Thursday, January 19, 2017

Intuit, Inc. 2017 Shareholder Meeting

Intuit, Inc. (INTU) held its annual shareholder meeting on January 19, 2017.  As always, Intuit's meeting is one of the best to attend in the Bay Area because of CEO Brad Smith's preparation and ambassador-like demeanor. This year, Intuit's food spread included a delicious coffee brand I'd never seen before--Equator Coffees and Teas--literally a nice perk.

CEO Smith's presentation followed his pattern of guiding Intuit--a 34-year old company "born in the era of DOS"--into his long-term vision of becoming a services-based, global company.  The company's focus continues to be in the U.S. and Canada, where 95% of the profits are generated.  Of all the goals in Intuit's game plan, this figure is disappointing after years of hearing Intuit's desire to expand internationally.  Its technical staff continues to be based primarily in California and India (pp. 19, 10K), but it seems unable to get a business foothold in other countries.  CEO Smith, ever the optimist, said Intuit continues to be "constructively dissatisfied" and is "starting to get momentum outside the U.S."

Curiously, on February 1, 2016, Intuit gained access to a five-year credit line of $1.5 billion, leaving $1 billion in "ammunition" after retiring debentures issued in 2007 (pp. 23, 10K). On this particular banking deal, Intuit did very well--its 5.75% bonds are being retired with a 2% credit line (about 0.5% above LIBOR). I predict Intuit will buy a smaller company, perhaps Palo Alto-based Adaptive Insights, or a private company specializing in machine learning.  It currently has the option of leasing IBM products for machine learning without disclosing PII to third parties, but if all of their other algorithms are in-house, it seems Intuit would want its machine learning (i.e., "personal, anticipate, populate") and business intelligence programs to be wholly owned as well.  The most interesting data point I heard this year was that the chances of a small business surviving in its first few years increases by 89% if the business owner is linked to an accountant.

Intuit's goal of moving into a services-based, subscription model seems to require it to boost its accounting expertise portfolio, especially with regards to improving Quickbooks Online.  ("As we continue to transition our business to more connected services, we become more dependent on the continuing operation and availability of our information technology and communication systems and those of our external service providers." -- pp. 15, 10K.) Intuit's transition to the "cloud" (rather than just CD-ROMs sold through third-party retailers) has led it to divest Quicken--which was only about 2% of its profits--and focus on integrating all of its products across platforms within a broad, diverse ecosystem.

The Q&A session was excellent.  CEO Smith did not limit people who asked questions and involved members of his executive team when appropriate.  One person asked why he had to pay an additional 20 to 30 dollars to file his state taxes when the transmission cost of his federal return was zero to the federal government.

It turns out that the cost goes directly to Intuit, not a third party transmitter or entity.  Why?  Complying with each state's tax rules involves new work for Intuit.  CEO Smith explained that 44 states had their own tax codes, and the value came from Intuit's work trying to maximize tax credits and deductions based on each state's individual tax codes--which change each year.

I was concerned about privacy and third party security in the era of "big data."  I asked what Intuit did with customer data, and whether it shared that data with third parties without full anonymizing.  I expected to hear that Intuit sold some of the insights it gained from its data to third parties because doing so would be highly profitable; however, CEO Smith firmly stated that Intuit did not sell any customer data and did not share any customer data without express permission.  It's "not our data, it's the customer's" and Intuit does "not sell that data."  Moreover, it complies not only with U.S. laws but also EU laws relating to privacy coming from Brussels.

I wanted to be absolutely sure CEO Smith wasn't putting me on, even though his statements were unequivocally pro-consumer and pro-privacy.  (Data is the new gold in Silicon Valley, after all.)  I asked a similar question about privacy and data sharing in a follow-up question.  He reiterated his stance, and then asked Intuit's general counsel, Laura Fennell, to confirm that no third parties gain access to Intuit's data without express user consent.  She immediately confirmed his statements and later explained to me after the meeting that although IBM's Watson was mentioned during the presentation, Intuit can rent IBM's Watson and extract its own insights without sharing any data with IBM.

My final question related to the Free File Alliance, an agreement with the federal government.  Intuit's 10K makes this program sound as if it's preventing the IRS from directly competing with Intuit's software: "The current agreement with the Free File Alliance is scheduled to expire in October 2020. We anticipate that governmental encroachment at both the federal and state levels may present a continued competitive threat to our business for the foreseeable future" (pp. 14, 10K).  However, when I asked CEO Smith about the Alliance (no Star Wars figures included, unfortunately), he said it was merely a way to give taxpayers below a certain income threshold the ability to get online and do their taxes more efficiently.  "Voluntary compliance" is the goal from Intuit's standpoint, and it is working with the IRS to assist taxpayers who would otherwise use pen and paper or not file at all.  He added that the idea of assisting lower income taxpayers fits into Intuit's mission, which is to serve the community and the nation.  Stirring words, indeed, but I suspect there's much more behind the scenes between government agencies and Intuit.  Many years ago, I remember seeing a former CEO become almost frothy when asked about the government's encroachment into Intuit's business.

Overall, Intuit continues to focus on serving consumers and adapting to technological change. Having beaten Microsoft's attempts to win away its customers, its biggest challenge now is adapting to the cloud and its new ways of doing business--at least until it figures out how to expand internationally at a faster pace.

Disclosures: I like Intuit's corporate culture and may apply for employment.  As of January 20, 2017, I own an insignificant number of Intuit shares, but my holdings may change at any time. Nothing herein constitutes investment advice.  You are responsible for your own due diligence.

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