Why this small-cap ASX share can follow $6 billion rival

Nothing's a sure thing but one expert reckons he's found something special.

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What if you knew of a small-cap ASX share that was doing all the right things that its bigger rival did years ago?

If you could see how it could grow as big as the larger competitor, would you be tempted to buy in?

NovaPort Capital analyst Tim Binsted is certainly excited when he's fishing for small-cap "tiddlers that can grow into tomorrow's whales".

And he reckons he's just caught one.

"Laboratory and environmental services business HRL Holdings Ltd (ASX: HRL) is capitalised at just over $55 million and the journey of ASX-listed peer ALS Ltd (ASX: ALQ) — capitalised at more than $6 billion — gives some indication of the market opportunity."

A small-cap that's already profitable

A major upside of HRL, according to Binsted, is that it's in the black already.

"Unlike many early-stage businesses, HRL is already profitable," he said on the NovaPort blog.

"This meets a key criterion that NovaPort Capital looks for in emerging companies: cashflows that can fund growth without the downside risk associated with many high-growth, high cash-burn businesses."

Binsted showed a comparison of underlying earnings margins of HRL and its competitors, which showed it ranked 3rd in a field of 9.

"HRL generates margins that are very healthy when judged against a peer set of much larger businesses."

The business also has "a strong balance sheet with negligible debt", according to Binsted.

3 paths to growth

Binsted's team thinks HRL's testing capabilities in food and water quality and environmental hazards put it in an excellent position for growth.

There are 3 ways that it could grow:

  • Investment in existing operations (new tests, equipment upgrade, new regions)
  • Bolt-on acquisitions to expand services or customer demographics
  • 'Transformational' acquisition for rapid expansion

According to Binsted, HRL is pursuing all 3 avenues.

"The recent acquisition of Water Testing Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, while small, demonstrates the capacity to continually expand the group's testing lines," he said.

"HRL is also investing in a joint venture with Milk Test NZ called Food Lab that has just commenced trading and will begin with a focus on the NZ dairy industry."

HRL leadership estimate Food Lab's addressable market is about NZ$40 million, to be fought over with 2 main competitors.

"Snaring a third of this market would be material given HRL's current revenues of around $35 million."

As for that massive transformational takeover, the chair of HRL is a man named Greg Kilmister.

"Kilmister was the chief executive of ALS Limited and took the business from a market cap of less than $400 million to more than $3 billion," said Binsted.

"That's the kind of steady hand that provides comfort in any big strategic moves or tough patches."

HRL has a clear plan

Binsted was impressed that HRL presented a very precise 3-year plan for growth during its recent financial year 2021 results announcement.

"This will require reinvestment, but we are willing to back management to use shareholder capital wisely and drive value-accretive growth."

The company has a software arm called Octfolio which Binsted's team thinks has tremendous potential.

"Octfolio's hazardous materials, workplace safety, and field management software generates just under $1 million in revenue. At that size, it has proof of concept and customer validation but is immaterial to earnings and valuation," the analyst said.

"With a re-energised sales focus, Octfolio could become a significant, and high value, revenue stream. Its current contribution is not valued by the market, so the upside is large relative to any downside."

Small-cap risk

Of course, Binsted reminded investors that no ASX share is a sure thing.

"Growth is not a right and markets are competitive. There are no guarantees that HRL's organic investment drive will bear fruit," he said.

"It is also possible that the share price will suffer near-term as the growth initiatives crimp current earnings ahead of any potential revenue growth."

HRL currently operates in "a comfortable niche", but desperately needs economies of scale to elevate to the next level.

"Failure to get to scale or a misguided acquisition in the quest to bulk up are 2 further risks to our investment thesis."

Motley Fool contributor Tony Yoo has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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