Be wary of over-ambition

There are over 10,000 Carrefour-branded stores in 34 countries around the world. In Asia alone, the world's second-biggest retailer has over 370 outlets.

One of the first things chief executive Georges Plassat did when he took over in 2012 was to pull out of overseas operations in Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Greece.

In doing so, Plassat hoped to reverse the fortunes of a company whose shares have lost around two-thirds of their value this century. Carrefour's boss has blamed the group's poor performance in part on international over-extension under previous management.

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Supermarket giants including Carrefour, Britain's Tesco and Germany's Metro have learned that a winning formula at home doesn't necessarily translate into market domination overseas.

Corporate over-ambition can appear in many forms. Geographic expansion is one thing, but it's often tempting for companies to expand into areas outside their core expertise on the promise of steep growth and quick results. Sometimes companies grow so big they become impossible to run.

Banks in the US became too-big-to-manage after former President Bill Clinton repealed legislation in 1999 that had separated commercial and investment banking since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Rivals elsewhere followed suit and soon the fashionable accessory for any cashed-up and ambitious commercial bank was an investment banking division. Lax lending to consumers on the one hand, and speculative trading that nobody understood on the other, would come to define the boom years that eventually led to the 2008 global financial crisis.

The world would realise that too-big-to-manage would also mean too-big-to-fail, as countries almost bankrupted themselves trying to rescue failed financial institutions.

A key lesson was that bank bosses were oblivious to the risks they were exposed to. Their businesses had become too complicated.

Another form of over-ambition takes the form of over-diversification. A feature of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis was the number of companies that had become mini-conglomerates, usually by acquiring with borrowed money non-productive assets such as property or golf courses.

We dubbed this process "di-worsification".

In many such cases, the company had become little more than a vehicle for a hard-charging chief executive out for personal glory.

During Hong Kong's final days as a British colony the most talked-about investment bank in town wasn't Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. It was Peregrine Investments Holdings.

From 1988 to 1997, Peregrine became the largest stock underwriter in the city and a pioneer in the Asian junk bond market. Founder Philip Tose, a flamboyant former race car driver, endorsed a self-described "buccaneering" culture that favoured bold risk-taking, often at the expense of prudent management oversight.

The firm was forced into bankruptcy in January 1998 after a single loan to an Indonesian businessman went sour. It had lent one-third of its capital to this client as part of a bond underwriting agreement. Currency turmoil linked to the Asian financial crisis killed any chance of the loan being repaid.

Amazingly, despite significant improvements in corporate governance across the region, clearly over-confident companies keep on attracting outside money.

One Hong Kong-listed property developer with significant real estate investments in mainland China somehow deems it necessary to run a professional football club as well as movie production and distribution companies.

Its shares were trading below the November 2009 initial public offer price, as of November 2014.

Corporate ambition isn't a bad thing. In fact, investors should look for companies with sensible plans for business growth.

The trouble is, CEOs can be blinded by hubris and encouraged by a weak board. They often underestimate the cost of a merger or a trophy acquisition. It's particularly relevant when share prices are riding high or when debt is cheap.

Company management with delusions of overnight success should be treated with great scepticism. Aggressive growth may be seductive for investors but it often comes with a hidden price.

My idea of the perfect company is one whose earnings rise by 10 per cent to 15 per cent a year and this growth is accurately reflected in the share price.

It is perfect because this is a company you will never need to sell.

Hugh Young is managing director of Aberdeen Asset Management Asia Limited.

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