Thursday, August 26, 2010

Goldfinger's filings, a customer's toolkit (Musings on business intelligence)

Updated: 28 Jan. 2017 (Fixed broken links)
This blog's thesis is only slightly tongue in cheek but its title definitively is. The title derives from the ubiquitous toolkits*, currently found everywhere in transfusion practice, and the 1964 James Bond movie, Goldfinger in which the eponymous character is obsessed with gold, much like private companies are focussed on profits, albeit not usually with the same gleeful fervour as a sinister villain.

As an aside, Goldfinger has special memories for me because I saw the film in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1965. We had to buy tickets ahead of time (none sold at the door) and catch much of the dialogue by reading the French sub-titles (goodness knows why) due to the uproarious cheering of the audience at every Sean Connery feat. We were told that television was only on for a few hours each day and movies were incredibly popular.

*Toolkit examples:
By happenstance I came across the SEC Form 10-K Annual report for Immucor, a blood industry supplier of automated instruments and reagents. The Form 10-K reports, which public companies file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, offer comprehensive business overviews of a registrant's business, such as history, competitors, risk factors, legal proceedings.

Now before your eyes glaze over, if you work in the blood system in any capacity, I highly recommend that you take a peek at these fascinating reports. In a way, it's akin to industrial espionage, i.e., gaining access to information about a company’s plans, products, clients, and trade secrets in order to gain insights and predict their actions, including marketing strategies and sales pitches.

Normally it's competitors who engage in industrial espionage, but if you buy a company's products and services, you can potentially use the information to your advantage. Spying is illegal if the information is private but, since the SEC records are public, it's all above board and fair game.

Donning our sleuth caps, let's examine just a few aspects of the business intelligence that's publicly available in Immucor's July 2010 SEC filing and how it can be used to advantage by potential clients.

The specific information is most relevant to those in the lab but the lessons can be applied to dealing with any sales representative and related marketing, advertising, and selling strategies targetted to your profession.

Immucor's SEC 10-K report merely serves as an example. To all my sales rep friends and colleagues, as they say in the Godfather films, "It's not personal. It's strictly business."

Reality is that companies spend considerable time and effort getting to know potential customers and understand their likes, dislikes, wants and needs. Think of those free wine and cheese parties, dinners, and tour-the-bay cruises you've attended at conferences. They weren't just to create goodwill. Similarly, customers can benefit from knowing how companies think and what tools they will probably use to get you to buy.

Here's a mini-toolkit to get you started. Quoted text is from Immucor's SEC Form 10-K report (23 July 2010).

1. AUTOMATION

"Our strategy is to drive automation in the blood bank."

MUSINGS

Obviously, automation must be strongly promoted, since it is in Immucor's interest to sell its instruments and automated ("capture") reagents. As mentioned in an earlier blog, the latter have one of the highest gross profit margins in the industry, 80.2% in Immucor's 3rd quarter for 2010.

From a client's perspective, profits in the range of 80% may seem excessive. But profits are the primary purpose of private enterprises. From the company's perspective, the higher the profit the more they will be able to
  • pay shareholders
  • raise additional financing
  • survive in hard times
  • invest in R&D that can develop new products and lead to continued or increased profits.
However, to drive automation and increase profit, automation must be seen not as a way to increase profits, but as a way for clients to save money while improving safety.

Hence the comapany's sales pitch:

"We believe our customers...benefit from automation. Automation can allow customers to reduce headcount as well as overtime in the blood bank, which can be a benefit given the current shortage of qualified blood bank technologists.

We also believe that automation can improve patient safety, can increase operational efficiency and, for customers such as integrated delivery networks with multiple blood banks, can permit the standardization of best practices.

For Immucor, automation allows us to gain market share and secure a long-term, contractual relationship with our customers."

MUSINGS

On the safety issue, while it may be true (or not), is there published evidence to support a decrease in life-threatening errors and resultant increase in patient safety after Immucor's automated instruments have been introduced in the transfusion service?

Don't ya' love "reduce headcount," an euphemism for eliminate staff, and interesting that it merits first place ahead of "improve patient safety."

About the "current shortage of qualified blood bank technologists", this largely happened because restructuring and regionalization with associated automation led to fewer jobs, which in turn led to closures of medical technology schools. Concurrently, at least in Canada, nurse and physician education programs were also decimated.

In Canada, in response to increased demand, more technologists (nurses and doctors) are now being trained, but a significant number of jobs for technology graduates continue to be part-time.

In a way, automation contributed to a shortage of "qualified blood bank technologists" and now automation is being promoted as a solution to the shortage. Say what?

Fact is that automation allows for less trained staff to perform routine work in the transfusion service and leads to fewer blood bank specialists. Isn't it having it both ways to say that automation now solves the problem that it intrinsically helped create?

In the past, I recall that Immucor promoted its automated instruments to transfusion services as a way to save ~1.5 staff members and to allow remaining staff to concentrate on more 'important stuff' for thinking technologists (i.e., humans) such as identifying antibodies.

In today's economic climate, I imagine that cost saving is still the main mantra of the sales reps, with patient safety tossed in as a 'feel good' justification for eliminating jobs.

With automation, it's worth considering what is actually happening, i.e, a transfer of money from people (staff) residing in a community (people who pay taxes, buy houses, shop and support local businesses, and contribute to community life) to generating profits for a large corporation situated elsewhere. Does this benefit society in the long run? Complicated question but I sometimes wonder.

Obviously those considering automation need to extensively analyse multiple factors between competitors such as
  • initial capital costs
  • ongoing maintenance and reagent costs
  • sensitivity and specificity (as applicable)
  • ease of use
  • ease of transition and implementation (impact on other processes & procedures)
  • redesign of physical layout, etc.
  • training requirements, and more
Potential clients should also consider Immucor's huge gross profit margins when negotiating reagent contracts. And it's worth remembering that those long-term contracts for reagents are where the money is. From the NEC submission:

"As of May 31, 2010, we had an instrument backlog of approximately 179 Echos and 43 Galileo/NEOs. This backlog represents instrument orders that have been received but the instruments have either not been installed or the customer validation process has not been completed.

As such, the instruments are not generating recurring reagent revenue at their expected annualized run rates. ....we had not recognized approximately $16.7 million in deferred revenue from instrument sales contracts that had reagent price protection and from extended warranty sales."

Note that Immucor considers extended sales contracts to have built-in reagent price protection. Did they mean protection for themselves or clients or both?.

#2. NEW PRODUCTS

Successful companies must continually innovate to create new products and generate new profits.

" For the fiscal years ended May 31, 2010...we spent approximately $15.4 million...for research and development. Research and development expenses have increased over the past three years due to the acquisition of BioArray...and the subsequent development work on our molecular immunohematology offering."

"In August 2008, we invested in what we believe will be the future of the blood bankmolecular immunohematology....With the goal of improving transfusion medicine, we believe that molecular immunohematology will revolutionize blood bank operations.

In many countries, blood pre-transfusion testing is limited to the prevention of transfusion reactions and not for the prevention of alloimmunization, which occurs when antigens foreign to the patient are inadvertently introduced into the patient’s blood system through transfusions. If alloimmunization occurs, the patient develops new antibodies in response to the foreign antigens, thereby complicating future transfusions.

By using multiplex, cost-effective molecular testing, our molecular technology allows testing to prevent alloimmunization for better patient care."

MUSINGS

In a consumer society, if a real need does not exist, companies try to create one.

So, can we now expect an onslaught of propaganda and industry-funded research to convince us that preventing alloimmunization is where it's at and what we should strive for?

My gut reaction is fuggedaboutit! But the writing is already on the wall:
#3. RISKS

Under "Risks", Immucor lists FDA "administrative action", governmental investigations and litigation, fluctuations in foreign currency, and more. Three that stood out:

(i) "A catastrophic event at our Norcross, Georgia facility would prevent us from producing many of our reagent products.

Substantially all our reagent products are produced in our Norcross facility.... and we currently have no plans to develop a third-party reagent manufacturing capability.

Therefore, if a catastrophic event occurred at the Norcross facility, such as a fire or tornado, many of those products could not be produced until the manufacturing portion of the facility was restored and cleared by the FDA.

We maintain a disaster plan to minimize the effects of such a catastrophe, and we have obtained insurance to protect against certain business interruption losses.

However, there can be no assurance that such coverage will be adequate or that such coverage will continue to remain available on acceptable terms, if at all."

MUSINGS: Despite a disaster plan to minimize effects (on clients and the bottom line?) the company's main worry seems to be that its insurance may not cover its losses.

Clients need to include a scenario with a possibly very long delay in obtaining reagents in their disaster plans. Think not only of time to restore production but also time to obtain FDA clearance on a restored facility.

(ii) "Gross margin volatility may negatively impact our profitability."

"Our gross margin may be volatile from period to period due to various factors, including instrument sales, reagent product mix and manufacturing costs....

The higher margins on the Capture reagents used on our instruments may not be enough to offset the lower margins on the instruments themselves...."

MUSINGS: Once again, the importance of Capture reagents to profits is emphasized. Immucor's gross profit margins for these reagents are among the highest in the business. When faced with, "Have I got a deal for you", best to think twice.

(iii) "If customers delay integrating our instruments into their operations, the growth of our business could be negatively impacted."

From time to time in the past, some of our customers have experienced significant delays between the purchase of an instrument and the time at which it has been successfully integrated into the customer’s existing operations and is generating reagent revenue at its expected annualized run rate. 
 

These delays may be due to a number of factors, including staffing and training issues and difficulties interfacing our instruments with the customer’s computer systems.

Because our business operates on a “razor/razorblade” model, such integration delays result in delayed purchases of the reagents used with the instrument.

A number of steps have mitigated these integration delays: improved performance of our field service staff, better instrument instructions, increased use of internet-based remote diagnostic tools, and more efficient scheduling of instrument installations....."

MUSINGS

Potential clients should note the reasons for delayed implementation and acknowledgement of the “razor/razorblade” business model.

A razor/razorblade model is the well established business tactic of selling dependent goods for different prices. The one-time product is sold at a discount, while the second dependent one for which repeated purchases are required, is sold at a considerably higher relative price. Think of the practically free razor but expensive replacement razor blades or the low priced video game console and its dependent high priced games.

4. COMPETITORS

"In the U.S. and Canada, Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics (“Ortho”), a Johnson & Johnson company, is our main competitor. In Western Europe, our principal competitors are Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc. (“Bio-Rad”) and Ortho. Both Ortho and Bio-Rad sell instrumentation as well as reagents. Our principal competitor in Japan is Ortho."

MUSINGS

There is not much competition in transfusion service / immunohematolgy automation, nor for reagents for non-automated testing. Immucor, along with its main US competitor, Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, is being investigated by the US Department of Justice concerning possible criminal violations of the antitrust laws.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, both are the subjects of several private civil suits by customers (hospitals) seeking class certification and alleging price fixing.

Anytime you have a market oligopoly, a virtual duopoly, allegations of collusion and price fixing are bound to occur, but they are almost impossible to prove. 

FURTHER BUSINESS INTELLIGENCE
For interest, a few more blood industry companies with SEC Form 10-K reports:
  • Johnson & Johnson (1 Mar. 2010) (parent company of Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics)
  • Tidbit in report (OCD has many more products besides reagents and automated instruments for pretransfusion blood testing)
  • "The Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics franchise achieved sales of $2.0 billion in 2009, a 6.6% increase over the prior year primarily attributable to the recent launch of the VITROS 3600 and 5600 analyzers."
  • Bio-Rad Laboratories (26 Feb. 2010)
  • Beckman Coulter (22 Feb. 2010)
  • Haemonetics (1 June 2010) - One tidbit (and are we surprised?):
  • "Our devices use single-use, proprietary consumables, and these consumable sales represent 87% of our total revenues."
BOTTOM LINE
You can discover many useful tidbits in SEC Form 10-K filings. These tidbits can be used to help customers decide on suppliers and to leverage information when negotiating contracts. I hope that this Goldfinger toolkit has given a few ideas.

For fun, here's the theme song from the Bond movie of the same name:
As always, the ideas are mine alone. Comments are most welcome BUT, due to excessive spam, please e-mail me personally or use the address in the newsletter notice.