The rise and rise and rise and rise of property portals

by Alistair Helm in


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The announcement last month of the acquisition of Zoopla the #2 property portal in the UK by Silver Lake Partners, the US private equity firm for £2,200 million (NZ$4,180 million) was a clear statement as to the confidence the financial markets and their investors have in the business models of digital real estate marketing.

Zoopla is not the leading UK digital property portal. That accolade goes to Rightmove which according to its own stats has 70% of the UK total audience for property searches. Zoopla was only launched in 2008. At that time Rightmove had been in operation for 8 years and had gone public two years earlier. Rightmove in 2008 was generating over £50m in revenue.

Zoopla though was never one to daunted and was ever ambitious, lead by the charismatic and driven CEO Alex Chesterman. Through the first 6 years, the business grew through acquisition of other real estate websites and property publications building a formidable position as the #2 player leading to the IPO in 2004.

The IPO valued the company at £990 million, half the then value of Rightmove. In a savvy move Zoopla offered real estate agent customers the opportunity to buy shares at a 20% discount; a smart move to side step a challenging move by a new industry owned start up OnTheMarket which required loyal agents to sign up to only one of the other commercial portals to try and break the duopoly. Those agents who did and hung on to their IPO shares will likely see a return of 177% in 4 years.

This stellar rise and exit for Zoopla is not an exception in the market of property portals. I thought it would be interesting to do some analysis of the key players around the world to see just how valuable these businesses have become over the years. Many of the leading portals have been in operation now for close on 20 years.

Restricting this review to the UK, Australia, USA and New Zealand is not truly reflective of the global market that sees many massively successful operators – the likes of Seloger in France, Scout 24 in Germany, Zap VivaReal in Brazil to name but a few; however I have observed and researched extensively these key businesses over the years, so feel comfortable commenting on their performance and strategy.

 

3 Leading Property Portals - NZ$30 billion in value

The top 3 portals in my opinion globally are the REA Group, operator of Realestate.com.au in Australia (and other countries), Rightmove in the UK and Zillow in the USA. Together these three businesses have a collective market value currently of over NZ$30 billion. Five years ago those same 3 portals had a market value of just NZ$11 billion. I have for reference included New Zealand’s own Trade Me for reasons that will become obvious as I proceed.

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This scale of growth is spectacular. What is even more spectacular is the relative rise in the market value of these companies measured against their own domestic market index. I have simply indexed the growth in share price to the index at June each year.

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The performance of the REA Group is stunning, eclipsing the performing the ASX market by close on 4 times over the past 6 years. Zillow doubling the Nasdaq index performance and Rightmove outpaced the FTSE 100 by more than double. Sadly though our own NZ digital portal of Trade Me with a broader portfolio than just property has not attained such stellar growth and has fallen behind the NZX index over the same period achieving just half of the market index growth over the past 6 years.

 

Australian international benchmark

The REA Group is now not just an Australia real estate digital portal it has operations in Asia and now the US. This latter move driven by its largest single shareholder News Corporation (owns 60% of REA Group) which acquired the #2 property portal in the USA (Move.com) in partnership with REA in 2014.  However in terms of profitability at EBIDTA level the performance of REA relies almost entirely on the profits of Realestate.com.au, and they keep rising year-on-year with revenue growth in the last financial year of 16% - this is a 20 year old company that added A$92m of incremental revenue last financial year to total A$671m.

REA Group though are not alone in carving out a global powerhouse performance to better all comers, they are actually part of a triumvirate of Australian digital behemoths – REA Group, Seek and CarSales – each are the global benchmark for their category of property, jobs and motors. By no small coincidence the 3 core classified platforms of our own Trade Me.

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Just like the REA Group, Seek and CarSales have significantly outpaced the ASX market index over the past 6 years, close to doubling the ASX for CarSales and higher for Seek.

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Financial Indexing of Portals

Some further financial indexing provides valuable insight into the relative performance of these global leading portals for property and other classifieds.

In terms of absolute market value the comparison is staggering. REA Group still remains the most valuable property portal keeping Zillow at bay, and a significant 50% more valuable than its jobs portal partner and 3 times the value of the auto portal.

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The inclusion of Trade Me Property is purely as a means to compare the property operation of Trade Me with its peers in other countries. I have purely used the % representation of property revenue as a surrogate for value representation. Sure I know full well that a digital business based on a 4.7 million population of NZ is never comparable with the population of Australia, UK or US; I'll come back to that benchmark shortly.

When it comes to true grunt, any financial expert will tell you that value is only a reflection of profit and this is where the appeal of digital portals comes to light. The EBIDTA margin of these portals is impressive … if you turn a blind eye to Zillow.

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Rightmove is the king of money making – for ever £1 it receives as revenue it spend just £0.27 on running the business allowing it to reinvest 73 pence. Trade Me shows its might just as effectively, with a very impressive 58% EBIDTA margin, ahead of REA and its Australian counterparts whose 31% and 45% are still worthily impressive margins.

This metric of margin is critical in comparing digital portals. The very appeal of digital businesses is scale. The simple principle being that the core cost of a digital platform should cost no more to service for a million users than for 10 million or 100 million. That is why digital businesses can generate such EBIDTA margins. However this is where things get interesting. Why is it that Rightmove serving a UK market of 66 million people can achieve 73% EBIDTA margins whereas Zillow serving a 326 million population can barely scrape 1% margin? Equally how can Trade Me serving a domestic only market of 4.7 million hope to deliver 58% margin?

The answers to these two questions are complex and not directly related. The US market is nothing like Australia, UK or NZ when it comes to property marketing, there is no such thing as paid for subscriptions for listings or vendor paid marketing; leaving Zillow to monetise agent advertising and client leads.

As for Trade Me the very impressive performance of 58% margin may possibly be part of the reason that its market value has not attained the stellar rise of its peers, as a function of stifled ambition and lacking investment courage?

The final metric I will provide is the relative performance of these portals on a per head of population basis.

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Here we see the same stellar performance of REA extracting a market value which equates to over $500 per person in Australia. Trade Me as a group delivers an impressive $406 per person in NZ,  but the truer comparative metric is the equivalent market value of the property sector (based on share of revenue) delivering a market value of just one tenth that of REA. Having said that the surprise is the relative performance of Rightmove at $130 per person in the UK. This potentially portends to the view that the upside for Rightmove is still significant, although the danger is made in assuming the UK real estate marketing landscape is similar to Australia which it is not.

The overriding clarity that these data points highlight is the enormously successful digital property portal businesses that have been developed globally over the last decade, but more significant is the powerhouse operations of digital portals across the Tasman over the same period. What can we as NZ’ers somehow learn from this and more importantly what can Trade Me learn to help it chart a more dynamic path to growth as a true NZ icon in the digital portal space?