Elena and I had a wonderful dinner with Pablo Gallyas last night at an Italian restaurant (Giovanni's) in Berkeley, California. Pablo finally got to meet my wife Elena. We talked about trekking adventures including climbing high mountains. We talked about our experiences of living through military dictatorships in Latin America. We talked about our children. It was a wonderful evening and great to be with a good friend whom I had not seen in 4 years.
How do you say "credit" in Portuguese and Spanish? Experian would know. The Dublin, Ireland-based company, which provides credit reports and other financial data on consumers and businesses, is growing like gangbusters in Latin America, particularly Brazil. Although the U.S. still accounts for more than half of revenue and profits, Experian's shares are a compelling play on the growth of the consumer class in the developing world.
Experian's American depositary receipts (ticker: EXPGY) have advanced almost steadily from a 2008 low of $4.26 to a recent $15. Some fans think they could rally another 20%, at least, in the next 12 months, as the company cashes in on booming demand for credit information in Latin America, and as growth accelerates in the U.S., along with greater demands for credit transparency. Shares also trade in London ( EXPN.U.K.), where they have risen 20% in the past year, to a recent 936 pence.
Experian is best known for generating credit reports, but also gathers data on individuals, companies, vehicles and insurance, slicing and dicing it for clients to help them manage credit risk, target marketing campaigns and prevent fraud. The company is No. 1 in consumer-credit and No. 2 in business-credit services, and competes primarily with Dun & Bradstreet (DNB) and Equifax (EFX). "It is a scale business," says Rodney Wells, an investment manager at Aberdeen Asset Management in London, which holds Experian shares. "Once you have scale, it is pretty hard [for other companies] to enter."
Chairman John Peace co-founded Experian in 1980 as CCN Group, a unit of British retail conglomerate GUS. The business grew in part through acquisitions, including the 1996 purchase of U.S.-based Experian, formerly known as TRW Information Systems and Services. Experian, as it was renamed, was spun off from GUS in 2006, and has put up impressive results in recent years, bolstered by continuing mergers and acquisitions. This year it is looking to make "fill-in and bolt-on" purchases, rather than major deals, says CEO Don Robert, who joined the company in 2001 and became chief executive in 2005.
In fiscal 2011, ended March 31, Experian reported net earnings of $581 million, or 70 cents a share, on revenue of $4.2 billion. Analysts are forecasting earnings per share of 80 cents in the current fiscal year, on a 12% increase in sales, and earnings of 88 cents in fiscal 2013. Experian pays out a third of its earnings in dividends, and yields 1.4%.
Shares aren't dirt cheap at 18.6 times fiscal 2012 estimates, but bullish analysts see room for the price/earnings ratio to expand to 19.5. "The valuation is still attractive, given the long-term prospects," says Wells, who is looking to increase Aberdeen's position in the stock.
Experian's earnings could get a boost from soaring demand for credit-reference services in Brazil, where the company has a firm foothold and is looking to grow. In 2007 it acquired a 70% stake in Serasa, Brazil's leading credit bureau, and can exercise an option in June to buy the remaining 30%.
The unclaimed stake is worth about $1 billion, which Experian can afford, and the market potential suggests it would be a good investment. But a deal isn't straightforward, as Serasa's minority shareholders are Brazil's two largest banks, which also are Experian's two biggest customers in the country. "I don't think it will be as simple as dropping a letter in the post," says Robert, a 52-year-old American, who nonetheless hopes to secure a friendly agreement.
EXPERIAN'S LATIN AMERICA REVENUE grew by 42% in the December quarter, helped by several acquisitions in 2011 in Colombia and Brazil. Organic revenue growth in the region, minus those deals, was an "eye-popping" 27%, Robert says. Latin America accounted for less than one-fifth of total revenue in fiscal 2011, but its contribution is rising rapidly. Based on the current trajectory, the region will generate a third of revenue within two years, and be a source of outstanding growth for Experian for years to come, mitigating slower growth in more mature markets such as the U.S. and the U.K.
December-quarter revenue, excluding acquisitions, rose just 2% in North America, depressed by new regulations governing how universities and colleges market their services to students. The pace of growth is expected to accelerate in the fiscal fourth quarter. Quarterly revenue grew 7% in both the U.K. and Ireland, and the rest of the world, defined as Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific.
About 31% of Experian's revenue still comes from the financial-services industry, whose problems are well documented. That proportion might sound high, but is down from about 70% in 2000. Robert is looking to cut the contribution of financial services by another 10 percentage points, while expanding into other industries, including telecommunications, utilities and health care.
MARKET DIVERSIFICATION FOLLOWING a painful restructuring in 2007-08 helped the company weather subsequent downturns without much discomfort. In fact, management's biggest challenge now is to choose the right opportunities to pursue. "We are truly overwhelmed with growth opportunities," says Robert, citing geographic expansion as well as growth initiatives in new industries.
For example, Experian hopes to replicate in Asia the success it is enjoying in Latin America. It has a foothold in China, but Robert has high hopes, in particular, for India, where the company established a joint venture with several local banks a couple of years ago. In time, the Indian market could be as big as the Brazilian market, he says.
David Togut, an analyst at Evercore Partners in New York, thinks Robert has done well so far. Management, he says, "has made, strategically, the right decisions in the past few years," such as the acquisition of Serasa, the development of an e-mail marketing tool called CheetahMail, and the expansion of Experian's interactive business. Togut expects the shares to trade up to $17 in the next 12 months.
If Experian keeps dancing to a Latin beat, they could go higher still.