Ian Hunter - Just One More Thing?
If you had the chance to grill the CEO, what questions would you ask? Ian Hunter is Founder and Managing Partner at Hunter Value Capital. Ian meets with 50-100 CEOs each year in the US tech, software, crypto, healthcare and consumer products sectors to evaluate their investment potential for Hunter Value Capital's micro-cap strategy.
“It's easy to hone in on companies with good cultures when you see that one CEO out of dozens and dozens who is willing to admit that things have not gone well. And you see that in great athletic coaches that are just very frank about where the team is not doing well.”
Ian compares his questioning style to Columbo, the 70s TV detective. Here's a collage of Columbo's "One more thing..." highlights.
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IAN'S QUESTIONS TO MANAGEMENT
- Can you describe the unit economics of your business (cost and sales price for a single unit you sell) in each category?
- How do you describe your business to a new investor?
- If you were sitting down with some potential long- term investors, what two or three reasons would you give them to take a look at the business at this time?
- What character traits are needed for your job?
- How are you developing future leaders?
- What is the culture you are trying to instill at your business?
- How do you keep the big picture in perspective and not get too bogged down in the everyday details?
- What factors do you consider before you expand into a new market?
- What are the biggest opportunities the business has?
- How many people do you need to hire to grow?
- How do you stay close to your customers?
- What type of information do you need on a weekly basis?
- What does your global competition look like over the next several years?
- What have your competitors done in the last few years to upset the competitive dynamics?
- What have you done to them in the last few years to affect those dynamics?
- What worries you about your company in relation to your competitors’ moves and potential moves?
- How easy is it to enter the business? What prevents new competitors from entering? Are entry barriers sustainable?
- Describe pricing behavior in the company’s industry: Which competitor, if any, typically increases prices first? What has happened next? Who cuts prices? What happens next? Has pricing behavior been rational/“statesmanlike” in the company’s field of business? Describe pricing “signaling” behavior in the company’s field of business. Describe recent pricing moves.
- How are the prices of your products compared to competitors?
- Could new technology have a dramatic impact on the company’s business model, earning power and growth prospects?
- Looking out 5 to 10 years, how does the company plan to invest cash that is retained in the business? Expected return on equity on incremental investment?
- What new investments, new ventures, or new experiments that the company is working on (or envisions) could have a significant positive impact on the value of the company in the future?
- What is the company’s philosophy/strategy with respect to using free cash flow for stock buybacks when it is not required to support growth?
- What information does management monitor and consider to be important in managing its business?
- Where or how do you spend a majority of your time and what do you use as a barometer for your return on invested time?
- Of your competitors, who do you respect the most and why?
- Tell me why you’ve been successful and how do you sustain it?
- What three things would you tell a friend about how to be successful in your company?
- What is really hard for new hires to get used to in this firm?
- What do you want to be known for?
- How do you measure whether you are successful?
- If you were a private business, how would you operate differently?
- What do you like about working here?
- Who are your current and past mentors, and what impact did they have on your life?
- What three things would you do to destroy the business as quickly as possible? Give yourself a one-year time frame.
- If we were meeting three years from today, what would need to have happened during that time for you to feel happy about your progress?
- If you were away for one year, which key metrics would best tell you how the business was doing?
- Why can’t other people do what you are doing?
- What's your comparative advantage? How do you invest in it and improve it to magnify the opportunities where that advantage is indispensable?
- Of all the businesses you’ve looked at, what’s the best one, and why?
- What are you compulsive about?
Philip Muscatello (35s):
G’day and welcome back to Shares for Beginners. I'm Phil Muscatello. How important can a CEO be for a company's stock price performance? And how do you cut through the hype to find true value? I'm joined today by Ian Hunter to find out more about evaluating management. Hi Ian.
Ian Hunter (51s):
Hi Phil. How are you?
Philip Muscatello (52s):
Good. Good. So Hunter Value Capital invests in tiny growing businesses that trade publicly before they're large enough to capture the attention of the institutional investment community. Ian you meet with 50 to a hundred CEOs each year in the tech, software, crypto, healthcare and consumer product sectors to evaluate their investment potential for Hunter Value Capital's micro-cap strategy. But before we get into that, tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in investing. Sure.
Ian Hunter (1m 20s):
Well, I grew up in Texas most of my life and after I graduated with a degree in journalism, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. I realized, probably close to the end of getting that degree, that I just couldn't deal with the deadlines of being a journalist. So I decided to start my career in a sales role. So I was working as a real estate agent in my first job, which was in New York city. And after a couple of years, I realized I really wanted something more tangible, more numbers oriented in my career. So I went to get an MBA at NYU and transitioned into the finance world.
Ian Hunter (2m 3s):
So I spent over a decade on Wall Street in various roles, doing equity research. For a few years I was working as a lender. And when I finally was working in something that I felt I could really sink my teeth in, which was private equity, I knew I wanted at that point to be an investor. I'd been steeped in that for a while through various roles. But I've realized that I was never truly going to be able to embrace a role and be happy doing it until I was doing it my way. So I took the plunge about three years ago and left a pretty, you know, fun and engaging job at a private equity firm to launch out on my own and do what was really my passion and my hobby, which was investing in stocks for about 10 years ever since the global financial crisis.
Ian Hunter (2m 57s):
So, yeah, so I've been operating two years now.
Philip Muscatello (3m 0s):
So it sounds like you're trying to take a very unique approach to your investing style. You kind of referred then to, you wanted to do it your way. Did the journalism background have anything to do with the kind of questioning that you do with CEOs?
Ian Hunter (3m 13s):
Yeah, that's an insightful question because I do feel that a lot of the training that I had in journalism and trying to find the deeper story was really well-suited towards various roles that I've had in the past. But especially when you're trying to get to the bottom of what's going on behind the scenes, what's going on behind the numbers at a company, the types of things that you can't always get just from looking at a 10-K.
Philip Muscatello (3m 37s):
The 10-K is the numbers, isn't it, that's what a company needs to supply to the SEC, to show what's actually happening with the business.
Ian Hunter (3m 46s):
Yeah, those regulatory financial filings that are put out on a quarterly or annual basis can give you, of course the, probably the most important things that you need to know. But then there are other things that you can find out from talking to management. In most cases what's most useful for me is whether to rule it out immediately, rather than spending my time on something that might look great on paper, but probably doesn't have the pieces in place from the management team's perspective for it to fit my kind of criteria.
Philip Muscatello (4m 16s):
So what is your criteria? What's your strategy for investing? What's your own unique style?
Ian Hunter (4m 20s):
Yeah, so I approach investing from the perspective that if you're going to do anything besides put your money in an index fund and expect it to do better than that, you really have to go where the competition is not as sophisticated. And from looking at a lot of the studies, the return studies, historically I found that the place where you can pretty consistently find outperformance over a multi-year period is not in the S&P 500 type of companies, but in the very smallest part of the markets. So if you were to divide the market in deciles by market cap the largest 10th of that decile is going to be the S and P 500 companies.
Ian Hunter (5m 4s):
And in the bottom 10th, you'll find companies that are, you know, they can be $5 million market caps up to, you know, 200 million market cap that tends to be micro caps. And in that category, depending on which study you look at, academic papers will say that over multi-year periods, they might've outperformed anywhere from one to two to three, 4%, depending on which multi-decade period you're talking about. So I focus there because all I'm trying to do is just give myself every advantage that I can. Every tailwind that I can so that my competition is not the institutional investors on Wall Street.
Ian Hunter (5m 47s):
It actually in the microcap space tends to be, you know, retired doctors and retired dentists, or, you know, in some cases full-time people who have other jobs and they don't have the time or the resources. Or necessarily the academic background or training that I have from digging into company's balance sheets. When I was a lender and looking at investment opportunities at a private equity fund.
Philip Muscatello (6m 13s):
So a big part of your unique strategy is grilling the CEOs. I mean I just want to point out at this point that so many companies stories sound great when the CEO is talking about it and I was using the term marketing hype, but I believe he used the word propaganda. So tell us a little bit about this and the way that you have to be a bit skeptical about what CEOs are saying.
Ian Hunter (6m 36s):
Yes, what the micro-cap world is probably stigmatized by is pump and dump propaganda. The word penny stocks is actually a technical term that the SEC uses to describe anything that's under $5 per share. But penny stocks has a really negative stigma because you think of all those flyers that used to come into people's address. And nowadays it's spam email that talks about the next big thing. And they're kind of teasing you with a lot of, you know, hype without telling you what the name of that stock is until you sign up for their subscription. What goes on in that part of the world is a lot of things that are below the radar of the SEC. They just don't have the manpower to, you know, properly scrutinize the types of advertisements that are going on, and the types of things, the messages that are being put out by management.
Ian Hunter (7m 26s):
And you can definitely have scenarios where management is in cahoots with, you know, the people putting out the propaganda as independent analysts. And what they're often doing is just trying to keep the stock float at a certain high enough level for them to keep milking it for their own personal benefit through the company expense line, you know, using those perks to live a lavish lifestyle. And if the stock falls too much, then they do more pumping and, you know, trying to get it up to the level where it can continue to be traded. So by understanding the game that I'm playing and understanding that environment, I try to attend a lot of conferences.
Ian Hunter (8m 8s):
So there are microcap conferences that up until 2020, you had to attend in person. Nowadays you can have a microcap conference happening every, you know, five, six weeks. There are dozens really that you can attend online. And so what I do is sign up for those and take as many meetings as I can. And I take a list of questions with me that, you know, I will try to vary from company to company. But I'm mainly trying to understand what I see on the balance sheet and the income statement. Is there anything that makes me really uncomfortable with the type of management that's at the helm?
Ian Hunter (8m 53s):
I look for someone that, you know, seems to embrace a culture of transparency. That's really important in this space because an overly promotional management is, you know, probably more likely to conceal something when things are not going well.
Philip Muscatello (9m 11s):
But that is part of the CEO's role is they do have to promote the company.
Ian Hunter (9m 14s):
It is, and so, you know, it's easy to hone in on companies with good cultures when you see that one CEO out of dozens and dozens who is willing to admit that things have not gone well. And you see that in great athletic coaches that are just very frank about where the team is not doing well. Yeah. Like you can trust them, I guess, when they wearing their heart on their sleeve.
Philip Muscatello (9m 43s):
So this is something that people that are new to the markets need to be really aware of and you referred to pump and dump stocks, and that there are some companies that all they're doing is just maintaining the lifestyle of the people involved with it. So from your point of view, it's really important for people to understand the dangers of investing in this end of the market. Would that be the case?
Ian Hunter (10m 6s):
Definitely. Even as a professional, doing this and churning through lots of numbers of companies, I still can get taken in by the message of, you know, a very charismatic CEO and really buy into the story that, oh, yes, we're very close to profitability. Or we've been getting a lot of interest from customers and we are very close to signing, you know, XYZ companies. I mean these guys, as you said, this type of role selects for the most persuasive management teams.
Philip Muscatello (10m 41s):
And this feeds into stock forums as well where people are listening to what the CEOs are saying and then amplifying that message further because they want to pump the ownership of the stock that they have as well.
Ian Hunter (10m 52s):
Yes, you know, you're working against all these human biases when you hear other people saying I've been investing in this great stock that went up 25% for me last week or whatever. You know, you get that whole kind of mob mentality. And that mob mentality is more dangerous than ever today with the AMC and GameStop phenomenon. Social media has really been harnessed to encourage people now to all pile in without asking questions. So I think, you know, in the microcap space you have far far more companies that are not going to do well than those that are going to do well.
Ian Hunter (11m 33s):
I think there's something like seven or 8,000 stocks that are below something in the range of a $250 million market cap. Rough numbers here but among those, there are only about a quarter of them that are profitable. So that can right there be a starting point for the beginning investor is just, you know, if you want to just play it safe, just pass on anything that is not currently producing a profit. It's going to cause you to spend more time at this task but it's worthwhile because although you might miss out on a couple that do very well, you're just in safer waters If you are just looking at that.
Ian Hunter (12m 14s):
I'm guessing it's about 20 to 25% from, you know, the last reports that I've heard that are profitable.
Philip Muscatello (12m 21s):
Yeah. So let's move on to the questions. Part of your role is asking questions of CEOs to cut through the marketing hype and the propaganda. So let's focus on some of those questions and the way that you approach it because you come from a left-field approach in many cases, don't you?
Ian Hunter (12m 37s):
Yeah, well, there are a lot of questions asked at these microcap conferences by the audience members. You can listen to a corporate presentation. You can even request a one-on-one meeting with the CEOs, which is what I tend to do. And a lot of times they'll take your meetings, even if you're not a professional investor. But the typical questions that people ask are usually focused around, you know, how soon before you're going to be profitable? Are you likely to have to issue more equity and dilute shareholders? Things like that are pretty easy for the management to prepare for because they know that's coming. But I tend to always ask the management, even if I know what the company does, I'm not afraid to just say, could you explain to me in your own words, what it is that you do on a unit economic basis?
Ian Hunter (13m 30s):
In other words, describe to me how does the sale happen? What's the average ticket price of the sale? what's the profit on that? You know, what have you paid for in your cost of goods? And, you know, just walk me through that. Because oftentimes at the microcap space, there are some businesses that are simple, but there are a lot of them that are, you know, tech-oriented or marketing-based where it sounds like something that is working for them but you don't really understand it. And a lot of times the management can not explain it in a very simple way. And if they have to go on and on to describe what it is they're doing and what are the basic economics of it, that's a great rule of thumb to just say, all right, I can pass on something like this.
Ian Hunter (14m 15s):
You know, what is it Warren Buffet says? Always watch out for your circle of competence, you know, to stay within that. So that's just another way of saying, if you don't understand what they're doing and they can't encapsulate it for you simply enough to just a couple of sentences, then maybe that's a good rule of thumb to pass on something
Philip Muscatello (14m 33s):
That would seem to me to be like a basic question that an analyst should be asking. I mean, it's like going to a mining company and saying, well how much does it cost to dig that bit of mineral out of the ground, process it and get it to market? I mean, am I being overly optimistic here?
Ian Hunter (14m 48s):
Well, you're right that, you know, mining companies are pretty simple to understand. There are others where, you know, it could be a company that is taking cargo freight containers and trying to turn those into homes. And what matters in some of these unconventional business types is finding out what is their cycle of selling? How do they find the people who are expected to buy these? And you know, how are they prospecting for them? How does that get converted into a sale? How long does that take? These are basic questions that a lot of people are afraid to ask because they don't want to sound like they just don't know anything about businesses. So that would be one thing is don't be afraid to ask the questions that might make you look dumb.
Ian Hunter (15m 32s):
Because if they can't answer you in a way that's simple enough, then it could be good to just pass on a company like that. Because if they can't explain it simply enough, perhaps they're using that over-complicated message to fool, you know, even their financiers.
Philip Muscatello (15m 49s):
And obfuscate and yeah.
Ian Hunter (15m 51s):
Philip Muscatello (15m 52s):
Obviously you've got a bit of a Colombo style of asking questions. Tell us a bit more about some of these questions. I mean I was interested in your idea of asking what kind of car the CEO drives.
Ian Hunter (16m 2s):
Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, once in a while I will just ask them, you know, so what kind of car do you drive? It's not always my leading question, of course, but if you've got some rapport with somebody and you're kind of getting toward the end, you can throw that one in there. Or just something like, how long have you driven your car? I've done that a couple of times and you know, you get some good answers. You know, if they say, oh, I mean, I drive a civic or something like that, then, you know, you can just say, okay, well, the only reason I ask is I really admire when management is not spending all their money on a Ferrari or whatever. And any question you ask is going to give you a little bit of insight into the way they operate.
Ian Hunter (16m 44s):
Do they deal with you in a way that's just kind of dismissive or are they actually trying to engage someone as someone who could enter into a long-term partnership as a faithful shareholder?
Philip Muscatello (16m 57s):
So let's have a look at some of the other questions that you throw at them.
Ian Hunter (17m 1s):
So I'll ask things like if you were going to be stranded on an island for a few years, and you had to put your family's capital into shares of one of your competitors, who would that be?
Philip Muscatello (17m 12s):
What are you trying to get out of that kind of question?
Ian Hunter (17m 14s):
Well, I usually like to understand how they think about the industry that they operate in. And that kind of forces them into making one selection out of all their nearest competitors. A lot of times management will try to say that they're the only ones doing what they're doing. But if you force them to come up with a company that's operating somewhat in their space, then I would ask them so tell me about that company what do you think they're doing that makes you confident in them? And then, you know, whatever their answer is, you can kind of follow on there and say, so how are you guys dealing them as a threat to what you're doing? I care a lot about how a company is differentiating itself.
Ian Hunter (17m 56s):
I actually had a CEO tell me one time when I said, you know, what's your nearest competitor that you would put your family's money in. And he named it. And I said, so what are you guys doing differently from them? And he said, well, nothing really. And I had to repeat it back to him. I was like, so you're not really doing anything differently than them? He said, no. And I said, it sounds like you're saying is the main reason you guys expect to succeed is because the management of your company is here and you're not over there. And he's like, yeah. And so that gave me a sense that that company was really just about that guy and what he felt he brought to the table. Which is risky. If you have too much key man risk with a company,
Philip Muscatello (18m 38s):
Too much ego, presumably as well
Ian Hunter (18m 42s):
Yeah so, I'll ask things like, what's the culture that you're trying to instil at your business? And some managers don't even think about culture. They're just trying to get the next sale. So whatever you ask them, it's not so much about that specific question, the message that it delivers. It's about asking a variety of questions that will let you see. Is there dissonance between the different answers that they're giving you? So if they've been saying earlier in their presentation that they care a lot about culture, or if that's a big bullet point on their slides, and then you ask them about what is the culture that they're trying to instil? But they don't have much of an answer for it. Then, you know, they've been caught trying to just have a good bullet point on their slides.
Ian Hunter (19m 26s):
I would ask things like, you know, if we were talking three years from today, what would you need to have happened during that time for you to feel happy about your progress? It's kind of a different way than what management's used to trying to, you know, say here's our roadmap, what we're going to accomplish. If you ask them what, in hindsight they did well, there's different things that can come out and it might not even be something that they were talking about before. And it doesn't have to be a gotcha question. It's just giving them an opportunity to describe their vision in a different way. I'll go through a couple other questions you can ask.
Philip Muscatello (20m 1s):
Yeah, this is really interesting yeah.
Ian Hunter (20m 3s):
What are the type of people you're looking to hire? How do you find quality candidates? How are you developing future leaders? All of these things are things that you will not see the answer to in the filings, the regulatory filings, the balance sheets and income statements. And it might not even be a topic that's addressed in their presentations. But if somebody is giving a thoughtful answer to those, it can differentiate that stock from someone who just, you know, clearly doesn't think about the people that are working there.
Philip Muscatello (20m 34s):
Can I just ask a question about that. The culture thing is really important and I think listeners should reflect on places where they've enjoyed working and where other places that they may have worked, where they've just feel like they're a drone, a cog in the machine. Is that the kind of part of what you're trying to work out about whether it's going to keep good people, whether it's going to develop good people. Is that what you're kind of trying to get to with that question?
Ian Hunter (20m 59s):
Yeah. And you know, some of this stuff can sound really touchy, feely, and what's the point of it? But I think a key component of any research that you do on a company should include trying to find out what the employees think about it. And there's a website called glassdoor.com that is kind of an anonymous place that employees and ex-employees can leave their reviews about a company. That should always be one piece of your due diligence, just to see if they're on there. Because although you could certainly see some poor reviews that might not mean this as a no investing kind of scenario, I should just walk away. You might just get some more color that could tell you one way or the other.
Ian Hunter (21m 40s):
Like, even though this is a bad review, they're criticizing this manager for putting something ahead of something else. You know, who knows what that scenario might.
Philip Muscatello (21m 49s):
You don't really want disgruntled ex-employees or disgruntled employees deliberately sabotaging the company because their culture's so toxic that you don't want to be investing in a company like that.
Ian Hunter (21m 60s):
Yeah. You, you want to get a sense of why someone might have been unhappy working there. If it's just that they work their, their employees too hard. Well, that's not necessarily a reason not to invest. I mean, Amazon gets that criticism a lot. At the same time, Amazon has a very strong culture. It's very clearly defined in Jeff Bezos' annual letters. But it's one of those things that people should know when they're going to work there. It should be pretty clear. They've had a lot of opportunities to understand what it's going to be like through the way they've broadcast that culture. Which is different than a scenario where a small company, you might hear some really interesting stories from talking to ex-employees that make you want to stay away from it.
Ian Hunter (22m 45s):
Especially things around shady activities. You know, I've seen scenarios where people said, yeah, this guy totally screwed over a couple of his customers. Like if there's any truth to it, you'd want to dig down on that. The odds are against you if you're trying to invest in companies solely for being cheap. Like a cheap PE multiple or something like that, but they have a really bad reputation for how they treat customers.
Philip Muscatello (23m 9s):
Okay. I think we've got time for one more question. Let's have a listen to one more of these questions.
Ian Hunter (23m 14s):
Yeah. Where, or how do you spend a majority of your time and what do you use as a barometer for your return on invested time? So that can give you a sense of, is this CEO spending all their time out there on the field trying to produce more sales? Are they trying to do stuff that's just strategic? Are they trying to clean up messes? Like what is their position within that company? Because a lot of times you'll discover that in a small organization, the CEO is wearing every conceivable hat. And you can find that out sometimes through these questions. If he or she is trying to do too much, it might mean that their growth goals are a little bit too ambitious.
Ian Hunter (23m 59s):
If they don't realize that they have to let go of the reigns a little bit, bring in other people to do things. You know, there's a lot of different questions we could go through, but I'll leave it up to you.
Philip Muscatello (24m 9s):
That's okay. Would you mind sharing them on the blog post for the episode?
Ian Hunter (24m 13s):
I could certainly do that. Yeah.
Philip Muscatello (24m 14s):
I don't want to give away too much of
Ian Hunter (24m 17s):
No, the nice thing about investing is there's a lot that you can share with other people and you're not giving away anything that's competitive. Because the more networking that you can do with other investors and sharing your ideas, the better group decision you're going to make, it's kind of like the old. At the carnival, the guest, your wait thing. It always does better when there's a whole bunch of people trying to put in their guesses. It's the average of those answers that usually ends up being closest.
Philip Muscatello (24m 46s):
Okay Ian so tell us about Hunter Value Capital. And how people can find you on the website. Which is not the easiest website to get into and you've, you've got a reason for that.
Ian Hunter (24m 58s):
Oh yeah. It's at huntervalue.com. And if you want to see a couple of my letters to investors and just read a little bit more about my philosophy, it's password protected. So you'll receive the password if you just answer a couple of questions about yourself and put your email address in. I just don't want to keep it open to all the bots out there and not to try to look like I'm advertising so much as providing resources for people who want to take the extra step to find out what's there.
Philip Muscatello (25m 28s):
That's not just an email harvesting tool that you've put in there, but you've got a reason there because you just want to make sure that people are serious when they're coming to you.
Ian Hunter (25m 36s):
Exactly. I only send out a letter twice a year anyway, to the people on the email list and they're free to opt out.
Philip Muscatello (25m 42s):
Fantastic. Ian hunter, thank you very much for joining me today.
Ian Hunter (25m 44s):
Thanks Phil. It's been a pleasure. I like what you're doing here.
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