Corporations are announcing splits on almost a daily basis. In retail, there’s a parallel fad for shedding e-commerce platforms — witness the reported pressure on Macy’s Inc. to do just this. Bol.com sells both Ahold goods as well as third-party merchandise on commission. Here, the industrial case for a carve out isn’t compelling. Ahold acquired the business in 2012 for 350 million euros ($396 million), so it’s already relatively autonomous within the empire.
With a cash-gushing and financially strong parent, Bol.com scarcely needs direct access to the capital markets. At best, independence might help with hiring people who’d rather work for a pure dotcom than the subsidiary of an old-economy behemoth.
But it does look like the market is willfully denying that this business could be worth anything substantial, and an IPO could make its attractions harder to ignore while keeping Ahold in control. Ahold’s 31 billion-euro market value equates to 14 times forecast earnings. That’s a modest premium to Tesco Plc, itself justified by its sizable U.S. exposure on top of comparable 4% operating margins. There’s little in the price for Bol.com.
That could well be because the unit offers nothing to investors fixated on cash returns from share buybacks and dividends. It’s being run for growth not for cash. Ahold sees revenue doubling come 2025, implying roughly 15% annual expansion. For now, Bol.com’s earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization will be just 150 million to 170 million euros on some 5.5 billion euros of sales this year, Ahold predicts.
Current weak profitability may be no bar to a punchy valuation as a standalone company. If the problem is one of misunderstanding, an IPO would provide the pretext for Bol.com to set out its stall to investors who are less focused on near-term free cash flow. E-commerce retailers like Zalando SE trade on just under twice their next-12-month sales, Ocado Group Plc at over 4 times. Other specialists are on still higher multiples of anticipated revenue.
The competitive threat from Amazon.com Inc. may be a dampener on what investors are willing to pay here. Who knows, perhaps Bol.com could command an enterprise value north of 10 billion euros. At this stage, it’s just guesswork. Few companies trade at the value of their component parts and the idea that the market is missing something hiding in plain sight is always a gamble. But a listing would settle the question once and for all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.