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Would Warren Buffett Be Interested in Boustead Singapore Limited, One of the 30 Best Stocks in Singapore for 2018?

My Foolish colleague, Chong Ser Jing, recently ranked all the stocks in the Singapore market according to the Magic Formula, an investing strategy popularised by Joel Greenblatt in his book, The Little Book That Beats The Market. Ser Jing wanted to find the 30 best stocks in Singapore for 2018, based on the Magic Formula, and Boustead Singapore Limited (SGX: F9D) happened to be one of them.

Established in 1828 and one of our country’s oldest companies, Boustead Singapore is a global service provider of infrastructure-related engineering services and geo-spatial technology. It has three primary business segments – Energy-Related Engineering, Real Estate Solutions and Geo-Spatial Technology. Boustead Singapore owns 51% of Singapore-listed firm, Boustead Projects Ltd (SGX: AVM), which carries out the Real Estate Solutions business.

Even though Boustead Singapore was ranked highly on Greenblatt’s Magic Formula, would one of the greatest investors in the world, Warren Buffett, be interested in the company? We can’t ask him in person, but we can turn to a six-point acquisition criteria formulated by the Oracle of Omaha to give us some clues to answer the question. However, more importantly, Buffett’s checklist, together with a deep dive into Boustead Singapore’s financials that I did recently, can help investors develop a better understanding of the company.

With that, let’s turn to Buffett’s acquisition criteria.

1. Pre-tax earnings of at least US$75 million

Buffett has this criterion in place because the conglomerate he controls, Berkshire Hathaway, is a near-US$500 billion behemoth, so his acquisition targets need to be of a certain size to move the needle for Berkshire.

In 2017, Boustead Singapore had pre-tax earnings of S$67.7 million, which is much lower than the first criterion. Retail investors looking into Singapore-listed companies, though, should not be too strict about this rule as this might inadvertently sieve out many small-cap quality companies.

2. Demonstrated consistent earning power

The second criterion helps Buffett determine if a company has a stable and/or growing business. Companies that have a history of steady and growing earnings tend to have competitive advantages that help their businesses grow over time.

The table below shows the net profit for Boustead Singapore over the past five years:Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Boustead Singapore’s net profit had declined from 2013 to 2017. The poor showing was mainly due to lower earnings at the Energy-Related Engineering business, which was hampered by falling oil prices.

3. Good returns on equity (ROE) while employing little or no debt

This criterion’s purpose is similar to the second: It helps Buffett identify companies with competitive advantages. Generally, a company that has a history of generating good ROE while employing little or no debt has a high chance of possessing durable competitive advantages.

Here’s a table illustrating Boustead Singapore’s return on equity, and total-debt-to-equity ratio, from 2013 to 2017:Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

The company ended 2017 with an ROE of 12.5% and manageable debt. Its cash balance, as at 31 March 2017, was S$276.5 million, with S$88.4 million in total debt.

4. Management in place

Buffett included this criterion because he did not want to have to provide a management team when he acquires a company. For stock market investors like you and me, this criterion has no real meaning, since public-listed companies almost always have leaders in place. However, this point is a reminder for us to take a look at the people running a company when researching a stock.

Wong Fong Fui, who has helmed Boustead Singapore as its chairman and group chief executive officer since 1996, has a knack for turning around companies, including Boustead Singapore. Furthermore, he has vast experience in the oil and gas industry as he started his career as a chemical engineer in the sector. As of 16 June 2017, he controlled 34.06% of Boustead Singapore, giving him significant skin in the game.

5. A simple business

In my view, Boustead Singapore is not the simplest of companies to understand, especially its Energy-Related Engineering segment.

However, it is worth noting that Buffett had this rule in place to cater to his circle of competence. He is only interested in acquiring businesses that he understands. Going with this train of thought, what I think is a simple business may be complicated for you, and vice versa.

6. An offering price

This is another criterion in Buffett’s checklist that is not applicable for stock market investors, since stocks have quoted prices that are easily seen, unlike the private businesses that Buffett evaluates for acquisitions. This criterion, though, serves as a useful reminder that the price we pay for a stock is critical.

If we overpay for a stock (meaning we invest in a stock at an expensive valuation), the chances of our investment succeeding will be low. A famous quote from Buffett, “Price is what you pay, value is what you get,” rings true here.

Coming to Boustead Singapore, the company last traded at a stock price of S$0.81 yesterday, giving it a trailing price-to-earnings ratio of 15 and a dividend yield of 3.1%.

A Foolish conclusion

The deep dive I did earlier on Boustead Singapore, and the application of Buffett’s checklist should help investors make a better-informed investing decision on the company. Stay tuned for more on the rest of the companies from the 2018 best stocks list. For a repository of all the articles in this new series that uses Warren Buffett’s acquisition criteria to analyse the 30 best stocks, you can head here.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Sudhan P owns shares of Boustead Singapore Limited and Boustead Projects Ltd.