This commentary on Sotheby’s third quarter earnings report is available to AMMpro subscribers. New subscribers get the first month free. Feel free to subscribe to try out the service and cancel before you are billed.
Four years ago, activist fund manager Daniel Loeb released a letter to then Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht addressing the auction house’s weaknesses. Among the highlights were complaints that the firm had weak operating margins, lacked leadership and strategic vision, failed to grasp the central importance of Contemporary and Modern art, was weak in new markets, had “dysfunctional divisions and a fractured culture,” all of which culminated in management’s “inability to develop a coherent plan for an internet sales strategy.”
Loeb’s critique of the firm was backed up by a nearly 10% stake in the company’s stock and an alliance with another activist investor who was keen to see Sotheby’s sell its real estate and fund a major stock buyback, as well as ramping up its financial services division aggressively.
Four years later, the firm has new management which has now settled into running the company with its own team and few impediments to crafting its own strategic vision. Nonetheless, even after installing a new team across all major functions of the enterprise, Sotheby’s finds itself facing a aggressive competition from its main rival and another season where its substantial sales are out-matched by its main rival and struggling to contain its costs, two weaknesses that provoked Loeb’s particular ire.
With that in mind, it is worth taking a look at the company and its results to see where Sotheby’s stands in its transformation against Loeb’s critique. But after four years of pulling up the floorboards, unlocking the strongbox to acquire talent and talking about digital strategy, it is clear that Sotheby’s has reached the end of the beginning. It’s future growth depends more upon old-fashioned execution than it does on re-imagining what an auction house can or should be.
Let’s start with the good news. Sotheby’s does have a strategic plan and it has addressed some of the weakness in its margins, at least the part due to commissions being low or the lax use of incentives to win business across the company. The company seems to have stronger handle on Asia and other so-called new markets. Private sales are up 9% for the first nine months of this year over the first nine months of 2016 reflecting arrival of a new team.
With the news that Art Agency, Partners has met its incentive goals which included a focus on margins, the $85m acquisition can said to be a success on Sotheby’s terms. Even with the competitive onslaught from Christie’s, Sotheby’s November sales are still up substantially from 2016. Furthermore, Art Agency, Partners has become the centerpiece of Sotheby’s growth strategy by establishing a services division that generates income without being dependent upon transactions. This is especially true of AAP’s move to add advisory services to artists’ estates.
The problem AAP faces isn’t strategic but dynamic. Growing a services business is a different challenge from scaling a business based upon transactions. AAP was acquired for a steep price and accruing the cash to meet its purchase price seems to be one of the drivers of Sotheby’s problem with expenses. With such substantial rewards going to AAP’s founders, one might expect to see more growth fall to the bottom line. So far, and it is difficult to see in Sotheby’s reporting, there seems to be little growth in AAP’s revenues.
The Q2 earnings call revealed a 20% growth in AAP clients but based upon the staffing, the number of clients at comparable firms and galleries and the Sotheby’s earnings report, that is almost surely no more clients than can be counted on one hand. Indeed, in the same earnings call, management was keen to say the firm had a dozen artists estates signed up giving us a sense of the relative scale of the business. The business of advising artists’ estates is also a long-term strategy because AAP is pioneering the field which includes mapping out where and how revenue comes from this promising business.
All of this not to criticize AAP but to point out its strategic payoff is likely to take place over the longer term. In the short run, Sotheby’s now selling down its inventory to generate capital for buybacks and pay for the increased expenses. The CFO says some of those inventory sales will free up cash to devote to greater investment in the business. But where that investment will pay off is difficult to see from the outside.
The company is bumping up against the ceiling in some of its other strategic expansions. Art loans were ramped up substantially during the proxy war but have now come down to a level still above what was done before. Sotheby’s has brought down its loan exposure from this time last year by 8%. The $627m loan book is still quite strong and it produces $44m in revenue so far this year with half of that becoming income making the finance division the highest margin activity in the firm. The previous head of SFS has been promoted but there is no sense that the new manager will lead a dramatic departure from current plan.
The one significant place where Loeb’s critique has yielded no improvement is development of a “coherent” internet sales strategy. And that is simply because no one in the sector has a coherent plan for the internet. The idea that auctions would and could be transformed into higher margin, lower cost transactions because of the internet has proved to be an expensive chimera. Although Phillips has basically avoided the expensive diversion into building online sales strategies, neither Sotheby’s nor Christie’s has much to show for the efforts they put into that realm.
Sotheby’s last two earnings reports have driven home an essential point. The business may reasonably strong at the moment but there’s not yet an indication of management’s path forward into accelerated expansion. In the end, that might not be necessary. One product of the stock buyback has been to further reduce outside pressure on Sotheby’s management. Loeb’s critique may not have been accurate but he is also not likely to face any further activist attention. With the presence of a potential strategic buyer as the largest shareholder and continuing buybacks further reducing the overall float of shares, Loeb may be quietly moving the company toward a position where it can be taken private by one or the other of the main stakeholders.