration of the world’s economy.

In recent decades, Australia and many other countries liberalised trade by removing or cutting tariffs – taxes levied on imports – and other rules that restricted trade.

Major economies dropped tariff rates and kept them low

Average applied tariff rates (1988-2016)

Australia has become more integrated with the world economy and has boosted trade. Merchandise trade has risen from 26% of nominal GDP in 1986 to 31% in 2016. [2]

Australia has also significantly expanded bilateral and regional trade agreements

Countries and trade regions Australia has signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with:

Australia has 11 free trade agreements: China, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, US, Chile, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) (with New Zealand), Malaysia, and Canada and Mexico. [3]

That environment has made it significantly easier and cheaper for Australian companies to do business internationally.

Gains from trade liberalisation and tariff reductions are obviously threatened by the emergence of trade wars, particularly the US-China trade war launched by US President Donald Trump in early 2018.

But, despite that, most of the gains of liberalisation will be protected and continue to facilitate international trade and company expansion.

2. Technology opens a world of possibility

One of the major factors underpinning the successful international growth of a new generation of Australian companies is technology.

Technology enables businesses to build scalable platforms across borders, and at the same time drives better consumer engagement and operational efficiencies. Technology is also delivering Australian management greater control, connection and collaboration.

The key globalisation technologies include:

Cloud Computing
The Cloud underpins international expansion because companies don’t need expensive onsite servers, infrastructure and IT teams when they expand into a new market. Cloud computing also underpins the scalability of products such as Xero’s cloud-based accounting software.

Telecommunications/ Video Conferencing
A new generation of cloud-based telecoms and video conferencing tools, such as Zoom and Google Hangouts, allows employees to host virtual meetings, helping Australian companies to maintain deep connections with offshore management and maintain control of international operations.

Online Team Collaboration Tools
The likes of Slack and Microsoft Teams allow teams to work and communicate virtually, enhancing productivity of remotely based team members.

IT- Enabled Business Process Outsourcing (BPO)
This is where non-core, or processes a company doesn’t have a competitive advantage in, are outsourced to another firm that can complete it in a more efficient fashion often due to either cheaper labour and other input costs, economies of scale and specialisation. Technology has enabled access to a wider population of firms and individuals to complete these processes.

Analytics Software
One of the most vital elements underpinning expansion is access to data and new ways to analyse it. Ten to twenty years ago, CEOs were reacting to data from their international operations
that was weeks or even months old. They were trying to compete against domestic competitors that had the data in real time; they knew exactly what was in their factory down the road. Those domestic competitors had a great advantage, but technology is now removing that edge.

Technology is making successful global expansion from Australia possible because businesses can centrally control their global activities from Australia.

Lovisa, which launched in April 2010, now operates in 15 countries. Fallscheer remembers in the early 2000s doing global video calls. The sound didn’t work and the frames constantly froze. “Now it is so easy to communicate,” he says.

3. The quick brand building hit of social media

In the past if a company wanted to build a global brand, they would need to spend huge sums on advertising and support those efforts with a large local sales force.

But the Offshore Grower is tapping into the huge global audiences that social media offers.

The explosive growth of social media networks has made it easier for companies to leverage the viral network effects of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to drive brand recognition.

“A 20-year-old girl is inspired by the same global social media that other girls are around the world,” Lovisa’s Fallscheer says. “It is much easier to create a presence using social media and other forms of marketing. Once upon a time that was hard.”

As at July 2019, the world had 4.3 billion internet users; some 3.5 billion are active social media users. That represents 46% of the world’s population. [4]

Social platforms: active user accounts

Based on monthly active users, user accounts, or unique visitors to each platform, in millions. (Data updated to 25 January 2019)

Get creative

Internationally, challenger brands such as Dollar Shave Club have used creative advertisements that went viral on social media to take on established players such as Gillette.

Afterpay keeps up with the Kardashians

Australian companies, such as Afterpay, have used social media to drive explosive growth in offshore markets.

Afterpay was trying to crack the US market and had been told that the Kardashians were a key to driving the brand. They tried to make contact but had no success.

Then in a lucky stroke, the Kardashian organisation reached out – via Afterpay’s contact form on its website. They wanted to make the service available to their online customers on the Black riday sales weekend.

Kim Kardashian then publicly backed Afterpay, posting to her 149 million Instagram followers and 62 million Twitter followers.

Previously, if Afterpay wanted that kind of exposure in a country they would have had to spend millions of dollars. In the US that would have meant a Super Bowl ad, which in 2019 cost $US5.5 million for a 30 second slot.

4. Bolder boards that support offshore expansion

Many senior directors have fantastic experience and add significant value. But many have been burnt by the spectre of failed global expansion by Australian corporates like AMP and NAB. It’s not difficult to see them counselling against going offshore.

The Offshore Growers say a key to their success has been younger, more dynamic boards, with directors who boast international experience and are prepared to back it. They have the confidence to take on the world and win.

“We are lucky we have a dynamic board who are open to investing and going global,” Lovisa’s Fallscheer says.

“There are more and more ASX boards with Directors who have international experience,” says Afterpay and Nearmap’s Rosenberg.

The Offshore Grower boards are mindful of the challenges of moving offshore, but when they see an opportunity they resource management properly to maximise the chances of a successful expansion.

Rosenberg believes boards were previously not willing to invest enough to expand internationally.

“You can’t go overseas without being prepared to invest serious dollars,” he says. “You need to put the right resources behind it.” He notes that commitment also applies to talent. “Nick Molnar [Co-Founder of Afterpay Touch] made a commitment to invest a considerable amount of his time in the USA.”

These young, dynamic boards not only have international experience, but they also know how to leverage technology to scale into, and connect with, huge global markets.

5. Laser-like value propositions

In the past, Australian companies expanded overseas with little competitive edge. It was expansion for expansion’s sake.

But the new generation of Offshore Grower has a laser-like focus on their value proposition and how it is going to solve the needs of their clients, especially overseas.

Kay says the companies he has been associated with that have been successful internationally have had a competitive advantage and have been calculating and cautious in their approach to new markets. “Lovisa was a first mover with deep product, merchandising and logistical capabilities operating in an ultra-niche market where there is limited head-to-head competition,” he says.

A2’s Babidge was very much of the belief his product, by removing the a1 protein, was going to benefit those who were milk intolerant.

Nanosonics offered new and superior technology that lifted the standard of critical hospital care. Technicians traditionally sterilised ultrasound probes by washing them in a dish tub. Nanosonic’s product puts the probes into an espresso-like machine and you push a button to clean. Sterilisation rates are 99.9%. But more importantly it delivers accountability in terms of who cleaned it, when they cleaned it, and the results. That is a differentiator.

A mother in China feeding her baby milk formula has the same core requirements as in Australia: security, supply and nutrition. An accountant, bookkeeper or SME in Australia probably dislikes
having to reconcile their books just as much as someone in the UK. Companies need to have a value proposition that is globally competitive and can withstand and stand out amongst the intense competition that is found in many overseas markets.

While the Offshore Growers acknowledged and respected overseas countries and their differences, they understood that customers around the world often have quite similar needs.

6. A shift to organic growth – abandoning risky acquisitions

One of the biggest strategic shifts Offshore Growers have made is to expand offshore not through acquisitions, but organic growth: growing their own businesses in international markets.
They have learnt from the mistakes of the past.

“Most of the overseas mis-steps have been acquisitions rather than organic,” a2’s Babidge says.

Former Afterpay executive director David Hancock says the past model was “more buy than build”. For Offshore Growers it is now build rather than buy.

Kay says that organic growth is a “measured” way of going global.

Lovisa’s Fallscheer says they key is to “move in slowly and allow yourself to learn from your mistakes.” He says the biggest mistake going global is “letting ego get in the way”. “It’s not about flagship stores,” he says. “You can’t take the eye off the end goal – profitability.” One of the reasons Offshore Growers tend to favour organic growth is they recognise the value of their products and services. A2’s Babidge says the company believed it was unique so wanted to grow organically rather than being distracted with an acquisition.

Afterpay and Nearmap’s Rosenberg says that Australian companies often have clients in the Australian market who have an international footprint. Those clients often request the Australian company to expand offshore to service their other locations. This can help facilitate global expansion in a less risky manner given these clients can help justify the (often considerable) investment required for overseas expansion.

Tapping into local talent

The traditional international expansion method was to send Australians to manage operations. But Offshore Growers are focused on hiring the best local talent who understand the nuances of their local markets.

“Companies used to put Aussie management in and it didn’t work,” former Afterpay executive director David Hancock says.

A2’s Babidge says you need local management who have a sufficient knowledge of the market. “You need to have good local management with a deep understanding of the market segment.”

“You need to hire locally and pay up for talent and experience, even if you can’t afford it.”

Babidge says the company hired expensive talent: people who had worked for significantly bigger companies than a2 was at the time. “We hired people with a higher skillset than was immediately required,” he says. “We also paid at a higher rate than a company that size would normally pay.”

He adds that they had the support of the board to hire talent and invest sufficiently.

The CEO of carsales.com, Cameron McIntyre, agrees it is important to try to assimilate into markets. “No two markets are the same. You need to treat them with respect and differently.”

That includes talent. “You need to negotiate and bring them along for the journey rather than dictating from head office.”

The competition in South Korea, for example, was huge, he says. “We empowered the local team to run as they saw fit, rather than us dictating how to run the business.”

“But every country is still different, and you can never understand the cultural nuances until you’re over there. You also need to work out the economics in each country because they are all different. You need to be on the ground in the countries before you can really understand the country and how they are each different.”

Afterpay and Nearmap’s Rosenberg notes there are an increasing number of Australian expats to network, and collaborate with, in markets like the United States and the UK.

7. Adopting a test and learn strategy

Finally, rather than making all-out bets on global expansion, the Offshore Growers have adopted a ‘test-and-learn’ strategy that typically follows three main steps.

1. Test
Firstly, they test their competitive advantage in the small open economies of Australia and New Zealand. “Australia is a good test market,” says IMF Bentham and City Chic’s Michael Kay. “It is easy to get around and communicate.”

A2’s Babidge says it was clear the company had a global opportunity given the breakthrough nature of its product. But he says it was important getting it right in Australia before expanding offshore.

Being a small multicultural, predominately English speaking, advanced economy has aided a number of the Offshore Growers testing their products and services in that ecosystem and gathering feedback, before expanding into other advanced economies overseas.

2. Learn
Secondly, the Offshore Growers then pivot their businesses after learning from their mistakes in Australia. It is much easier to make mistakes and learn from them in Australia than in the US or Europe.

“You don’t learn from your successes, you learn from your mistakes,” A2’s Babidge says, noting that requires a cultural shift. Companies ‘can’t shoot the messenger’. They must recognise a mistake, review the mistake and ensure it is not repeated. “You need to tolerate mistakes. You won’t get everything right and you need to have a culture that learns from mistakes.”

carsales.com’s McIntyre says it was easy to transfer learnings from Australia to overseas. “We already had the playbook,” he says, adding that online business models are essentially the same around the world.

Former Afterpay’s director David Hancock says Afterpay learnt a lot from New Zealand before embarking overseas.

Many of the Offshore Growers have culturally embraced risk, and learnt to conduct thorough autopsies on failed investments or strategies in a dispassionate way to increase the success of their next move.

3. Expand
And thirdly, after testing and refining their model at home, the Offshore Growers then shift that model overseas. Kay says companies shouldn’t go offshore because they have run out of room in Australia.

A key is choosing the right market.

Afterpay and Nearmap’s Cliff Rosenberg says as a rough rule of thumb the UK market is approximately three times larger than Australia and the US is ten times larger. “The key is these markets have a number of key similarities to Australia including customer demographics, and usage patterns of social media, online, and smart phones,” he says. “Despite competitive forces it makes these markets relatively logical and attractive for Australian companies to enter.”

A2’s Babidge says choosing which market to expand into is a matter of prioritising and resourcing. A2 had three key markets: the UK (Europe), the US and China. They chose the UK first because they had been asked to partner there, but that partner was acquired so they refocussed on the US.

How to identify Offshore Growers

Above, we outlined seven key factors that contributed to the success of the Offshore Growers, such as Afterpay, Lovisa and carsales.com.

But in Australia, right now, there is a new generation of Offshore Growers; the next generation of Afterpays, Lovisas and carsales.coms.

We can use the 7 factors to help us identify that next generation. But not only identify them, but identify them early: while they are still operating only in Australia, or just beginning their international expansion.

Below is a checklist of 12 key questions that will help investors identify potential Offshore Growers while they still have massive upside.

The questions will also help investors weed out companies that have some potential but lack the key ingredients for success.

  • Does the company have a world class value proposition and how does it stack up against offshore competitors? (Is the product or service world class?)
  • Is the company’s product or service differentiated in the mind of consumers so they’re willing to pay a higher price?
  • Does the company have any significant competitors overseas?
  • Is the product scalable? If it moves offshore, and sales take off, will it be able to expand margins so that profit increases faster than revenues?
  • Will expanding into another geography diversify earnings and make them smoother, lessening earnings risk?
  • When moving offshore, is the company preferring organic growth to riskier large acquisitions?
  • If the company is looking to acquire offshore to aid expansion, is it avoiding large transformational acquisitions that create significant risk?
  • Is the company hiring local talent offshore with good knowledge of local markets and customers, and strong networks across suppliers, customers and local government?
  • Is the country they’re expanding into pro foreign business?
  • Is the company appropriately managing forex risk that comes with foreign currency revenues
  • If offshore expansion doesn’t work, can the Australian business absorb the losses, or will it affect its ongoing viability at home?
  • Are management committing, not just financial resources, but their own time in the country, to the international expansion?

To maximise returns, and minimise risk, investors need to invest in Offshore Growers at an early stage. Otherwise you end up like most investors who are finally biting the bullet when it’s too late. By this stage the growth prospects of the company may already be largely recognised in the share price.

But for investors willing to do their homework, who understand the 7 key success factors and checklist above to identify the next Offshore Grower, the investment rewards can be significant.

Reaping the Rewards

In recent years a new breed of company has transformed the investment landscape in Australia.

Traditionally, when Australian companies expanded offshore, they failed, destroying billions of dollars of shareholder value.

This new breed of Offshore Growers have expanded offshore and succeeded.

As we have seen above, their success is due to a combination of big macro forces, such as technology and trade liberalisation; but also a new way of doing business: organic growth, testing and learning, and a laser-like focus on their value propositions.

That combination has produced explosive growth and explosive returns.

The good news is that a next generation of Offshore Growers are germinating now. The environment is ripe for them. The power of technology, social media, and trade liberalisation have created fertile ground for those companies to thrive globally.

A new generation are ready to throw off the shackles of a limited market and slowing economy. They’re ready to tap into the giant opportunity the world has to offer, and in the process drive big investment returns.

For investors, that growth is vital at a time when constrained economic growth, both locally and internationally, is likely to constrain overall returns from markets as a whole.

This report has given investors a deeper understanding of the Offshore Growers, and the key factors in their success.

Investors are now better placed to identify the next wave of Offshore Growers early.

And they’re better placed to reap the full potential of returns Offshore Growers offer and to escape the confines of the domestic market.

 

[1] World Economic Outlook July 2019, International Monetary Fund, published July 2019.

[2] Australian Trade Liberalisation, The Centre for International Economics, published October 2017.

[3]  Free trade agreements (FTAs), Australian Government Department of Agriculture.

[4] Global Digital Statshot, We Are Social/Hootsuite, published July 17, 2019.

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