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Down 8% on CEO resignation: Are Cleanaway (ASX:CWY) shares a buying opportunity?

The Cleanaway Waste Management Ltd (ASX: CWY) share price finished more than 8% lower on Thursday as investors reacted to news that the current CEO will soon be stepping down.

Despite this, the Cleanaway share price has delivered a strong return since the onset of COVID-19 last year, with shares up 70% to $2.38 at the time of writing.

CWY share price chart

Source: Rask Media 1-year CWY share price chart

Cleanaway is Australia’s largest waste management company, servicing customers from small businesses to large multi-national commercial and industrial organisations across a range of different industries.

It generates revenue through the collection of waste, which is then processed through recycling facilities, waste transfer stations and highly engineered landfills.

CEO succession

After more than five years in the position, CEO and managing director Vik Bansal has resigned from the company in a mutually agreed decision with the board.

During his tenure, Cleanaway shares have delivered total shareholder returns close to 300%, comfortably outperforming the S&P/ASX 200 (ASX: XJO) which has returned roughly 58%. Revenue and net profit has also seen fairly consistent year-on-year growth, with an earnings per share (EPS) compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.8%.

According to reports in The Australian Financial Review, Mr Bansal indicated family commitments were a contributing factor in his decision to resign. He noted some of the job’s demands, such as flying from Sydney to Melbourne each week and being away from family, has been challenging.

Recent developments

I can understand why the market hasn’t responded very well to this announcement.

Cleanaway experienced strong growth under Mr Bansal’s leadership and generally speaking, the departure of a CEO is never a great sign to see as a shareholder. Interestingly, Mr Bansal sold around 70% of his 5.5 million shares in the company back in August last year for a total of $10 million.

While financial performance under Mr Bansal’s leadership has been undeniably impressive, there have been some corporate governance issues within the company that have come into the public eye.

Towards the end of last year, Mr Bansal was the subject of investigations which alleged leading a “culture of bullying and harassment” that resulted in high turnover rates of senior-level management and lower-level employees.

His resignation has come amid an investigation by the federal government’s workplace health and safety agency. So with Mr Bansal out of the picture now, it will be interesting to see how the investigation plays out.

Additionally, according to the AFR, the ACCC is set to launch a review of the waste management sector following question marks over Cleanaway’s takeover of ASP Plastics last year and potential consolidation in the sector across the globe. This comes as a private equity bid was lobbed for ASX rival Bingo Industries Ltd (ASX: BIN) on Tuesday.

I think it’s also worth noting there have been a number of directors and staff leaving the company recently. Non-executive director Emma Stein retired from the Cleanaway board on 31 December 2020, while chief financial officer Brendan Gill has also announced his retirement.

The timing of these resignations could be coincidental with the ongoing investigations, but it would be enough to test my conviction as a shareholder.

Is the Cleanaway share price a buy?

Despite these past events, Cleanaway is a solid business in my eyes and I think it would be a relatively defensive addition to an investor’s portfolio.

Many of the company’s municipal and industrial customers are on long-term contracts which range between three and 10 years, resulting in sticky revenues that flow through on a recurring basis.

Valuation wise, Cleanaway’s shares aren’t exactly in bargain territory, at least relative to its profit, in my view. With a trailing price/earnings ratio of around 40x, I’d guess the market has given Cleanaway a high price tag due to its stability and defensive characteristics rather than its profit growth. Over the last couple of years, profit growth has been fairly sluggish, both in absolute terms and on a per-share basis.

With this in mind, I’d say Cleanaway shares could be a buy if you are looking for a defensive stock that’s likely to perform consistently in the years to come. The company has also historically paid a dividend, aiming to pay out between 50-75% of underlying profits in dividends to shareholders.

But if you’re after growth, I think these companies could be better options: 3 ASX growth shares I’d buy for 2021.

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At the time of publishing, the author of this article does not have a financial or commercial interest in any of the companies mentioned.

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