Aptiv supplies computer technology to half of the world’s electrified vehicles. We expect they’ll lead the market in active safety solutions next year. Sands Capital’s Danielle Menichella and Dave Levanson discuss why we invest in Aptiv rather than trying to pick a winner from the crowded vehicle manufacturers race.
See portfolio holdings for portfolio holdings purchase dates. As of this episode date Delphi Technologies, Schwinn, Schimano, General Motors, Tesla, Hyundai, and Lyft are not owned in any SCM strategies.
00:33 Disruptive changes in the automotive industry
02:25 Why invest in Aptiv?
04:24 Aptiv as a growth company
08:14 Aptiv’s key competitive advantages
10:57 What’s next for Aptiv?
14:47 Supply-chain disruptions
16:20 How past investments influenced Danielle’s views on Aptiv
18:42 Influences on Dave’s and Danielle‘s investing.
25:38 What Danielle and Dave are reading
Kevin: Welcome to What Matters Most, Sands Capital’s podcast series in which we explore some of the trends and businesses that are propelling the pace of global innovation and changing the way we live and work today and into the future.
Today, we will speak with Sands Capital Portfolio Manager and Senior Research Analyst Danielle Menichella and Senior Portfolio Manager Dave Levanson about Aptiv, a Dublin-based global automotive technology supplier focused on software capabilities, advanced vehicle architecture, active safety, user experience solutions and vehicle connectivity. Aptiv is one of the tier-one suppliers that’s playing a critical part in the evolution of the automotive industry, which has been transformed by changing consumer preferences and safety regulations. While electrification and autonomous driving are two of the most talked-about trends in this evolution, increased safety standards and a move to greater connectivity are also changing the landscape.
I want to thank both Danielle and Dave for joining us today to talk about Aptiv. Danielle, set some context for us, help us understand how mobility is evolving?
Danielle Menichella: Hi, Kevin. Thanks for having me today, it’s great to be here. As for mobility, we’re seeing very disruptive changes. We’re potentially seeing more change now than in the previous 100 years of automotive history. At the top of that list is two things: first, electrification that’s changing from a world of internal combustion engine vehicles, or ICEs, and that basically means cars that need gas to run, to electric vehicles. And secondly, that’s the actual operating of the vehicle becoming safer and more automated.
Electrification is becoming a reality, and it’s a reality because of government and regulatory mandates resulting from environmental concerns that we hear about every day, everything from climate change and global warming. And it isn’t just the governments and environmental groups that are demanding change. Increasingly it’s consumers who are demanding more environmental vehicles as well. And while fully autonomous cars, those without steering wheels that can go anywhere, by us just getting in and telling the car where we want it to take us, those might still be decades off. But what we do have is increasingly automated vehicles and that’s happening every day.
Active safety features like advanced driver assistance systems, known as ADAS, that’s already happening in cars today. That’s things like lane keep assist warnings and adaptive cruise control and more and more features all the way up to autopilot systems that allow drivers to disengage in certain scenarios for short periods of time are seeing increased penetration rates. ADAS is a way for us to make driving safer for everyone on the road, since it’s estimated that over 90% of accidents are due to human error.1 So even partially automated driving systems is a way for us to get safer cars now.
Kevin: There are some really big players in the space. Why did you choose to invest in Aptiv?
Danielle Menichella: So, I think what made us want to invest in Aptiv is that it was a player that has a multi-decade history working with auto manufacturers. It has a strong safety track record, it has a strong brand, and it’s positioned itself as focused in all of the key areas of where the car is going in the future. It’s really focused its portfolio on leading solutions in areas that would make cars electrified, that would make them autonomous or have increased levels of active safety, getting toward autonomous and connected.
Kevin: Great. So Aptiv, at the end of the day, is a technology business and industrial business and automotive parts business. You mentioned all three. How do you think about that?
Danielle Menichella: Yeah, so I would say it’s all of the above, but first and foremost, it’s an automotive technology solutions provider. It works closely with its customers to create and integrate hardware, plus software components and systems. Those systems make cars greener, safer, and connected. Those three things go together, and as Aptiv has its roots in vehicle architecture, it’s helping auto manufacturers redesign cars to be electric and capable of all the computing power and connectivity needed to ultimately be autonomous.
Kevin: Dave, putting your portfolio manager’s hat on, as Danielle and the research team built out the investment case for Aptiv, what did you find most compelling about the business? Why is it a company that you wanted to own?
Dave Levanson: Thanks, Kevin. We’ve been studying the automotive industry for about 30 years at Sands Capital, and it’s not typically considered a growth industry outside of some special niches or certain emerging markets. But some interesting things about Aptiv within this industry that we liked were that it was an enabler and innovator in growing areas within the broad automotive space. [It] has this arms dealer model, where they would sell their systems and components to any of the big car manufacturers, not try to come up with the car themselves and hope it was the popular model. If it is, could be interesting growth—if it’s not, probably not so interesting. And then, when we thought about from a portfolio-construction perspective, we were getting about double the growth rate of the benchmark within Aptiv in terms of earnings growth. Maybe a lot more long term if some of these big-picture things around electrification and autonomous play out over many years, and we were paying a valuation that was very similar to the benchmark to have this.
So, owning the stock of a company with those characteristics plays a great role in the portfolio while allowing us to benefit from some of these big changes in the industry, with a really different risk profile than trying to pick which of 30 or 50 car makers around the world might come out with the popular electric car, the popular autonomous vehicle, and really be able to own a company that was driving the whole industry forward along some of these important growth trajectories that we see playing out to the future.
Interestingly, there’s a book by a MIT professor named Charles Fine, called Clockspeed, came out in the ’90s when the tech bubble was happening, and everybody was putting out books explaining the tech bubble. But inside the book, he talked about how industries had gone through these cycles of vertical and horizontal integration and pivoting back and forth between them. And if I’m remembering this correctly, one of the examples he was talking about the bicycle industry. So, if we went back and looked at a company like Schwinn, which has been around since 1900. In the beginning, Schwinn made the whole bike, they made all the parts, they made the bike, they sold the bike.
And then over time companies like Shimano came up and they started to make all of the important components of the bike, and somebody like Schwinn would make the frame and put the brand on it, buy all these components and sell it that way. And then we come back and I think the auto industry is at a point in time where different parts of it are reintegrating vertically. I think Aptiv is going to be one of these companies that makes lots of important systems that go in a car that an automaker will buy from Aptiv. They might buy the metal parts that are bent to assemble the outside of a car from another company. And they may mostly be adding value as a designer of the vehicle, as an integrator and builder of these parts, as a marketer, as a distributor.
So I think the automotive industry, as we change important technologies, going from a gasoline engine to electric, going from a human driving it and doing everything to automation, maybe leading to autonomous driving, without a driver. We’re at a point in time where now I think parts of that industry are vertically integrating. So that’s what really attracted us to Aptiv in that broad automotive space.
Kevin: Danielle, Aptiv seems to be in the sweet spot of innovation, the way you described it, in terms of the mobility space. That’s what’s going on currently, but like any exciting industry that attracts a lot of competition, what in your mind is Aptiv’s key competitive advantage here?
Danielle Menichella: Yeah, I think they have a few competitive advantages. I think the main one is what Dave was talking about, that increasing ability to do more of that vertical integration. So, the big thing is its ability to envision its solutions in the context of the entire car, and it gets to do this because it designs the vehicle architecture, which determine how signals and power move around the vehicle. And importantly, those things are entrenched with the other solutions that Aptiv sells like active safety or autonomous driving or infotainment or other user experience features.
So a lot of the competitors don’t comprehensively design both and by designing the vehicle architecture, that means Aptiv gets to go in and work with their customers, before many of the other solution providers would ever be called in. So, they’re getting on that floor, they’re helping do the model design and they are talking to the car manufacturers designing the vehicle itself, and then they get to make the recommendation of telling them to use Aptiv solutions in other places as well.
So, when they make that vehicle architecture and they do that central compute, they can also say, hey, we also have the sensors for this, and we have the hardware for this and we have the software for this and look at how neatly we designed this whole thing together for you.
So other competitive advantages that they have, I think a big one also is culture. Management made the decision early on in the company’s history, when it first was talking about spinning off from Delphi, to really focus on the future of the automotive space and shed all of the commoditized, the low-value parts of the business geared to the old or legacy technologies. So instead, they focus on the portfolio where it was green and it was connected and it was safe.
Other things that they have going for them, long-term relationships with every major OEM or auto manufacturer globally. They have a track record and a history of working with those people over time. Their safety and performance records have been good. Their brand is considered strong. And scale, and scale is really important for any sort of auto company, because the margins traditionally in autos have been so low. So, everybody’s looking to save money. And Aptiv has the benefit of being able to work with many different OEMs and spread the costs, especially the research and development costs amongst all of those players. And that makes an attractive cost proposition for any manufacturer building a vehicle.
Kevin: All right, let’s explore a little bit of the history. Give us an overview of how the company has evolved and seems like there’s lots of wood to chop for this business and this industry right now. But, looking out over a few years, what’s next for the company?
Danielle Menichella: So Aptiv was spun out of Delphi in 2017. Delphi was a traditional tier-one auto supplier, which itself was spun out of General Motors after the financial crisis. When Aptiv was created, it left its traditional powertrain business with Delphi and focus on the power and signal distribution division, or what we call vehicle architecture, and the user experience.
Today over 50% of Aptiv’s growth comes from high voltage and active safety. In traditional internal combustion engines, Aptiv was used to do the architecture at about one out of every three and a half vehicles, but in electrified vehicles, its market share, and I’m basing this on their recent contract wins, appears to be increasing to one out of every two.2
And also the content on a traditional gas-powered engine, for Aptiv, was about $500. Whereas the content for high-voltage cars for Aptiv is double that. So, growth is coming from winning market share as well as increasing content per vehicle. In active safety we’re seeing penetration rates increase from high teens to what should be near 100% in a few years’ time. And that’s basic levels of ADAS, that’s like things like ADAS level one. So, you’re getting warnings when you’re going out of your lane. While Aptiv was only a top 10 player in those low levels of active safety, it’s winning more business and more content on the higher value system. So, the more complicated things, things like autopilot or anything considered ADAS levels two-plus or three.
Aptiv has some strong growth potential in even more disruptive areas that could further grow its TAM (total addressable market) or its potential market size. Aptiv is commercializing its smart vehicle architecture, which helps car manufacturers optimize the vehicle through compute and high-speed distribution. And I don’t know if you’ve ever looked under the hood of a car, but if you did, it’s just one big pile of spaghetti, jumbled mess. It’s heavy, it’s clumsy, it’s expensive and it’s pretty much reached its limits.
So Aptiv has been successfully working with customers to create a software-defined central compute satellite version of this that will allow for cars to do a lot more with a lot less hardware. So, it will lower the overall total cost of production for the manufacturer while at the same time increasing value for Aptiv. And this technology has potential outside of passenger vehicles to commercial vehicles and even aerospace or boats. Aptiv also has a self-driving joint venture with Hyundai, where it’s been deploying self-driving vehicles through the Lyft platform in Las Vegas for several years now.
There are certainly a lot of players and competition in the robo taxi space, but we think Aptiv could be successful here and, in the meantime, it gets real world experience by deploying its autonomous systems and cars. So, it’s learning from that, it’s seeing what these cars are doing, what people are using it for. It’s getting almost immediate, real-time feedback and that’s helping it make the next generation of its autonomous systems. And finally, through Aptiv’s connectivity capabilities, it has the potential for data services. And currently this includes things like predictive maintenance diagnostics and over-the-air updates. But as driving becomes autonomous and more people have more time that needs to be occupied in the vehicle, we think there’s a lot of potential in this area.
Aptiv will likely have to share any of those revenue streams with other players like the car manufacturer or the people who actually make the app for the car, and we’ll probably have a lot more debates on privacy, security, who’s going to own the data, but this is all stuff that’s coming over the next decade and will likely be exciting for players, like Aptiv.
Kevin: All right, great. Let’s switch over to Dave here. Danielle just talked a lot about compute power, talked about wiring within cars, things like that. Things that actually take physical goods, chip sets, copper, things like that. So let’s bring this conversation back to where we are today. For anybody that’s ordered a toaster or anything like that in the last couple of months, you know there are serious supply-chain disruptions. Dave in your view, has Aptiv been affected by these supply-chain disruptions?
Dave Levanson: Well, Kevin, at my house we make toast the old-fashioned way, over an open flame in the backyard. But, yes, I think market growth has been impacted by things like factory shutdowns, by chip shortages. And you can see this supply-and-demand impact showing up in vehicle prices (both new and used), empty lots at the dealer, long wait times, if you order a new car. So clearly it’s been impacted by a number of factors. But the fleet is aging. So maybe there will be a short-term demand, better than normal recovery—combined with these new technologies—will make for a bigger than average increase at some point when the supply demand thing normalizes somewhat. And who knows, maybe new behaviors will increase demand for miles driven in automobiles.
Maybe there will be a reluctance for people to be in crowded public transportation modes. So, it remains to be seen on some of these longer-term behavioral changes—a lot going on there, pros and cons in terms of long-term miles driven in automobiles. But certainly, there have been some short-term things impacting supply of vehicles.
Kevin: So, Danielle, one of the things at Sands Capital we pride ourselves on is deep domain knowledge, and you have been living in the industrial space for quite a while covering all kinds of different businesses within that space and around that space. Can you give us a sense of how your views on Aptiv were perhaps informed by past investments that you’ve made or past research that you’ve done?
Danielle Menichella: Yeah. So, technically, I started covering Aptiv in 2017, but I would say my expertise for this business started back when I first started at Sands in 2013, and one of the first projects that I worked on was doing deep research on a major EV player, Tesla, at the time. That research made me realize how antiquated the auto sector was and how much it was going to need to change. And importantly, it made me realize the necessity that the world was going to have in phasing out internal combustion engines and finding more sustainable substitutes.
So, there was a whole progress that I went through where we started out looking at electric vehicles, and then we started moving toward companies that provided ADAS systems. And I did some work on some of the top camera sensor and active safety software players. But all those sensors and systems were integrated by tier-one suppliers, and the tier-one suppliers were interesting because they could be agnostic as to specific sensor they were going to deploy.
So that seemed more attractive to me than trying to pick the sensor winner or that one specific technology or that one specific area. The problem though was that auto suppliers in general did a bunch of different things, and a lot of what they did was bending metal, and it was commoditized, and it wasn’t geared to new technologies, it’s just how to deal with getting it in more and more cars. And the way you got more and more cars was you had to build more and more cars.
So I always was looking for an auto supplier that wasn’t fully dependent on building more cars, but instead was focused on putting new technologies into cars that would be seeing penetration rates, so solutions that were green or solutions that had to do with active safety. And those are the two trends that I identified back in 2013–14, and I really was convinced that that’s what I wanted and that’s what I was going to go after.
Kevin: Excellent. We covered a lot of ground here, this has been a fascinating conversation, and hopefully everybody’s learned a little bit more about the industry, broadly and then Aptiv specifically, and why it’s a high conviction business for Sands Capital.
But before we close, Danielle and Dave, I’m sure many of our listeners are curious to know a little bit more about what drives you and what led you each to become investors in innovative growth stocks. So, Dave, tell us a little bit about your professional life experiences or experiences that influenced you most as an investor?
Dave Levanson: Sure, Kevin. I go back to this experience I had with Frank Sands senior right when I started working with him within a year or two of getting out of college, he took me to a meeting with him.
I didn’t know anything, I came along, carried the presentation books, and sat in the room while they had this meeting with each other and piped in a couple of things here and there, maybe. And for a 22- or 23-year-old getting started in the investment industry, I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a profound experience.
The craft of investing is not about, did I beat everybody else or are our returns the best or the red or green numbers that are flashing on that screen all day. It really comes down to at the end, what we’re doing, if we do it well, is going to help people live a better life in retirement, or help that hospital build a new wing, or help that university give more scholarships, or help that foundation do more of what they were planning to do. And if we do a poor job, there’s going to be less of that. There’s problems that can occur from taking too much or inappropriate risk and there are big problems that can occur for not taking enough risk.
So, trying to balance that with what we do as growth investors, trying to predict this uncertain future for these companies that we invest in, and trying to have an outcome where those clients can do those things they’re planning to do in the future really comes together.
Kevin: Danielle, give us a little background on you.
Danielle Menichella: I went through school being interested in economics and political science and studying public policy. And when I graduated, one of the first interviews that I did was for an emerging market investment firm. And this was back in the days before the Asian crisis, even, when emerging markets were really something new and exciting. So, the geopolitical aspects of it really interested me and I started working there. So, therefore, I spent the first, over 15 years of my career as an emerging-market value investor and, as a result, I spent a lot of time looking at commodity-type businesses.
So a lot of time in mines, oil and gas fields, I even did some pulp and paper. And in that time frame, I got to learn and understand the supply chain for pretty much everything that’s made in the world. And I also learned to spot what businesses could and could not make their own weather, which ones had competitive advantages, which ones had sustainable growth that they had control over. And most of the businesses that I was looking at at the time could not.
So, I made the decision that I wanted to be a global investor, not an emerging-market investor. I also wanted to be an investor in growth businesses, not value businesses. So, I was lucky to come to Sands, where I was hired as an industrial analyst, and I got to look at growth businesses, so it was the exact opposite side of the coin from what I used to do. And I liked it a lot better because things like business space and competitive advantage really mattered here. And I got to focus on what had been happening, not for the last 10 years or what happened in the next three to six months. But I got to think about where the world was going decades from now, and really think about the future. So, I almost immediately focused on areas of disruption, like mobility and industrial automation, and I’ve been loving it ever since.
Kevin: Excellent. So, Dave, what did you do in the past that you’ve been able to translate into how you’re working today?
Dave Levanson: Great question, Kevin. Let me blow this up maybe to a big-picture level for a research organization like Sands. And really what it’s about is organizing your firm, your processes, your research activities around the nature of the companies that you own. At Sands, we’re trying to own long-term structural growth companies. So, for example, we could go to an emerging market and do some initial research and learn about a company, visit, let’s say, the convenience store industry in an emerging market.
And we could go visit lots of convenience stores, meet the management teams, understand we think the advantages of this one and why they’ll win might be way more stores than everybody else, which gives them an advantage in purchasing, which gives them an advantage in real estate, which gives them advantage in trying new things and on and on and on and on. And there’s reasons why the culture of that country because convenience stores tend to be a local thing. So, there’s things going on in the culture where maybe many members of the family work, maybe the places that they live are small and don’t have a large refrigerator to store foods. So there’s reasons why a convenience thing where you could go in and buy two or three things, and the convenience store becomes your refrigerator, or concepts like that make sense. Put all this together, come to a thesis and a conclusion that in this emerging market, this convenience store chain is going to win because of these long-term structural reasons.
And we learned a lot of that by going there and doing that. And then once that has been figured out, I think less frequently, we have to go there and make sure that thesis is more or less playing out, or maybe we’re going to find out some reasons why it isn’t, or maybe some reasons why it’s even better than we thought. But it’s those structural things that we care about, because of the nature of the kinds of companies we own at Sands Capital.
So at some point that’s what’s going to create value or not in that investment, and it’s going to be much less about flying there once a month, standing outside the store, counting how many Slurpees they sell, putting that in a model and deciding if it’s going to work or not. So, we go there and do the work and learn about it and build a thesis, often by going there, we can check up on the thesis. Is it working out? Is it not working out better or worse than we thought?
And today, lots of digital tools can replace and or supplement the older ways of doing things. Like today, for better or worse, an electronic spreadsheet replaced writing numbers down on a piece of graph paper and if you made a mistake or changed the model, you had to erase everything and start over. So, you spent a lot of care on what you put on that piece of paper, as an example. So, I think that’s an important lesson for how you set up your investment firm in the beginning. And that evolves over time as the way things happen in the world evolve.
Kevin: Excellent. So, before we wrap it up, I’m going to ask you both for some free advice, something that I think our listeners would be interested in hearing. What are you both reading, listening to or learning about these days?
Danielle Menichella: So, first of all, I’m glad you’re asking me this now and not when and I was laying on the beach reading gossip magazines during the middle of summer. But I am reading Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. I’m really interested in what we can do from here to stop and reverse our climate decline. I think it’s hugely important for what we do as growth investors, looking for change and disruptive technologies. It’s also really associated quite closely with the industrial space. And when you think about new kinds of energy that we’re going to need, a new way that we’re going to have to live. And all of us need to be thinking about responsibly investing for our clients.
Kevin: Excellent. Dave, what are you reading?
Dave Levanson: Well, first, Kevin, before I answer your question, I’m going to ask the same question of you.
Kevin: All right. I’m actually a long student of behavioral economics and behavioral psychology. Sometimes I like to dig into the raw material. So, I’m going back to the math text. I’m currently reading a book called How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg, who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. It sounds dry and boring, but this guy actually makes math interesting and shows you how you can stumble over even the simplest mathematical concepts. I recommend people go back to the basics when they can.
Danielle Menichella: That sounds like something I should make my high school student read since she’s really not a big fan of the math right now.
Kevin: Yeah. Start with John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy. She’ll never read the newspaper the same way. It’s a great book. Yeah. So, Dave, I know you’re a voracious reader. So, what is currently on your nightstand?
Dave Levanson: Well, it’s funny. So, I was thinking about this and I’ve been reading a number of books about bands from Manchester in the U.K. that started in the seventies and eighties. So Joy Division and the Smiths. I’m also spending, not as much time as I wish I had, to learn about cryptocurrency and NFTs and blockchains and DAOs and all this stuff. And then as I was thinking about our podcasts today, it was dawning on me that these topics are kind of related to each other. They’re both really about overturning an existing order.
Which I love, I love all that subversive, overturn-the-old-way stuff. It reminds me of this tagline from an old radio station here in DC back when I was in high school called 99.1 WHFS. And their tagline was: Think for yourself and question authority. Which I try to tell my kids about when I have opportunities. Not to question my authority, but to question authority, in general, because you can learn a lot, even if the way we do things are the right way.
Kevin: Unconventional. I like that. That’s great. Very good. Well, thanks again, Dave and Danielle, and thank you to our listeners, we hope you enjoyed learning more about this fascinating growth story with us.
As of this episode date Delphi Technologies, Schwinn, Schimano, General Motors, Tesla, Hyundai, and Lyft are not owned in any SCM strategies.
The featured podcast portfolio companies represent a subset of Sands Capital holdings that illustrate the types of businesses in which we typically invest. The series uses rotation whereby podcasts are selected to highlight different sectors and geographies.
The views expressed are the opinion of Sands Capital Management and are not intended as a forecast, a guarantee of future results, investment recommendations, or an offer to buy or sell any securities. The views expressed were current as of the date indicated and are subject to change. This material may contain forward-looking statements, which are subject to uncertainty and contingencies outside of Sands Capital’s control. Readers should not place undue reliance upon these forward-looking statements. There is no guarantee that Sands Capital will meet its stated goals. Past performance is not indicative of future results. A company’s fundamentals or earnings growth is no guarantee that its share price will increase. Forward earnings projections are not predictors of stock price or investment performance, and do not represent past performance. References to companies provided for illustrative purposes only. The portfolio companies identified do not represent all of the securities purchased or recommended for advisory clients. There is no assurance that any securities discussed will remain in the portfolio or that securities sold have not been repurchased. You should not assume that any investment is or will be profitable. GIPS® reports and additional disclosures for the related composites may be found at Sands Capital GIPS Report.
Questions, Comments, Podcast Ideas?
The featured podcast portfolio companies represent a subset of Sands Capital holdings that illustrate the types of businesses in which we typically invest. The series uses rotation whereby podcasts are selected to highlight different sectors and geographies.
The views expressed are the opinion of Sands Capital Management and are not intended as a forecast, a guarantee of future results, investment recommendations, or an offer to buy or sell any securities. The views expressed were current as of the date indicated and are subject to change. This material may contain forward-looking statements, which are subject to uncertainty and contingencies outside of Sands Capital’s control. Readers should not place undue reliance upon these forward-looking statements. There is no guarantee that Sands Capital will meet its stated goals. Past performance is not indicative of future results. A company’s fundamentals or earnings growth is no guarantee that its share price will increase. Forward earnings projections are not predictors of stock price or investment performance, and do not represent past performance. References to companies provided for illustrative purposes only. The portfolio companies identified do not represent all of the securities purchased or recommended for advisory clients. There is no assurance that any securities discussed will remain in the portfolio or that securities sold have not been repurchased. You should not assume that any investment is or will be profitable. GIPS® Reports and additional disclosures for the related composites may be found in the Sands Capital GIPS Report.