Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (NYSE:BIP) didn't perform up to investors' expectations last year. The global infrastructure company, which had historically generated strong cash flow growth, didn't increase it on a per-unit basis in 2018 due to several headwinds, including some that it caused. As a result, a company that had consistently beaten the market over the years significantly underperformed as it produced a negative total return of 19%.
However, while investors might view last year as a failure, CEO Sam Pollock saw it as a smashing success. That's because Brookfield Infrastructure made excellent progress on its strategic plan. Here are four reasons he believes that 2018 "was an extremely successful year for our business."
1. It boosted its presence in North America
While Brookfield is a global operator of infrastructure assets, one of its aims has been to increase its exposure in North America, which contributed about 25% of its cash flow last year. One factor driving that desire is that there has been a significant dislocation in the North American energy-infrastructure market in recent years due to oil price volatility, which has assets trading at attractive valuations.
Pollock noted that the company was successful in this aim as it "significantly expanded our presence in North America." Not only did the company buy a leading provider of central residential energy infrastructure, but it also acquired a stake in the largest independent natural gas gathering and processing business in Western Canada. Overall, Brookfield committed to investing $1.3 billion in North America last year, a significant portion of the $1.9 billion in deals it signed.
2. It continued investing in high-return capital projects
Next, Pollock noted that "we invested approximately $800 million in organic-growth capital projects" across all four of the company's operating segments. He also said that Brookfield "expect[s] these projects to grow our EBITDA by 10% on a run-rate basis once fully on line in the next two years or so." The company has significantly increased its spending on expansion projects in recent years, more than doubling last year's amount, as it aims to reduce its reliance on acquisitions to drive growth.
3. It cashed in on some successful investments
Pollock then noted that the company "executed on our capital recycling program," which included selling its stake in a Chilean electricity transmission business for $1.1 billion. While the lost income from this asset sale hurt the company's financial results last year, it decided to cash in to lock in its gain (the business generated an 18% internal rate of return) as well as to reinvest the proceeds into higher-returning opportunities like those it found in North America.
The company recently took the next step in this program by signing a deal to sell up to 33% of its Chilean toll roads. Further, it has another five sales in various stages that should generate net proceeds of $1.5 billion to $2 billion in the next 12 to 18 months, according to Pollock.
4. It firmed up its financial foundation
Finally, Pollock noted that the company raised $800 million in debt and preferred equity, and refinanced another $1.5 billion in debt last year. As a result, it has "no maturities we need to deal with for the next five years." These moves also helped boost its total liquidity to more than $3.3 billion, which gives it the cash to close its last few acquisitions as well as continue investing in expansion projects. Liquidity could further improve as the company completes its asset recycling program, which would give it the funds to make additional investments in higher returning infrastructure opportunities elsewhere.
Transitioning to a brighter future
Last year marked a notable shift in Brookfield's strategy as it took its foot off the gas to reshape its portfolio. The aim will be to self-fund growth -- both organic and acquisitions -- through internally generated cash flow and asset sales, instead of the previous model of selling more equity and diluting investors to finance expansion. This new approach should enable the company to grow cash flow at a faster per-unit rate, which could create more value for investors.