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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Aston Martin may not be quite as assured as James Bond amid IPO plan

Potential investors should resist getting caught up in the romance - Aston Martin is no Ferrari

An Aston Martin DB11 in a London showroom. Car maker is set to float on LSE. AFP
An Aston Martin DB11 in a London showroom. Car maker is set to float on LSE. AFP

Tech IPOs generate lots excitement, but for sheer theatre it helps to have something tangible – like a car.

When Ferrari sold shares to the public in 2015, it parked half a dozen of its most recognisable vehicles outside the New York Stock Exchange. This seemed to do the trick. Before long, the company’s shares were valued as highly as those of Prada.

You can bet Aston Martin will attempt something similar when it goes public in London later this year: James Bond’s DB5, the Valkyrie supercar, perhaps an Aston Martin submarine – it should be quite a show.

The car maker is open about its valuation ambitions, too. Chief financial officer Mark Wilson said he has Ferrari's premium valuation very much in mind.

Potential investors should resist getting caught up in the romance. The company’s recent return to form has been impressive, but Aston Martin is no Ferrari – at least, not yet.

First-half earnings, published on Wednesday, were respectable. If revenue rises in line with projected unit sales, the company should, on an optimistic estimate, generate about £253.9 million (Dh1.2 billion) of earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda) this year. Based on Ferrari's enterprise value, that should give Aston Martin a valuation of more than £5bn, including debt.

Is that appropriate? The company’s pitch to investors has some attractions. CEO Andy Palmer plans to more than double the number of cars he sells in the medium term and he thinks ebitda margins will widen to about 30 per cent, helped by a new 4x4 and high-priced special edition models.

Right now though, Aston Martin’s profit margins trail those of Ferrari – even with the benefit of some pretty helpful accounting. And not long ago Aston Martin was loss-making.

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Read more:

Aston Martin to float on London Stock Exchange in up to £5bn IPO

You too can be James Bond: Aston Martin is making 'new' DB5s

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These are by no means the only blemish on the vehicle. It’s questionable whether even Ferrari deserves its luxury valuation: car making is a capital intensive business that faces costly technological and regulatory challenges. Competition in the luxury car segment is intensifying, including in the 4x4 segment. It’s possible the weak sales and losses reported by Volkswagen’s Bentley unit are a sign its Bentayga hasn’t been a knock-out success.

With Brexit approaching, Aston Martin is also vulnerable to a decline in the pound or rise in trade frictions – it relies on Germany’s Daimler for supplies of engines and electronics. It also depends on the UK for about 30 per cent of sales. By contrast, the brand remains rather under-represented in Asia.

Its balance sheet isn’t the strongest, either. Most large car makers have a net cash position; Aston Martin had £570m of long-term debt and £170m of cash at the end of December (the most recent period for which figures are available). The IPO isn't going to change that much: the money raised in the offering will go to the company's Kuwaiti and private equity owners.

Aston Martin has had to come up with some clever ways to cope with these disadvantages. The 25 replica James Bond movie Goldfinger DB5s it is planning to build aren’t just a brand-building exercise, they are a cash cow too, as customers will put down a big deposit for the £2.75m vehicle well ahead of delivery. For that, you get revolving number plates.

The original DB5 that was used in the later Bond movie GoldenEye was sold for £2m this year at Bonham's Goodwood Festival Of Speed.

Aston Martin hopes its IPO will help the once serially loss-making car maker complete its rapid transformation.

But as the consummately polite Bond would surely agree, a little modesty would go a long way.

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