Senior Partner & Managing Director
With chemicals generating so little growth, investors must continue to navigate the sector carefully for the chance to earn even average equity market returns. The 14% average total shareholder return of large chemical companies in the period 2012–2016 was the seventh-lowest among 34 industries tracked by The Boston Consulting Group. And it was the fifth consecutive five-year period in which chemical TSRs fell in BCG’s rankings.
From a subsector perspective, investors who navigated carefully would have ended up in focused-specialty companies. This is where the above-average TSRs have been in the chemical sector, not just in the most recent period studied but in most of the five-year periods dating back to 2007–2011. In a surprising turn, focused specialties have in some cases become darlings of Wall Street—perhaps even more so than multispecialty companies, which generally have greater name recognition, more resources, and significant advantages in recruiting.
What is focused specialties’ recipe for success? Part of it is these companies’ ability to understand and respond to customer needs. In a way that a more diverse or more basic chemical company might not be able to do, focused specialties speak the customer’s language and are attuned to opportunities and challenges that are specific to the customer. When they talk about the innovations they are working on, the conversations are less about isolated product breakthroughs and more about how the innovations can meet customers’ needs. Enabling this dialogue and relationship, a revolving door between focused-specialty companies and their customers is relatively common. That is, more and more R&D staff on the customer side are ending up in sales or account management positions at focused-specialty companies.
Focused-specialty companies’ strength, compared with other chemical subsectors, is evident in the numbers. Focused specialties had a median TSR of 22% from 2012 to 2016, 6 percentage points higher than the next-best-performing chemical subsector. (See Exhibit 1.)
Moreover, a lot of focused specialties’ TSR growth came from revenue increases and improved margins. No other chemical subsector came close to focused specialties in terms of operating gains, and one—agrochemicals and fertilizers—would have had no TSR growth at all had investors not awarded it a higher valuation multiple. (See “How We Define the Different Chemical Sectors.”)
The global chemical industry is highly complex. BCG divides the industry into five subsectors, which account for about 150 segments. Most companies are active in multiple segments. The subsectors are:
Multispecialties have been underperforming focused-specialty companies on a TSR basis by between 6 and 9 percentage points in recent years. The last time multispecialty companies had faster revenue growth than focused-specialty companies was in 2011. Multispecialty companies do more capital spending (about 6.9 cents for every $1 in revenue in 2016, versus 5.1 cents for every revenue dollar for focused specialties), because the upstream portions of their portfolios require it. Yet their average return on capital employed is about 5 percentage points lower than that of focused specialties.
In some cases, multispecialties struggle with their own complexity, especially when it comes to their reaction time in the market and to forging and executing unique strategies for their diverse businesses.
There are several practices of focused-specialty companies that we believe multispecialty companies should consider as a route to increased value:
By contrast, focused-specialty companies have no choice but to keep developing their expertise in the areas where they compete. This explains their ability to spot nearby adjacencies and the relative frequency with which they hire sales and application development staff from their customers. As a result, focused-specialty companies tend to do the best in their market segments both when those segments are struggling and when they are growing.
BCG’s study also highlighted the differences in TSR performance between different geographies. At the top were chemical companies in Greater China (the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), with a median TSR of 18%. Just behind were North American chemical companies, with a median TSR of 17%. (See Exhibit 2.) North American companies also had the narrowest TSR distribution of companies in any region.
The biggest drag on chemical company TSRs came from emerging markets, where publicly held chemical companies had median TSRs of only 7% between 2012 and 2016. A lot of emerging-market chemical companies are in the base chemicals and basic plastics subsector, which has been hurt by the drop in petrochemical prices.
Still, the lesson for chemical companies is not necessarily to reduce their participation in emerging markets. The lesson, as in other regions of the world, may be that they need to have a very focused strategy when setting out to compete in emerging markets and adjust their business model to each market’s special needs.
The fact that focus works in emerging markets is evident from the data: of the six focused-specialty chemical companies based in emerging markets that we tracked in this year’s study, five had TSRs in excess of 20%.