Johnson Controls (JCI), a member of my long-term 50 Stocks portfolio, hasn’t done much of anything for a year now. Over the last 12 months the shares are up just 0.66% and in 2017 to date they’re down 0.1%.
That performance isn’t surprising. The company just about completely remade itself in 2016 by spinning off its automotive interiors business and by merging with Ireland-based Tyco International in what has been called one of the most egregious examples of corporate tax avoidance since Constantine outsourced the Roman Empire to Byzantium.
Frankly I don’t think investors have known what to do with the “new” company–and the bad taste left by the 2016 tax inversion ploy and the company’s continued problems in generating cash have given investors very few reasons to put in the homework necessary to figure it out.
But I think Johnson Controls deserves a little bit of attention now–and not just because it’s a laggard in an increasingly expensive market.
The re-invented company has two core businesses that are both remarkably well positioned for trends that are picking up speed in the global economy.
First, there’s the building efficiency segment, which accounts for 78% of pro forma sales. Here the company sells building heating and cooling equipment plus the networking gear to hook it all together (with building security, fire protection, and energy efficiency) plus services to improve building-wide management of such things as lighting, energy use, security, etc. What Johnson Controls is selling after the merger with Tyco International is a way to treat a building as an ecosystem and the services to improve the efficiency of that ecosystem in such areas as energy consumption. If you don’t see the connection with the future, take a look at the regional breakdown of sales growth in the most recent quarter for some clues: Organic sales growth for this segment was up 2% year over year for North America but 9% in Asia where the faster pace of new construction provides a bigger market for building-wide systems management.
Second, is what Johnson Controls calls Power Solutions. This segment incorporates the company’s legacy automotive lead battery business and its new start-stop automotive technology products with their associated Absorbant Glass Mat (AGM) batteries. The company is the largest producer of lead-acid batteries in the world with a 36% market share including a 33% share in China. That legacy business is, at some point, destined for decline as electric cars and new battery technology gain a bigger share of the automotive market. But Johnson Controls believes that start-stop technologies, which increase fuel efficiency by completely shutting off engines when a vehicle stops and then quickly powering everything back on so fluidly that the driver doesn’t even notice, will pick up the slack. By 2020 45% of new vehicles in the United States and 60% in China will use start-stop technology. That would be a huge jump from roughly 10% use in those markets today. At the 2017 Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo Johnson Controls will introduce 11 new Absorbent Glass Mat battery systems designed to address the fast storage, fast draw needs of start-stop systems and the high-electrical load of new cars with their navigation, entertainment, and electronic control systems.
Johnson Controls reports earnings for the fourth quarter of its fiscal year on November 11. I’d like to see the company hit or exceed forecasts for 86 cents a share in earnings vs 71 cents in the prior quarter (Of course, “If wishes were horses, etc.”) More importantly I’d like to see the company raise guidance for fiscal 2018 instead of lowering guidance as it did last quarter. And I’d like to see continued progress on reducing the debt load taken on in the Tyco merger and continued improvements in cash flow. Johnson Controls has told investors that they can expect to see the company generate more cash from operations. Show us the money.
With some confidence that good things will come to investors in this company who wait, I’m keeping Johnson Controls in my 50 Best portfolio. The shares are up 268% since I added them to that portfolio back on December 30, 2008, during the darkest days of the global financial crisis.