Ackman Investment in Chipotle At 3x Sales Is Far From A Bargain

I have written previously about how I do not find shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) very compelling in the 400’s and recently we learned that Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman has taken a near 10% stake in the company. This move seems odd to me for a couple of reasons. First, the restaurant business is pretty straightforward, so it is unlikely Ackman engaging with CMG’s board is going to result in a dramatic strategic shift or business model pivot. I guess they could start franchising units, but that’s hardly a bombshell idea.

Second, and even more importantly from an investing standpoint, is the price Ackman is paying for a restaurant chain. At roughly 3 times this year’s projected sales of $4 billion, investors in CMG at current prices are not getting a very good deal. Before the company’s health-related issues, CMG was earnings a very impressive 21% EBITDA margin. The owned unit restaurant industry (as opposed to franchising-based) typically fetch about 8 times EBITDA in the public markets. Some quick math tells us CMG should trade around 1.7 times annual revenue. And that is before operating expenses increase due to new food safety procedures that CMG has now implemented. As a result, it is quite possible that the “new normal” for CMG is an EBITDA margin of less than 20%.

Many fans of Chipotle would likely argue that the company should trade at a premium valuation to the industry due to below-averageĀ build-out costs, above-average unit economics, and a reasonably loyal customer base. Okay, fine. Let’s give CMG a 50% premium and say it is worth 12 times EBITDA instead of 8 times (too high in my mind, but at least the case can be made). Even at the company’s old margin levels, investors would value CMG stock at 2.5 times annual sales, or about 15% below current levels.

It is really hard to see how Ackman sees this investment playing out, or how he thinks he can really move the needle by speaking with management. Customers are going to have to come back in droves to justify CMG shares trading at $500 or $600 per share. I love their food, but color me skeptical.

Full Disclosure: No position in CMG at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

One thought on “Ackman Investment in Chipotle At 3x Sales Is Far From A Bargain”

  1. I think the market is assuming that customers WILL return in droves.

    There is some precedence here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1993_Jack_in_the_Box_E._coli_outbreak. If Jack in the box can and did recover, why can’t CMG?

    It was an idiosyncratic and a fixable problem, not a secular or unfixable problem.

    I think CMG is a much more resilient brand than Jack in the Box in terms of the overall value (food quality/taste, speed, price), and of course has excellent unit economics. I just don’t think people will be talking about “2015 Chiptole Ecoli incidents” in 2019 or 2021.

    The fuel that propelled CMG’s success – which in my opinion was due to the overall value proposition (food quality/taste, speed, price) – haven’t vanished unless you believe that CMG’s food safety in consumer’s minds will always be front and center or that consumers will refuse to eat at CMG in 2019 or 2021 because of problems in 2015.

    I continue to see CMG as an excellent value proposition from a customer’s perspective, at least in my age cohort (millennials). There’s simply no better food to be had (taste and quality wise) for less than $7 and the 2015 food incidents don’t change it.

    What if we see a future in which the customer returns and CMG doubles the number of locations in USA?

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