The corporate jet is grounded. The chairman gives quarterly earnings calls. Head count is down 41 percent. The stock is up. Investors are happy.
MicroStrategy’s chairman and chief executive, Michael Saylor, one of Washington’s larger-than-life characters, is back on the job.
“We couldn’t be happier with the progress MicroStrategy has made since our initial discussions with the company last year,” says Gil Simon of the investment firm Apex Capital in Orinda, Calif. “In just four quarters, the once high-flying company has transformed into a healthier and far more focused enterprise.”
A year ago, he had ripped into Saylor’s stewardship — and his party-boy persona.
“CEOs have a prerogative to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but not at the cost of running their business,” Simon said in an interview with The Washington Post in February 2014.
Simon was talking about Saylor’s off-the-field behavior, namely his legendary blowout parties from St. Bart’s to St. Tropez. Simon was referring to Saylor’s global travels on his yacht and corporate jet, his bathtubs stuffed with Veuve Clicquot champagne and his palatial, waterfront home in Miami Beach.
A MicroStrategy spokesman declined to comment for this article, but the company has previously described Saylor as an engaged visionary who built MicroStrategy into a profitable, global enterprise.
But by early 2014, Apex, which owns 262,000 shares, or roughly 2.3 percent of shares outstanding, had had enough.
In addition to Saylor’s seemingly inattentiveness to the company’s business, Apex objected to the company’s wasteful spending and the makeup of its board of directors, which it said was stacked with Saylor’s friends.
In a Feb. 23, 2014, letter to the Tysons Corner-based data analytics company, Apex asked that Saylor step aside and allow someone else to run the day-to-day operations as chief executive.
“At this critical stage in the company’s life cycle,” the letter said, “we believe that his skills and expertise are best suited for a chairman or advisory capacity.”
Apex is singing a different tune after a nearly 75 percent run-up in MicroStrategy’s stock price since it sent that letter.
Saylor’s moves include streamlining the staff, cutting unprofitable ventures and focusing more on MicroStrategy’s core expertise of business intelligence software. Company executives — including Saylor — even started meeting with analysts again to offer quarterly updates on the business, after years of declining to do so.
In one year, the company’s operating margins went from -6 percent to 30 percent. Total revenue was reported down 6 percent from last year but was flat, compared with last year when excluding the 6 percent foreign-currency headwind.
Second-quarter revenue in 2015 was $132.9 million, a 6 percent decline from a year ago, but it blew past analysts’ forecast of $128 million.
Second-quarter earnings of $1.95 a share exceeded analysts’ estimates of $1.45 a share. The company also appointed a new chief financial officer after the retirement of current chief financial officer Douglas K. Thede.
“Our focus has been in being more efficient, and we’re able to dramatically reduce our sales and marketing expenses and reduce structural costs in other parts of the business,” Saylor said, according to a transcript by Seeking Alpha from his second-quarter earnings call July 27.
“The combination of being more efficient with our sales and marketing activity and also structuring ourself in a more efficient way, resulted in an improvement in our operating income and a healthy operating income in the quarter,” he said.
Some observers are troubled by the top-line revenue drop, compared with 2014 and worry the company is losing market share to business intelligence competitors QlikTech and Tableau.
Saylor’s aggressive actions over the past year have given the stock a bump, the thinking goes. But long-term, quarter-after-quarter growth is another question. They said the company has lost many key technology and marketing leaders, who are essential to that growth.
Greg McDowell, a senior analyst with JMP Securities, said the company has stabilized itself after struggling with top-line revenue growth. McDowell, who said he likes MicroStrategy’s whopping profit margins, is a strong bull on the stock, rating it a “market outperform” with a target price of $230. The stock is at around $214.
“I would characterize my position as the relationship with Wall Street is improving a little at a time,” he said. “The hiring of a new chief financial officer is going to help improve the relationship. There’s always more to be done, but they’re going in the right direction.”
Analyst Karl Keirstead with Deutsche Bank Securities has been one of the biggest champions of MicroStrategy over the past year.
“This is an unprecedented turnaround in the software industry,” Keirstead said. “We’ve seen restructurings, but they typically take the form of private equity taking a company private, restructuring and IPOing them later,” he said. Saylor “executes on this turnaround while staying public and while being under the scrutiny of the public and analysts, and that’s very rare.”
Keirstead cited the new communication with Wall Street, coupled with the staff reduction and profitability stabilization as reasons for his positive view of the shares.
“Now we have a third reason,” he said. “They’ve recently upgraded their core analytics software product, its first major upgrade in six years. That has the potential to lift profit in the second half of the year.”
After quarreling with the company and its chief executive, Apex is now a bull as well.
“We are excited about the continued growth prospects and still see significant upside to the stock price,” Simon said. “MicroStrategy 10 . . . is a substantial upgrade and levels the playing field with competitors. We see renewed revenue growth on top of a much leaner cost structure as a powerful combination.”
Still, some local observers say, time will tell.
Among them is Mark Walsh, a tech investor and executive chairman of Homesnap, a Steve Case-backed maker of a mobile app that allows users to find real estate data by taking photos of homes.
“No one doubts Michael’s intellect, vision or drive. No one,” Walsh says. “But it’s fair to ask if the company will be acting this way in eight to 12 quarters.”