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Value Idea Contest: QUAD/Graphics

QUAD/Graphics trades at twice estimated owner earnings. Ongoing depreciation of fixed assets depresses reported GAAP earnings. The acquisition of LSC Communications is likely to boost free cash flow

January 02, 2019 | About:

At $12.50, QUAD/Graphics Inc. (NYSE:QUAD) was first submitted for GuruFocus.com's value contest in 2012. It took 14 months for the stock to hit $25, so my younger self was denied the $1,000 prize. At the risk of appearing more obstinate than original, I am submitting QUAD a third time. The company has further improved its competitve position, and the stock is once again absurdly cheap.

Business and history

Quad/Graphics provides commercial printing and distribution services. This industry is highly fragmented with many thousands of companies and total revenue of $75 billion in the U.S. The four largest printing companies in the U.S. account for less than 15% of total revenue.

Since becoming publicly traded in 2010, QUAD has acquired former giants of the industry Quebecor and Vertis. It is currently in the process of acquiring LSC (formerly RR Donnelley). Cenveo, the other major competitor with similar scale, filed for bankruptcy a year ago. It has been a bloodbath since I first wrote about the industry. With its efficient network of printing facilities, Quad/Graphics has emerged as the clear winner and consolidator.

Competitive advantages

In a nutshell, it is cheaper to transport bytes than it is to transport tons of paper.

Anyone can buy the equipment to print and bind a magazine or book, which explains why the printing industry is so fragmented. The workflow of a typical printing company is known as print-and-distribute. With its network of facilities, Quad/Graphics can and does electronically distribute a given job and produces the printed matter as near as possible to the point of final delivery. This is known as distribute-and-print. It is both cheaper and faster for anyone who needs to have a book, magazine or insert distributed on a national scale.

QUAD locations

On a unit level, the cost of printing a magazine like Better Homes and Gardens is roughly 50 cents. Of that, 35 cents are the cost of the paper and 5 cents are for ink. The printer gets 10 cents for his work and the cost of maintaining his equipment. For its part, the USPS charges between 20 cents and $1.00 for delivering that magazine. The price depends on how the magazine is delivered to the Sectional Center Facility (SCF).

A printer who delivers a pallet of correctly sorted printed matter directly at the SCF nearest to the destination saves the customer more on postage than the entire cost of production. Of course, the USPS would much prefer if that pallet carried all commercial printed matter stacked according to the mailman's route. With the pending merger of LSC communications and QUAD, the industry moves closer to making that happen.


Not only does QUAD have a network of facilities, the company has rotogravure presses. Rotogravure presses are expensive high-volume machines that can print high-quality images and text on cheap paper. On a rotogravure press, the only liquid that touches the paper is ink. On the more common offset press, the area not covered in ink is covered with a thin film of water. This water turns cheap paper into mush. QUADs ability to use cheaper and lighter paper reduces both production and distribution costs.


One intelligent definition of the owner earnings of a business is the amount of excess cash that business can return to shareholders or use to pay down debt while maintaining its competitive position.

From 2012 to 2017, Quad/Graphics spent roughly $350 million on dividends and $1.5 billion retiring debt (average of $300 million per annum). That’s a significant amount of excess cash for a company with a market cap of $600 million. From the perspective of the outright owner, the shares offer a 50% annual yield (2x owner earnings).

From the perspective of an LBO artist, the company has an incremental debt capacity of $1.5 billion. One could theoretically acquire QUAD for $750 billion (that’s $15 per share) and saddle the company with $1.5 billion of incremental debt for a quick 100% profit.

In sum, the shares are absurdly cheap.

Debt capacity

LSC merger and outlook

As mentioned, QUAD/Graphics is acquiring LSC communications. LSC is the former commercial printing business of RR Donnelley. LSC also has a significant publishing capability. Under the terms of the merger, five shares of LSC will be exchanged for three new shares of QUAD/Graphics. LSC generates roughly $200 million worth of free cash flow on $3 billion worth of revenue. Roughly speaking, the acquisition increases QUAD’s share count by three-fifths and its free cash flow by four-fifths.

Another way to put it is that the combined company has a pro-forma market cap of $900 million and estimated free cash flow of about $500 million. That is assuming management fails to find synergies. Though it is not critical to the thesis, it is almost certain that the merger of LSC and QUAD will come with a number of opportunities to reduce fixed and operational costs.

Financial strength

LSC and QUAD each have about $75 million of annual interest expense. That is manageable in light of the fact that as a pair, QUAD and LSC earn $500 worth of free cash flow. Assuming zero profit for LSC, QUAD alone can handle an extra $75 million worth of interest expense.

In sum, the company services its debt with ease.


For decades, the Quadracci family has run Quad/Graphics for the benefit of shareholders. Many shareholders are (former) employees. Joel Quadracci is CEO and has been for a decade or so. He earns about $1 million, which is a bit less than the salary of Thomas Quinlan, the CEO of LSC and significantly less than the salary of Daniel R. Knotts, the CEO of RR Donnelley. Mr. Quadracci has roughly 12 times his annual salary tied up in stock. Quadracci has a balanced approach to capital allocation, with a focus on the reduction of the debt incurred in the various acquisitions and paying approximately 25% of free cash flow out as dividends. As debt is reduced, the dividend is increased.

Since 2010, QUAD has grown revenue by 30% while decreasing fixed assets by 40%. Employee count is also down 20%. Operationally speaking, a printing press worth $35,000 now generates $100,000 worth of annual revenue. This depreciation of redundant fixed assets is what has depressed reported GAAP earnings relative to free cash flow. The printing business is perceived to be a high fixed-cost business. If QUAD is a high-fixed cost business, then Amazon is a high fixed-cost business too. Amazon needs $30,000 worth of fixed assets to generate $100,000 worth of revenue.

Asset turnover

In essence, Quadracci has acquired the revenue, relations and contracts of his former competitors and moved that workload to QUAD's existing network of plants, increasing asset utilisation and efficiency in the process. One network is enough and as discussed in previous articles, QUAD has the most efficient network in the industry.

Specific risk

Of course the commercial printing industry is in decline. It has been for decades and it is expected to decline even further. QUAD’s market share is still less than 10%, though, so there’s room to take market share as smaller competitors fail. As noted, Cenveo is struggling, as is the remainder of RR Donnelley.

Quad/Graphics is highly dependent on the United States Postal Service. Of course, the reverse is also true. Any disruptive change at the USPS could have a significant effect on QUAD’s business model.

Market risk: the integration of LSC and QUAD will cause some one-time frictional costs that might spook investors.


This is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. This is an expression of my views about QUAD/Graphics with an intent of engaging in intelligent discussion about the company and its stock. At the time of writing, I owned stock of QUAD/Graphics and held no position in any other stock mentioned.

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Enterprising investors might consider the stock of LSC. Assuming that company maintains its quarterly dividend until the deal closes, one is acquiring QUAD stock at a meaningfull discount to its already depressed current price.

About the author:

I define intrinsic value as the price I would gladly pay to own the business outright. With current management in place. For most stocks, that value is 0. I can be reached at batbeer AT hotmail DOT com.

Visit batbeer2's Website

Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote)



Maartenpieters - 1 month ago    Report SPAM

Happy new year.

Good to see you writing again! (no coincidence ofcourse with dropping share prices).

QUAD estimates synergies at 135m (for which they expect to incur one time costs of 135m):

Is expected to close in mid-2019, and be accretive to earnings, excluding non-recurring integration costs. Net synergies are expected to be approximately $135 million, and will be achieved in less than two years and result in substantial additional Free Cash Flow generation.


The option to build a position via LSC is also very interesting indeed. Chances that the transaction will fail are really small in my opinion. As it is a very fragmented industry there are likely limited roadblocks related to competition law. Closing of the transaction is also not contingent on financing.

Off-topic: do you still own NTP? Also getting cheap once again, while they made significant progress. Only thing which is a negative for me is that Mr. Koo is no longer running the show.

Batbeer2 premium member - 1 month ago

Hi Maarten,

De beste wensen.

Thanks for chiming in. Yes, management has been quite specific about the amount they expect to save post merger. We shall see. I totally agree about the industry being fragmented and regulators not seeing much reason to block the merger. Also I don't think many customers will be complaining. Most likely it will be viewed as a win-win. Again, we shall see. QUAD is priced for total and certain disaster (merger or no merger) and I don't see how that's reasonable.

No, it is not a coincidence that I'm writing more. It has been a while since I had more ideas than cash.

I no longer own Nam Tai but it is on my radar. The price is interesting. I like it a lot less without Koo and a bit less because the balance sheet is more bricks and less cash. That is not a bad thing per se but it is somewhat tougher to value for someone with no boots on the ground in Shenzhen (like myself). But if it gets cheap enough....

Liberty Global too is worth a look IMHO. $15B market cap and Vodafone has bid $22B for the German operation. $12B of that is cold cash so by my reckoning you're paying $15B-$12B=$3B for $3B of excess cash flow. (the remaining UK operation generates $3B of cash flow after interest expense and maintenance capex). Oh, and you get the Belgian and Dutch subs thrown in for good measure. I have some work to do on that one though; you might be reading about it here....

You ask if I own Nam Tai. Well, you can always see what I own on my profile. My consecutive portfolios are called "Conservative Investments I", II, III etc. You can see what I own now and what I used to own (back to 2009). We could discuss any of those stocks. I continue tracking all of them.

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