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Holly LaFon
Holly LaFon
Articles (7645) 

Baron Opportunity Fund First Quarter 2017 Shareholder Letter

Overview of quarter and stock holdings

Dear Baron Opportunity Fund Shareholder:

Performance

Baron Opportunity Fund (the “Fund”) had a strong first quarter, rising 15.09% (Institutional Shares). The Fund outperformed both the Russell 3000 Growth Index, which advanced 8.63%, and the S&P 500 Index, which rose 6.07%.

Review & Outlook

The Fund has had a strong start to 2017. Paraphrasing what I wrote in January for my last letter, the mere act of opening the new calendar seemingly provoked a backflip in market sentiment and leadership, reversing the earlier swivel triggered by the presidential election result. In a manner of speaking, we have witnessed a “reversion to the mean” of what prevailed before the election and speculation took over concerning what sectors would benefit from the Trump presidency. In November and December 2016, we rejected engaging in speculation and chasing the sectors that were then leading the market, but chose to remain on our path of emphasizing the businesses and secular megatrends that we believe will drive long-term growth regardless of the underlying political or economic environment. The Fund’s performance this quarter reinforces our conviction that this was the right call.

The market is now digesting the failure of the ACA “repeal and replace” legislation and what it means for the U.S. health care industry; murky, if not completely opaque, information on what a corporate-tax reform bill might look like and the likelihood and timing of it passing both houses of Congress; the escalating quagmire of Syria; and the Congressional and FBI investigations into the Russian hacking of the 2016 election and all the entangled political scandals. On the economic front, the U.S. economy is growing at a solid, albeit slower-than-pre-crisis rate, unemployment is approaching “full employment” levels and the Federal Reserve is signaling a slow but steady normalization of interest rates. As I have written many times, while we attempt to stay abreast of politics, economics and international events, we do not try in any way to predict the unpredictable in these areas or trade on the short-term poll results that they might drive through the market voting machine.

What we do know is that the secular innovation trends we focus on are more powerful than ever. These generational, paradigm or tectonic shifts are imposing major changes across industries and society. Indeed, every legacy software company – IBM, Microsoft and Oracle – is now claiming to be a cloud software vendor. Every decades-old automobile manufacturer is launching electric vehicles and deploying, developing or acquiring autonomous driving technology. Every legacy media company, as well as the telco’s and cable companies, are struggling to join the digital age of on-demand content and people-based targeted advertising (note Verizon’s acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo and ATT’s of DirecTV).

We are in the dawning stages of a new age of digital services that might be called the “intelligence,” “algorithmic,” or “big data” era. In the analog world, the moment you take a product out of the store it begins to lose value and, over time, decline in usefulness. But today’s digital services get better the more they are used – more use (and users) yields more data which is captured and analyzed to improve the service – rinse and repeat.

  • Google has occupied the virtuous cycle of more searches, better-tuned algorithms, more relevant results, more searches.
  • Facebook tracks your engagement and learns what content and ads you prefer in your news feed.
  • Netflix tracks everything you watch and learns what types of movies and shows you like and makes more precise recommendations each time you sign on.
  • Tesla’s Autopilot gets better and better the more miles it drives. To be sure, even the Barclays analyst, a bear on Tesla, conceded in his April 6th note: “Tesla has pioneered the ‘software driven car,’ and with an advanced electrical/data architecture, ample on-board processing power, and cyber-secure OTA (over the air) capabilities, it is able to move rapidly to update and evolve cars on the road.”
  • Modern connected software – like Guidewire, ServiceNow or Salesforce – gets smarter and better the more it is used and the more data it processes, and can provide users with predictive analytics that guides them to make business decisions that yield improved outcomes.
  • Amazon knows every product you consider or buy and suggests replenishment purchases and/or new products you might be interested in. I recently viewed a presentation by Professor Scott Galloway of NYU where he posited that pretty soon Amazon would send you two boxes a week – one containing the products it thinks you want and one in which you can return the ones you don’t. One day Amazon’s personalized predictions might get so precise that only a single box will arrive at your door!

We believe another benefit of the Fund is that it is an all-cap fund and we can invest in these trends up and down the market cap spectrum. Acxiom is helping to drive the shift to people-based advertising by enabling enterprises to bring their own customer data securely in a privacy-compliant manner to ad platforms in order to better target their own customers and to find new customers that look like their best ones. Wix, the global leader in do-it-yourself websites, recently rolled out its latest innovation of artificial intelligence (AI) website creation – Wix ADI (Artificial Design Intelligence) – where a new user answers a few questions about their business and Wix automatically designs the first draft of a website. This should vastly improve conversion rates because it addresses the all-too-human psychological trait of having a hard time just getting started (sometimes called “analysis paralysis”). Over time, the more websites Wix automatically designs, and the more it watches how its users modify the initial drafts, Wix’s ADI website generation should get better and better.

Below is our more inclusive list of the powerful secular themes in which we invest:

  • Cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS)
  • Mobile
  • Big data and analytics
  • Digital (Internet-delivered) media
  • E-commerce
  • Genetics
  • Electronic medical records
  • Minimally-invasive surgical procedures
  • Targeted digital advertising
  • Cybersecurity
  • Electric drive vehicles and autonomous driving
  • Electronic payments

By pinpointing innovative businesses capitalizing on these potent secular trends, we have been able to build portfolios that consistently deliver top-line growth rates that are orders of magnitude above the general economy, as reflected in broad market indexes. Below we show the revenue growth rates of the S&P 500 Index, the Russell 3000 Index, and the Russell 3000 Growth Index as compared to our portfolio for the first, second, third and fourth quarters of 2016:

Shares of electric vehicle company Tesla, Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) rose during the first quarter on the back of several positive developments. In January, Tesla officially launched cell and battery production at the Gigafactory, one of the world’s largest manufacturing facilities, which will potentially drive significant electric battery cost reductions. On its fourth quarter earnings call, Tesla forecast 47,000 to 50,000 first half deliveries of its Model S and X vehicles, an increase of 65%. Moreover, Tesla announced that it remains on target for a 2017 launch of its mass market Model 3, potentially the largest product cycle in history, with initial production slated to begin this summer. In March, Tesla raised almost $1.4 billion of capital, strengthening its balance sheet to support investments ahead of the Model 3 launch. Additionally, the company’s SolarCity acquisition is on track, showing less cash drain than initially feared by investors. Finally, we believe a pro-U.S. jobs administration is a tailwind for Tesla as it is one of North America’s fastest growing employers. (Ishay Levin/Gilad Shany)

Shares of Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN), the world’s largest retailer and cloud services provider, rose during the first quarter after the company reported strong financial results. Amazon continues to benefit from its flywheel strategy, where more participation from Prime members drives greater loyalty and purchasing on Amazon.com. Indeed, according to recent surveys, Amazon captured 53% of U.S. e-commerce sales growth in 2016 (EMarketer, Inc.) and a full 55% of U.S. online shoppers begin their product discovery right on Amazon’s site (Activate Tech and Media Outlook). Moreover, Amazon is the world’s dominant provider of cloud computing services, with its Amazon Web Services (AWS) segment achieving an over $14 billion run rate and still growing almost 50%. We believe AWS will be a significant incremental contributor to Amazon’s overall value creation. Finally, the company also continues to invest in new and potentially large business opportunities, such as TV content, voice-controlled services (Echo and Alexa), digital advertising, e-finance, business supplies and apparel. (Ashim Mehra)

Shares of Mobileye N.V. (NYSE:MBLY), maker of vision-based advanced driver assistance systems, rose in the first quarter in response to Intel’s offer to acquire the company. We have long believed in the potential for Mobileye to become the “Intel Inside” of cars of the future. We think Mobileye’s entrepreneurial management team has clear goals that can benefit society, and we look forward to its product development around semi-autonomous and autonomous driving. (Gilad Shany)

Shares of Glaukos Corporation (NYSE:GKOS), a pioneer of minimally-invasive products and procedures for the treatment of glaucoma, were up in the first quarter due to strong financial results that beat Street expectations, with revenues growing 64%. The company also raised 2017 guidance and announced favorable Medicare reimbursement. Glaukos’ products and procedures are currently approved for only a subset of the market. We believe the company will continue to deliver strong growth as its product coverage broadens. (Josh Riegelhaupt)

Shares of P&C insurance software vendor Guidewire Software, Inc. (NYSE:GWRE) were up in the first quarter. Guidewire is the leading P&C core systems vendor, as evidenced by near-perfect retention rates, growing installed base, and accelerating adoption. The company is early in its core system replacement cycle, and has tripled its addressable market through new products and cloud delivery. We believe that Accenture’s new relationship with Guidewire will help to enhance pricing and win rates and shorten sales cycles. (Neal Rosenberg)

Shares of athletic apparel company Under Armour, Inc. (NYSE:UA) declined in the first quarter after the company reported fourth quarter revenues and earnings and provided 2017 guidance that missed Street expectations. Increased promotional activity in the athletic apparel space, improved competitor positioning and the bankruptcy of Sports Authority is pressuring UA’s wholesale business. We exited our remaining UA shares during the quarter. (Michael Baron)

Shares of benefits software vendor Benefitfocus, Inc. (NASDAQ:BNFT) were down in the quarter after the company reported 2017 guidance that was lower than analysts expected. We are aware of several short-term headwinds, including longer-than-expected implementation periods for large national accounts (resulting in delayed revenue recognition of these sizable deals), slower employer signings because of a sales restructuring (which created the national account team) and uncertainty in the market due to the political situation surrounding the Affordable Care Act. While we believe these headwinds will weigh on reported growth through mid-2017, we don’t believe they impact the significant long-term opportunity. (Neal Rosenberg)

Zillow Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:ZG) is the leading online real estate company in the U.S. Shares were down after the company gave a 2017 profit outlook that missed Street expectations, due to strategic investments and what we believe are conservative expectations for the revenue impact of several recently launched new products. We believe these products will meaningfully drive Zillow’s revenue capture of real estate advertising and will increase in their impact as we move through 2017. As the leader in a highly fragmented market, we think Zillow remains well positioned to continue to grow its market share. (Ashim Mehra)

Proofpoint, Inc. (NASDAQ:PFPT) offers cloud-based cybersecurity and archiving tools to help companies protect assets such as e-mail, cloud software applications and social media. Shares fell in the first quarter due primarily, in our view, to a Street analyst downgrade that raised concerns regarding potential increased competition from Microsoft Office 365’s built-in e-mail capabilities and risks of a deceleration of billing growth. We retain conviction in Proofpoint’s growth drivers, including the importance of e-mail in today’s workflow, the increasing need to protect against social engineering attacks, McAfee displacement, migration to Office 365 and growing channel partner programs. (Ishay Levin)

Synchrony Financial (NYSE:SYF), the largest issuer of private label credit cards in the U.S., reported better-than-expected financial results with 12% growth in receivables, 13% growth in net interest income and significant margin expansion. However, the stock underperformed due to increasing concerns over consumer credit and broader underperformance of bank stocks, reversing their significant outperformance in the aftermath of the election. We continue to own the stock because we believe credit losses will be manageable and that the company has a long runway for profitable growth. (Josh Saltman)

Portfolio Structure

The Fund invests in high-growth, innovative businesses across all market capitalizations. As of the end of the first quarter, the largest market cap holding in the Fund was $579.4 billion and the smallest was $858 million.

The median market cap of the Fund was $14.6 billion. The Fund had $221.2 million of assets under management. The Fund had investments in 46 securities. The Fund’s top 10 positions accounted for 45.3% of the portfolio.

The Fund initiated a new position in SS&C Technologies Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ:SSNC) during the quarter. SS&C is a leading provider of mission-critical software products and services that allow financial service companies to automate and outsource business processes. SS&C offers a vast portfolio of applications and services for portfolio management and accounting, financial modeling, trading, treasury management, and in particular, fund administration. The company’s products offer critical functionality to users, carry high ROIs relative to internally-developed software or paper-based processes, and are needed to meet regulatory requirements. We were able to acquire shares at attractive prices during the quarter due to market concerns about the health of the company’s hedge fund administration business. We believe that SS&C is poised to generate accelerating organic growth as it benefits from its enhanced scale and an improved competitive environment in the fund administration space, cross-sells products and services to its dramatically expanded customer base, and focuses on revenue growth from the integration of the Advent, Citi and Wells Fargo’s fund administration services, Conifer and Primatics acquisitions. SS&C now has a business that will generate almost $500 million per year in free cash flow, which opens up optionality around capital deployment, including continued M&A activity, deleveraging and a potential return of capital to shareholders.

We initiated a position in Wix.com Ltd. (WIX) during the quarter. Wix is the global leader in the do-it-yourself website building market, with 100 million registered users and 2.5 million premium subscribers. In addition to website building, Wix provides micro-businesses with tools to run their businesses, including marketing, scheduling and relationship management, among others, while charging them only about $13 a month on average. Wix’s growth is driven by extending its horizontal and vertical features as well as increasing the number of targeted verticals, such as hotels, restaurants, e-commerce and photographers. As highlighted above, Wix’s product innovation drives increasing conversion rates and enables Wix to increase its wallet share. The source of Wix’s competitive edge is its brand name and marketing reach along with its technological lead resulting in faster iteration with first-to-market features and vertical offerings. Wix’s subscription business model yields strong cohort economics, creating a predictable and a profitable business model (acquire a cohort once, get subscriptions forever). We believe Wix has major upside as it continues to innovate and convert an increasing number of businesses to premium subscribers.

We initiated a position in Varonis Systems, Inc. (VRNS) this quarter. Varonis helps organizations manage and protect their unstructured human-generated data (think office documents, PDFs, etc.) through a unique mouse trap – a proprietary software engine that captures, stores and analyzes the metadata of files in real time. We like to think that Varonis is doing inside the enterprise what Google is doing over the internet – if you have an easy way to index every file and track its use, you can provide high value-add services. One of these important services is insider threat protection. Varonis enables information technology managers to understand, in real time, where their data is, who has access to it and how it’s being used. This service has proven to be a highly effective tool in combatting the growing problem of ransomware. This has been one of the fundamental growth drivers for the company over the last year. Varonis has additional products and services, which we believe over time it will be able to sell into their existing and new customers. We believe Varonis plays in a large market with strong growth trends and benign competition. We like the pace of innovation and execution of the company and its consistency and look forward to seeing more from team Varonis in the future.

We recently established a position in Proofpoint, Inc. (NASDAQ:PFPT). We believe it is addressing a large market opportunity through its leading cloud-based cybersecurity and archiving platform, enabling companies to protect assets such as e-mail, cloud software applications and social media. We believe Proofpoint is positioned to gain market share as customers rethink their security architecture following deployments of new cloud applications, such as Office365, as well as the rising complexity of the IT environment and the evolving cyber-threat landscape. In addition, we believe the recently announced partnerships with vendors such as Palo Alto, Splunk and McAfee should provide the company additional opportunity for accelerated growth. Lastly, we expect the company to continue to use the data it collects to create improved threat protection products, and to leverage its strong brand and customer relationships to cross- and up-sell these enhanced solutions into its expanding customer base.

We initiated a position in Synchrony Financial, the largest provider of private label credit cards in the U.S. Synchrony partners with leading retailers such as Lowe’s, Walmart, and Amazon to offer their customers credit products to finance the purchase of goods and services. These partnerships are win-win-win since merchants benefit from higher sales and stronger customer loyalty, customers enjoy access to credit and promotional offers, and Synchrony earns attractive margins and returns on capital. We believe that Synchrony will be a prime beneficiary of the secular growth of private label credit cards, which is growing 2 to 3 times faster than overall retail sales and has a long runway for growth given that private label represents only 3% of total card spending in the U.S. Synchrony is the largest player in a consolidated industry with meaningful barriers to entry, including economies of scale, the importance of marketing expertise, close integration with merchants and long-term contracts. The company has significant excess capital and is a full U.S. taxpayer, so there’s upside potential from capital deployment and corporate tax reform. Synchrony has a long track record of success under GE’s prior ownership that we believe will continue for many more years.

The above-listed sales of Alphabet Inc., Equinix, Inc. and Amazon.com, Inc. were merely trims, as all three stocks performed well in the quarter, in order to fund other purchases and the low level of Fund redemptions we experienced during the first quarter. Amazon remained the Fund’s largest position, Alphabet (Google) a top 10 position, and Equinix a top 20 position.

We trimmed Mobileye N.V. after the announcement of its acquisition by Intel.

We sold about half of our Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (MLNX) position after the company reported a weaker-than-expected fourth quarter and gave first quarter guidance that also missed expectations. In 20/20 hindsight our sale was hasty and in error. As we dug in, we came to the conclusion that the short-term pressure on sales was merely due to timing and certain product transitions. We did not wish to compound our error, and we added back to our position even as the shares recovered. We remain quite confident in the opportunity ahead of Mellanox and its ability to capture it.

To conclude, I believe wholeheartedly in the strategy of the Fund: growth based on powerful, long-term, innovation-driven secular growth trends. In the highly uncertain world we live in, we believe non-cyclical, sustainable, and resilient growth should be part of investors’ portfolios.

Sincerely,

Michael A. Lippert

Portfolio Manager

The discussions of the companies herein are not intended as advice to any person regarding the advisability of investing in any particular security. The views expressed in this report reflect those of the respective portfolio managers only through the end of the period stated in this report. The portfolio manager’s views are not intended as recommendations or investment advice to any person reading this report and are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions and Baron has no obligation to update them.


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