Below we outline our view of the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Fern, the portfolio company that most investors in the Octopus Inheritance Tax Service own shares in.
Fern is an unlisted company, so its share price is not directly affected by short term market sentiment. And the only shareholders are investors in the Octopus Inheritance Tax Service, meaning that Fern’s business is completely in line with the objectives of the product to deliver modest predictable growth for shareholders over the long term.
We have grown Fern gradually over the last decade to be a c.£2 billion company, made up of a range of underlying trading businesses. Some of these businesses are generating cash on a regular basis, like our solar farms. Some are constructing infrastructure assets such as wind turbines or fibre networks. All of this requires careful and close oversight of the cash moving around the Group, but we’re very experienced at this, and all the people at Fern and Octopus are able to work from home as required in the near future as needed.
The blend of sectors that Fern operates in tend to be less directly impacted by the wider market volatility we are seeing in the world at the moment. That’s not to say there won’t be some ups and downs in the coming weeks and months, but Fern targets growth for its investors that is predictable throughout the market cycle, and that remains just as valid today. Fern is a large and diversified trading group comprising 200 companies, which is exactly what we want for the business in order to continue to deliver against the product objectives, especially in a market like this.
Fern has been running for 10 years, and has grown to become the UK’s largest producer of solar energy from commercial-scale sites, owning 164 solar sites. Fern also owns 9 wind farms and more than 20 other renewable energy businesses. Alongside its renewable businesses, Fern funds the construction of hospitals, care homes and retirements villages, as well as having a large-scale short-term property lending business, comprising more than 200 loans secured against property at conservative loan to values. Fern also has a presence in the fibre broadband sector.
All of Fern’s current businesses are well funded, and we’re making sure they’ve got everything they need to grow and meet their targets. We’re also making sure they support their 600 employees through what could be difficult times ahead.
In addition, the Investment Committee at Octopus, which reviews new opportunities for Fern to grow its business, remains on the look-out for new companies to acquire or assets to build. Fern is never going to over-extend itself, but volatility and uncertainty in the market is a good time to have cash to take advantage of great opportunities when we see them. That’s the position Fern is in at the moment; cash to support its existing companies through uncertainty, and what’s left over will be put to work.
What keeps me awake at night? While Fern may own lots of long-term assets and infrastructure, it’s the employees, customers and local communities that make a business. It’s those people that we want to support in any way we can in these unprecedented times.