Two years back, I met the boss and toured the factory of a Shenzhen-based company called TMK Power Industries. They make rechargeable nickel-metal hydride, or Ni-MH,Â batteries, the kind used in a lot of household appliances like electric toothbrushes and razors, portable â€œDustbusterâ€ vacuum cleaners, and portable entertainment devices like MP3 players.Â
At the time, it seemed to me a good business, not great. Lithium rechargeable batteries are where most of the excitement and investment is these days. But, TMK had built up a nice little pocket of the market for the lower-priced and lower-powered NI-MH variety.Â
I just read his company went public earlier this year in the US, through a reverse merger and OTCBB listing. I wish this boss lots of luck. Heâ€™ll probably need it.
Things may all work out for TMK. But, at first glance, it looks like the company has spent the last two years committing a form of slow-motion suicide.Â
Back when I met the company, we had a quick discussion about how they could raise money to expand. I went through the benefits of raising private equity capital, but it mainly fell on deaf ears. The boss let me know soon after that heâ€™d decided to list his company in the US.
He made it seem like a transaction was imminent, since I know he was in need of equity capital. Two years elapsed, but he eventually got his US listing, on the OTCBB, with a ticket symbol of DFEL.Â
Here is a chart of share price performance from date of listing in February. It’s a steep fall, but not an unusual trajectory for Chinese companies listed on the OTCBB.Â
From the beginning, I guessed his idea was to do some kind of reverse merger and OTCBB transaction. I knew he was working then with a financial advisor in China whose forte was arranging these OTCBB deals. I never met this advisor, but knew him by reputation. He had previously worked with a company that later became a client of mine.Â
The advisor had arranged an OTCBB deal for this client whose main features were to first raise $8 million from a US OTCBB stock broker as â€œexpansion capitalâ€ for the client. The advisor made sure there wouldnâ€™t be much expanding, except of his own bank account and that of the stock broker that planned to put up the $8mn.Â
Hereâ€™s how the deal was meant to work: the advisor would keep 17% of the capital raised as his fee, or $1.35mn.Â The plan was for the broker to then rush this company through an expensive â€œForm 10â€ OTCBB listing where at least another $1.5 mn of the original $8mn money would go to pay fees to advisors, the broker,Â lawyers and others. The IPO would raise no money for the company, but instead all proceeds from share sale would go to the advisor and broker. The final piece was a huge grant of warrants to this advisor and the stock broker that would leave them in control of at least 15% of the post-IPO equity.Â
If the plan had gone down, itâ€™s possible that the advisor and broker would have made 2-3 times the money they put up, in about six months. The Chinese company, meanwhile, would be left to twist in the wind after the IPO.Â
Fortunately for the company, this IPO deal never took place. Instead, I helped the company raise $10mn in private equity from a first class PE firm. The company used the money to build a new factory. It has gone from strength to strength. Its profits this year will likely hit $20mn, four times the level of three years ago when I first met them. They are looking at an IPO next year at an expected market cap of over $500mn, more than 10 times higher than when I raised them PE finance in 2008.Â
TMK was not quite so lucky. Iâ€™m not sure if this advisor stayed around long enough to work on the IPO. His name is not mentioned in the prospectus. It does look like his kind of deal, though.Â
TMK should be ruing the day they agreed to this IPO. The shares briefly hit a high of $2.75, then fell off a cliff. They are now down below $1.50. Itâ€™s hard to say the exact price, because the shares barely trade. There is no liquidity.
As the phrase goes, the shares â€œtrade by appointmentâ€. This is a common feature of OTCBB listed companies. Also typical for OTCBB companies, the bid-ask spread is also very wide: $1.10 bid, and $1.30 asked.Â
Looking at the companyâ€™s underlying performance, however, there is some good news. Revenues have about doubled in last two years to around $50mn. In most recent quarter, revenues rose 50% over the previous quarter. That kind of growth should be a boost to the share price. Instead, itâ€™s been one long slide. One obvious reason: while revenues have been booming, profits have collapsed. Net margin shrunk from 13% in final quarter of 2009 to 0.2% in first quarter of 2010.Â
How could this happen? The main culprit seems to be the fact that General and Administrative costs rose six-fold in the quarter from $269,000 to over $1.8mn. Thereâ€™s no mention of the company hiring Jack Welch as its new CEO, at a salary of $6mn a year. So, itâ€™s hard to fathom why G&A costs hit such a high level. I certainly wouldnâ€™t be very pleased if I were a shareholder.Â
TMK filed its first 10Q quarterly report late. Thatâ€™s not just a bad signal. Itâ€™s also yet another unneeded expense. The company likely had to pay a lawyer to file the NT-10Q to the SEC to report it would not file on time. When the 10Q did finally appear, it also sucked money out of the company for lawyers and accountants.Â
TMK did not have an IPO, as such. Instead, there was a private placement to raise $6.9mn, and in parallel a sale of over 6 million of the companyâ€™s shares by a variety of existing shareholders. The broker who raised the money is called Hudson Securities, an outfit Iâ€™ve never heard of. TMK paid Hudson $545,000 in fees for the private placement, and also issued to Hudson for free a packet of shares, and a large chunk of warrants.
Hudson was among the shareholders looking to sell, according to the registration statement filed when the company completed its reverse merger in February. Itâ€™s hard to know precisely, but it seems a fair guess that TMK paid out to Hudson in cash and kind over $1mn on this deal.Â
The reverse merger itself, not including cost of acquiring the shell, cost another $112,000 in fees. At the end of its most recent quarter, the company had all of $289,000 in the bank.Â
These reverse merger and OTCBB deals involving Chinese companies happen all the time. Over the last four years, thereâ€™s been an average of about six such deals a month.
This is the first time â€“ and with luck it will be the only time â€“ I actually met a company before they went through the process. Most of these reverse merger deals leave the companies worse off. Not so brokers and advisors.Â
Given the dismal record of these deals, the phrase ç¾Žå›½åå‘æ”¶è´ or â€œUS reverse mergerâ€ , should be the most feared in the Chinese financial lexicon. Sadly, thatâ€™s not the case.