You can exhale now, iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) investors: The Roomba maker's crucial focus on innovation and R&D spending will remain intact for now.
If you think that sounds like a strange sentence to write about a robotics company, I can't blame you. But it's exactly what was at stake at iRobot's annual shareholder meeting this week. More specifically ahead of that meeting, iRobot found itself engaged in a proxy battle with activist investor group Red Mountain Capital.
Red Mountain sought to replace two iRobot board directors who were up for election this year with its own nominees. In response to the move, iRobot went on the offensive last month to plead with shareholders to vote for its nominees, asserting Red Mountain's candidates "have no relevant expertise in our industry and lack a fundamental understanding of iRobot's business." By contrast, iRobot argued, its two candidates would bring strong experience in areas that are critical to its future, including software development, cloud computing and SaaS, and the Internet of Things.
Among other concerns, iRobot also warned that Red Mountain wanted to reduce its R&D spending, from around 12% of annual revenue to levels more in line with traditional consumer products companies. This could have disastrous effects on its ability to maintain a technological edge given the increasing competition in its high-tech space.
But on Wednesday morning, iRobot announced that, based on a preliminary vote count provided by its proxy solicitor following the meeting, shareholders have sided with iRobot by electing its nominees, Mohamad Ali and Michael Bell, to the iRobot board. iRobot elaborated in a statement:
Today's outcome reaffirms our belief that we have the right team and strategy in place to drive growth, innovation, and value for all our stakeholders. As the market for Home Robots continues to grow rapidly, iRobot is poised to take advantage of our leading market share, brand recognition, unique technology, and established global distribution network to quickly and profitably penetrate the market further, and expand into adjacent product offerings, creating value for our customers and our shareholders alike.
The results aren't official yet. Rather, iRobot will file final voting results with the SEC once they're certified by the independent director of elections.
In the meantime, I agree that iRobot investors can safely mark this vote down in the "win" column. This shouldn't be entirely surprising considering I already made it clear that I disagreed with Red Mountain's criticisms of iRobot's business model when the activist investor group significantly increased its stake in the company late last year. At the time, Red Mountain called out iRobot for its "history of poor stock price performance, lack of capital allocation discipline, and shareholder-unfriendly corporate governance practices."
Those comments seemed to be in stark contrast to my own previous research, which indicated that iRobot has a history of meticulously dividing its R&D investments between advancements in key future technologies like navigation and manipulation, and funds dedicated to "actual product development" -- that is, maintaining and improving iRobot's current core products to ensure it can drive revenue and profitable growth.
To Red Mountain's credit, it also suggested that iRobot refocus its business on the home robot segment by exploring strategic alternatives for its government-centric defense and security segment. But iRobot was already in the process of doing so as it enlisted the help of Blackstone Advisory Partners -- now PJT Partners -- in early 2014, and ultimately sold the defense and security business to Arlington Capital Partners earlier this year. As it turns out, iRobot used the proceeds of the sale for a decidedly shareholder-friendly purpose of expanding its share repurchase program to $100 million this year.
It couldn't have hurt that iRobot stock popped more than 10% in a single day after the company announced stronger-than-expected first-quarter results late last month, including more than 55% year-over-year growth in domestic home robot sales, which was driven by both its massively popular high-tech Roomba 980, and an "overwhelmingly positive response" to its new Braava jet floor-mopping robot. What's more, iRobot can look forward to launching Braava jet in China and Japan in the third quarter, fulfilling the affordable new bot's global purpose of diversifying revenue away from core Roomba sales by taking market share in two countries whose consumers have dwellings with predominantly hard-floor surfaces.
Of course, these products are only the tip of the iceberg for iRobot given the vast long-term potential for its niche to expand both outside the home, and to more detailed tasks including object manipulation and autonomous navigation and mapping. But if one thing seems sure, it's realizing that potential will be much easier for iRobot with this proxy fight resolved.