For the third year in a row, retailing performance is likely to be low on the list of concerns among shareholders attending the annual meeting of The Warehouse in Auckland tomorrow.
The questions are likely to be the same as they were in late 2006. Is the company going to be taken over and when?
Stephen Tindall, who controls around 52 percent of The Warehouse, still holds the key to the future of the company he founded. As he is just a non-executive director of the company these days, it is unlikely he will be scheduled to speak to Friday's meeting. But it is probable that shareholders will put the pressure on (as they did last year and the year before) for him to get to his feet and say a few words. It's likely, however, that once again shareholders will get little meat on the carcass. Tindall will most probably reiterate that he will aim to do the best by the company and the shareholders.
Behind the scenes there will have unquestionably have been very recent further, separate, negotiations between Tindall and the supermarket giants Woolworths and Foodstuffs over a possible takeover. Both of the supermarket giants were blocked from making bids when the Commerce Commission successfully appealed against a High Court ruling that such bids could be made.
However, on October 9 The Warehouse blew that out of the water by deciding to stop the move it had made into supermarket retailing with its Warehouse Extra concept. While analysts have speculated that one or both of the supermarket companies will reapply for Commerce Commission approval, they are wrong. Neither party will, because neither party now believes it needs to.
The commission's argument had been that independent Extra could lead to increased competition in the supermarket sector. But Extra is now being wound down and the hurdle is gone. The Warehouse is well under way with plans for the three Extra stores to be converted simply into normal Red Shed general merchandising stores. The company has put the exit and restructuring costs at $10m to $12m before tax but says the move will lead to annualised pre-tax improvements in operating earnings of about $9m. With Extra out of the way both Woolworths and Foodstuffs are keen to strike a deal with Tindall. But price is the big snag.
Before the commission blocked any takeover Woolworths had indicated it was prepared to offer $7.15 a share for The Warehouse. The Australian company paid $6.50 a share for its 10 percent stake, compared with Foodstuff's entry price for its 10 percent holding of about $5 a share.
Doubtless both supermarket companies will now be arguing conditions have changed enormously since 2006 and therefore any acquisition of The Warehouse should be at a much lower price level. The Warehouse stock has been hovering under $4 recently.
From Tindall's perspective, however, there is little reason to rush. He does not have to sell and he will hold out for what he sees as the right price, still likely to be about $8. It appears unlikely any deal will be reached before Christmas and, indeed, Tindall will probably want to see how The Warehouse handles its most crucial trading period in what are truly awful times for retailers.
Shareholders are likely to get a brief update at the annual meeting on latest trading. However, this will probably not add much to the $322.4m first-quarter sales figures presented to the market on November 7.
Both on an overall and same-store basis, the figures were down 1.6 percent on the same time a year ago. Other major retailers such as Briscoe Group and Hallenstein Glasson have actually reported much bigger drops than this recently - Briscoe down 8 percent and Hallenstein Glasson nearly 7 percent lower. As a store that grew up in relatively tough times in the 1980s and 1990s, The Warehouse would rate its chances of holding, and perhaps even increasing, its market share during the downturn.
Relatively robust Christmas trading figures would provide Tindall further ammunition with which to drive up any takeover bids. The likelihood remains that a deal will be done, possibly more toward the middle of next year.
Woolworths and Foodstuffs would still be able to raise the cash despite the credit crunch. Woolworths may ultimately be the more desperate to bolster its position in New Zealand since anecdotally it is still losing supermarket share to Foodstuffs.
In 2006 pretty much all the shareholders present at The Warehouse's annual meeting believed that it would be the last one. Three meetings on nobody will want to be so bold as to definitely say this will be the last time - but it really might be.