Where Are We Now
Updated on: 11/7/2021
FirstService is a property management firm and property services provider in North America that has solid growth organically and through acquisitions. We think the company’s wide (and growing) geographic reach and capital-light business model make the company a compelling “buy” for any portfolio today.
Brands, FirstService’s property services segment, continues to grow like wildfire today. It is growing above 15% and helped the company recently surpass $3 billion in revenue.
FirstService’s core property management services are still growing around 13% per year as the company targets thousands of underserved community associations around the US.
FirstService’s residential services are the biggest property management operations in North America. FirstService’s brands hold leading positions with many of its principal brands in their respective markets. Both segments’ operations are vast and can be found across most of Canada and the US.
FirstService boasts a capital-light business model with durable, predictable, and recurring revenues that lead to strong cash flows. Strong customer contract retention rates help the company focus on winning new contracts rather than retaining customers.
The FirstService Partnership Philosophy (“FPP”) empowers management teams of acquired companies to continue leading their companies in their local markets with a long-term abundance mindset. FirstService management also has substantial skin in the game to think long-term.
HOAs (i.e., homeowner’s associations) are gaining popularity in the US, presenting a major organic growth opportunity for FirstService as North America’s leading property manager.
The property management and property services markets are highly fragmented with many small operators. FirstService can increasingly use its scale, network, and strong financial profile to grow via acquisitions to build out its moat.
FirstService delivers property services in North America, mostly all of which are concentrated in the US. Although the company is headquartered in Canada, its Canadian operations are small and represent a rather insignificant portion of revenues.
FirstService serves customers through two main segments:
FirstService Residential (“Residential”) serves over 8,500 communities across the US and Canada with property management expertise and resources. Customers of Residential are HOAs, community associations, condos, and strata corporations.
FirstService Residential Community Breakdown by Property Type (Q3 2021)
Source: FirstService Investor Relations
FirstService Residential Revenue Breakdown by Service (Q3 2021)
Source: FirstService Investor Relations
Customers typically sign one- to three-year contracts with FirstService to receive the following services:
Traditional Property Management
Facility Management & Engineering
Front Desk / Concierge
Pool & Amenity Management
Transfers & Disclosures
Energy Management & Procurement
The segment is also the industry’s market leader and largest player that owns roughly 6% of the market, amounting to almost 2 million total units across North America. Residential sources about half of the FirstService’s total revenue at double the amount of the next closest competitor, implying the second largest player in this industry controls about 3% of the market.
FirstService Brands (“Brands”) provides property services – franchised and company-owned – to North American customers. While Residential is a fully stacked property management service, Brands is the “lite” version that allows customers to pick and choose services like home improvement solutions, painting, flooring, home inspection, fire protection, and property restoration.
Brands provides these essential property services through seven primary brands that operate underneath the FirstService Brands umbrella.
Almost all the revenue generated from these seven brands are from company-owned operations. Approximately one-tenth of Brands revenue comes from royalty and franchise sources.
Like Residential, these brands are either leaders or in a top 3 position in their respective markets. First Onsite and PaulDavis are the only two brands with a second-place market position while the other brands are all at the top in their space.
FirstService is another boring business in a boring industry with a fundamental growth profile that has been trending in one direction — up and to the right.
Total revenue has recently surpassed $3 billion on a trailing twelve-month (“TTM”) basis, fueled by the technology-like growth rates of Brands. At the same time, Brands had officially overtaken Residential as the biggest segment at FirstService.
FirstService Segmented Revenue (US$M) (Q3 2021)
Source: Various FirstService Financial Filings — 2016 - 2021
Brands growing bigger than Residential has a double whammy effect for the company – it clears more profit than Residential. If the company can employ Newton’s First Law of Motion and continue to grow Brands revenue at high rates, the business as a whole should see a positive lift in its consolidated EBITDA margin profile.
Higher margins mean more cash for reinvestment. Management has identified numerous opportunities for growth within Residential and Brands, as well as inorganic opportunities related to these segments to grow the top line at double-digit rates. It also runs a very conservative balance sheet with little debt yet ample liquidity.
The company has experienced a favourable mix shift in terms of its revenues and margin profile. Coupled with a solid balance sheet, we believe the company has strong operations with a diligent management team to guide it in the right direction.
The Swimming Pool Cleaner
It all started with cleaning swimming pools. FirstService’s Founder and Chairman, Jay Hennick, started a swimming pool and recreational facility management company in 1972 as a young teenager. He did this all with $1,000 borrowed from his father and pure, raw, entrepreneurial spirit.
FirstService’s official inception began in 1989 when Hennick changed the name of his business to what it is today. That same year, FirstService purchased a franchise system called College Pro Painters and FirstService Brands was born.
The company experienced early success and issued its IPO (i.e., initial public offering) on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1993. FirstService’s focus was mainly on property services, and it was not until 1996 that it expanded into the residential property management business by purchasing two Florida property management companies.
FirstService then seemingly had its eyes on becoming one of the largest real estate services firms in the world. It bought CMN International, a piece of Colliers International at the time, in 2004. In 2010, it acquired what was left of the standalone Colliers company.
This merged real estate services superpower did not last long together, however. By 2015, FirstService spun off the Colliers assets to focus entirely on residential property services. Hennick was replaced with D. Scott Patterson as the CEO, but Hennick is still the chairman and significant shareholder of FirstService today.
Real Estate, Everywhere
FirstService has massive scale covering a sizable portion of the North American continent. Residential covers Ontario, Alberta, and BC in Canada, and a number of populous states across the US through 8,500 communities and almost 2 million residential units, including 3,200 high-rise condos.
Brands also has broad reach through its brands with its workforce of 13,000 (including franchised operations) and network of 1,500 franchises scattered across the US and Canada.
The property management and services industries are highly fragmented. The scale at which FirstService operates its two segments is unmatched by any competitor.
To make matters worse for competitors, FirstService has an “unfair” advantage when it comes to consolidating a market with thousands of independent and small- to mid-sized operators — it has stand-out scale, public market funding access, and a clean balance sheet to consolidate the industry and grow substantially through acquisitions.
Guaranteed Revenue (Almost)
Patience is a virtue, and so is customer retention in FirstService’s books. FirstService Residential boasts high customer retention rates in the mid-90% range via its contractual model and significant expertise in the property management realm that comes from a buildup of knowledge and experience over several decades.
FirstService is a trusted partner that customers keep coming back to. Not only that, but they are also extremely satisfied customers that spread the word and help FirstService grow organically across the US and Canada.
Residential is a durable, recession-proof, and non-cyclical business that provides the most crucial services people need to keep their communities up and running. We believe HOAs and condos view property management spend as non-discretionary and always required, frankly, whether the world is booming or coming to an end.
Although the Brands segment’s revenue profile is a tad more cyclical in nature than Residential, these essential services are constantly in demand and serve to protect people’s homes and help keep them updated. Customers delay painting, flooring, and closet projects during times of economic hardship, but eventually they come flocking back to release their home update backlogs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed far greater importance on the upkeep of our living spaces. We believe FirstService benefits as a large player in the space that helps people ensure their houses are up to par with the work-from-home world.
Keeping Operations Light
No matter how you slice it, FirstService is a capital-light business with little maintenance and growth capital expenditures required to keep operations going and remain competitive in a fragmented industry.
Over the past decade, capital expenditures merely nibble into revenues — only about 2% of revenues are dedicated towards capital projects and maintenance investments on fixed assets and intangibles.
Since FirstService is a collector of businesses that seeks inorganic growth opportunities as they present themselves, low capital requirements create the perfect fuel for FirstService to focus on locating solid acquisition targets to expand its North American presence and build its footprint.
The Entrepreneurial Spark
FirstService keeps the entrepreneurial spirit of its company alive and well, even as it continues to purchase many businesses and partner with countless entrepreneurs to grow its footprint.
Since 1989, FirstService has partnered with over 300 entrepreneurs and business professionals thanks to the FirstService Partnership Philosophy (“FPP”), the key to maintaining its operational excellence from each franchise right up to the top of FirstService.
The FPP contains four main attributes that contribute to the success of each franchise, partnership, acquired business, and FirstService in its entirety:
Alignment of Interests
Partnering with Proven Management
Leveraging Knowledge and Relationships
Without getting into the nitty-gritty, FirstService makes for a very attractive acquirer and large partner for smaller businesses in the property management and services spaces.
Owners retain a majority stake in the businesses they will continue to run on a day-to-day basis, keeping the decisions at the “ground level” with themselves and their frontline teams rather than at the top — at FirstService’s headquarters.
Besides the decentralized structure, FirstService’s time horizon with the businesses it acquires and partners with is forever. The company continually reinvests into these businesses and helps them scale using the vast FirstService footprint, managerial expertise, and ability to:
Share best practices
Introduce and catalyze cross-selling and partnership opportunities within its own network of brands, companies, and franchises.
When most companies look for short-term value, thinking long-term and retaining skin in the game is absolutely one of the most important competitive advantages a company can have. FirstService has got it.
The Open Ocean
Place a hungry predator into a forest full of prey and soon you will not be able to find much of these smaller animals left. FirstService is the hungry aggregator of the property management and service business.
FirstService Acquisitions (US$M) (Q3 2021)
Source: FirstService Investor Relations
According to FirstService, there are between 8,000 to 9,000 community association management companies in operation today across Canada and the US. Brands is also immensely fragmented – the most market share one of its primary brands holds is 7% (California Closets) and it is the top provider of those services in its space. Both Residential and Brands are swimming in an open ocean in which they are the sharks.
Much of the revenue growth FirstService experienced over the past five years has been because of acquisitions. This may rattle some current and prospective investors, but we think this is an opportunity for a great acquirer like FirstService.
There are plenty of fish in the sea and FirstService has a best-in-class balance sheet that provides the company with ample firepower to acquire more, capture more market share, and let organic growth take over once it’s “full”.
The Growing Trend
American homeowners appear to love the experience of living in homeowner’s associations, condos, and housing co-operatives. According to the 2020 Homeowner Satisfaction Survey conducted by the Community Associations Institute (“CAI”):
89% of residents rate their community association experience as good or very good (70%) or neutral (19%);
74% say their community managers add valuable support to residents; and
71% of residents believe their home being in a community association enhances their property’s value.
The CAI also noted in its report that the survey results have been remarkably similar to the same survey it conducted at various points throughout the past 15 years.
Resident satisfaction with community associations is an important pillar to a company like FirstService which holds about 6% market share. Depending on the source referenced, there are between 350,000 and 400,000 community associations around the US.
Of this amount, approximately 35% (~130,000) of these community associations are self-managed today and present an astronomical conversion opportunity for FirstService. Self-management is not only costly and inefficient (generally speaking), but these community associations also do not have the trusted vendor relationships to source major resources that a large property manager, like FirstService, would have.
Adding to the amount of community associations that could be converted as customers of FirstService is a growing trend towards building HOAs. A quarter of US homes are in community associations today, but 75% of all new homes being built in the US are part of HOAs. Looking back at the trend of HOAs over the past ten years, it is abundantly clear that this trend will continue for some time.
Community Associations in the USA (thousands)
FirstService is set up for tremendous success. It has all the competitive advantages that community associations love to have – managerial expertise, great operators, and a strong network of vendor relationships and internal partners to get things done and keep communities safe and desirable.
Skin in the Game
FirstService has one of the most shareholder-friendly management teams that exist in the modern world while the stock continues to fly under the radar of many major institutions and investors across the globe.
We already know that FirstService’s Partnership Philosophy contains guiding principles that uphold its success and differentiate it from competitors using a decentralized management structure and by empowering business owners to continue thinking like the owners they are.
Many companies may say the same, but talk is cheap. Not at FirstService, however – the company’s insiders have substantial skin in the game, staying personally invested at a collective ~15%. We can reasonably believe that big chunks of these insiders’ net worth are tied up with FirstService and so management’s interests are closely aligned with those of long-term shareholders – creating value and ultimately wealth.
This has certainly paid off for shareholders – shares of FirstService have increased a few hundred percent over the last five years.
FirstService’s most obvious risk is its gearing to the real estate market through its Brands segment. Falling property prices and general economic woes could throw off Brands’ growth trajectory and increasingly harm FirstService as a whole as Brands overtakes Residential as the largest segment.
When house prices rise, homeowners are generally more confident in taking on larger projects. Although the North American housing market has been hot as of late, there is no guarantee these favourable conditions will persist. We urge FirstService investors to keep a close look on the housing market – weakness could substantially hurt Brands’ discretionary service offerings.
As with any other serial acquirer, FirstService runs the risk of poorly executing on acquisitions strategically, mistargeting opportunities, or overpaying. Much of its growth also relies on inorganic growth, so the absence of adequate business targets could result in a plummeting share price depending on what investors have baked in as their growth expectations.
Fragmentation — The Ugly
On the one hand, a highly fragmented market presents a huge opportunity for FirstService. On the other hand, it also means that there are relatively low barriers to entry and thousands of service provider options customers can choose from.
Local players build trusted relationships with local customers using their specific knowledge of how things work, how business is done, and what customer preferences are to score contracts within their communities.
We believe FirstService does a good job of offsetting this risk, though. The FPP encourages its franchises and businesses to continue operating under the decentralized FirstService management structure.
FirstService is an incredible provider of property management services, placing customers first and growing its footprint rapidly from coast to coast. It grew to become the North American leader despite operating in a highly competitive industry with many regional players that have established relationships with their customers.
The brand is founded upon thinking long-term and doing what’s right for customers and shareholders. Both groups of stakeholders have common interests, creating a wonderful formula for value creation and overall success.
The success story still has a long way to go. Despite being the leader in the space, FirstService has plenty of levers it can pull to continue winning contracts, gain scale, and acquire some of the best businesses out there to establish a network of incredible businesses.
Everyone at the company has skin in the game. From top executives to the employees, every person involved in the growth story at FirstService wants the company to win. And win, it does.