The Value Perspective Podcast – with Nick Hodler
Juan Torres Rodriguez (JTR) and Emily Corvo (EC)
Hi, everyone. Joining us on The Value Perspective podcast today is Nick Hodler, president and CEO of Arc. If you are not familiar with Arc, it is the world’s largest manufacturer of glass tableware and the chances are you have encountered one of their products in your local pub. We are excited to have Nick on the pod as, with him at the helm, Arc has been in the midst of a positive turnaround story and, as value investors, these are exactly the type of situations that interest us. Nick discusses with Juan and me how he approached the turnaround situation, using his background as a management consultant, and how he adopted his decision-making processes at a global company with operations in quite distinct and different markets in France, the US and the Middle East. Enjoy ...
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JTR: Nick Hodler, welcome – back – to The Value Perspective podcast. It is amazing to have you here – again. The reason I am welcoming you like that is because I need to publicly apologise as we did have a conversation some months ago but the recording failed. So this is our second attempt. How are you?
NH: Fine, thanks. It is a pleasure to be here.
JTR: For our listeners who might not have come across you before, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
NH: Sure. I am Nick Hodler. I run Arc, which is the largest glass tableware company in the world. We make about four million glass items a day – so glasses and plates made of glass. We are based in France and also have factories in New Jersey in the US, in Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE and in Nanjing in China – although our historical site, which is almost 200 years old, is in France and that is where about half of our production is made. I have been with Arc since 2015, when the company was taken over by its current shareholders. It is a turnaround of a company that had some difficulties for several years starting in the early 2000s and we are working on improving the operations and bringing it back to where it needs to be.
JTR: Arc is quite important here in the UK because if I go to a pub and ask for a pint, I believe there is a very high chance the glass I am given will have been manufactured by the company. Is that correct?
NH: Definitely. We work in three segments. We work in what we call ‘consumer goods’ – so things you buy in specialty stores or supermarkets at a kind of midmarket level of retail. We work in what we call ‘B2B’ [business-to-business], which can be an all-encompassing term but can include some food packaging and candle jars. And then a big segment is foodservice, which is everything from pubs and restaurants – from the mid-range to relatively high range and we have some crystalline products.
And a big segment of that is the beer market or the brewer market where the business model – in Europe, at least – is we will sell the decorated pints to the brewer, who will then give them to the pubs and restaurants as a marketing promotion tool and an incentive for them to buy to buy more beer. We are very strong in that segment – particularly in the UK – so there is indeed a very high chance that the next Peroni you drink in a pub will have been made by us and it typically will say on the label, right below the little ‘pint’ line: ‘ARC’.
JTR: We will keep an eye out for it. I was reading the other day how the company also does a lot of R&D [research and development] and, since I am completely ignorant about the glass market, I didn’t know it was possible to improve the way people drink, for instance, champagne. You were kind enough to show me some of your new offerings in that regard but how does it work?
NH: We spend a lot on, and invest a lot in, R&D – and that covers everything from fundamental R&D, where we are looking at the chemistry of glass and inventing new types of glass, to the R&D around our forming machines and our processes. And then we get towards the blend of design and R&D that is closer to our products. One of our biggest successes since 2015 has been on the commercial side and a big driver of that has been the R&D and the new product development piece.
For over a decade, ARC had been very poor in terms of innovation and novelties but one of the core parts of our strategy now is innovation – our motto is ‘Innovative glass for a better world’ and that first word, ‘innovative’ is a big piece of that. We have, since 2015, invented three new types of glass. People invent a new type of glass maybe every 15 years so the fact we have invented three in the last few years is quite impressive.
Most people think of glass as transparent but we also make a type of glass that is white, which we call ‘Opal’, and we make a lot of plates out of those kinds of products. We have invented a new way of colouring these plates directly in the glass – so without going through a decorating step – and that has been a huge success. It is also a lot cheaper to do it that way rather than going through a secondary process. We invented a way to make Opal oven-safe, so we make oven dishes. And we have combined that with our special forming process – a spinning process – which means you can make a very light, very thin oven dish that also looks quite sleek, is easy to wash,= and is much thinner and lighter. So that has been another success.
We have launched ‘Crystalline’ as a way to enter the higher end of the market. This is a product that has the same transparency, clarity and sound as lead crystal but it does not contain lead. And that has been another huge success – indeed, today, the biggest mismatch between our supply and demand is on the high-end stemware, where there is a lot more demand than our capacity. We are right now installing a new stemware line. It is a big project – €15m [£12.8m] capital expenditure that is going to allow us to do another 25 million pieces a year of high-end stemware – so we are looking forward to getting that machine online later this year.
JTR I didn’t know you could do so much new stuff with glass. You jumped straight into when you joined the company back in 2015 but it would be nice to hear about your life before taking over a turnaround business. One of the reasons we invited you on the pod is because we wanted to examine – and I hope we get the chance to do it – how you make decisions under all the uncertainty that comes with turning around a business, which is incredibly difficult to do on a day-to-day basis.
NH: Without going too far back, I grew up in Switzerland – I am Swiss and American – and went to the US for university and studied history. I then spent a couple of years selling flavours in Eastern Europe before doing my undergrad at Harvard and my MBA at Columbia, and then joined the Boston Consulting Group for a few years. That was an extremely formative period and definitely helps me a lot in the work I do today. What you really learn in these kinds of consulting jobs is how to simplify a problem.
A lot of the work I did at BCG involved looking at some extremely complex situation where there are so many different variables, so many issues and so many things you could do, and distilling that into three or four key things that need to be looked at. So both from an analytical perspective – though people tend to know the things that need to be done – but also from a communication and understanding perspective – you know, how can you make sure everyone understands and buys into the solutions you have identified? That is, I would say, one of the most useful things I have been able to bring from my consulting past to this job.
After a few years of consulting, I felt I had learned a lot but I missed the operational side of business – I missed making stuff. And that is why I joined Arc right after the acquisition. I spent three years running our Middle East business – we have a factory in Ras Al Khaimah, just north of Dubai, which had been really struggling because that business was built for Iran. Arc had been doing extremely well in Iran in the late 1990s and early 2000s and, when the Iranian market closed after the sanctions, we were left with a big factory with no customers. We successfully turned around that business over there – today, the Middle East is our most profitable entity. It is small but it is our most profitable one. And since late 2018, I have been running the whole group.
EC: When you were in management consulting, you basically came in as an external problem solver – and, since you had very little relation to your clients and had originally not been in the mix, you could presumably quite easily identify what they had been doing wrong. When you moved to Arc, how did that differ – trying to turn things around from the inside as opposed to being an external consultant?
NH: Well, it is much easier to give advice – you know, send a PowerPoint and say, see you later, not my problem anymore! – as opposed to actually having to do it yourself. That is a lot trickier – but it is also what I wanted to do. And one of the biggest challenges or things I had underestimated is the people management side. As a consultant, you are dealing with the facts, with the problems, very analytical things – that was 90% of my work; when you are managing a business, however, that becomes maximum 30% of your work.
The rest of it is the people-management side and that was a very steep learning curve – you know, making sure people are motivated, that the incentives are aligned, that the teams are working together, that you have the processes in place to make the right decisions – and it was very helpful to spend a few years running a somewhat smaller business. Our Middle East business is about €100m of sales; it is one office and two furnaces that are close to each other – so it is easy to wrap your arms around.
Even though we have 1,000 employees there, you only really need to know 100 people well and you can know everything. Moving to the group level, now we are at almost 8,000 people, of which 5,000 are in France, who I also manage directly, as well as the group – and suddenly it is a lot more complex and you are much further from the operations. So having that first step was very helpful – to be able to learn the people-management side of things and also to learn things are a lot messier in practice than they are in theory.
So you can make a beautiful PowerPoint deck and say, these are the five things you have to do – but, when you actually get into it, it is a lot trickier and you realise ‘good enough’ is usually the right answer, instead of trying to be perfect – especially when you have to go fast, when you have to make quick decisions, when you have limited resources, whether they are financial or from a people's perspective. You cannot do it all.
I remember, at one point, as a consultant, I was with a customer and someone showed me an internal PowerPoint presentation. It was, aesthetically, just the ugliest presentation I had ever seen in my life. I said, come on guys, how could you dare to present to your management such a disgusting presentation? The format makes no sense. You have different fonts, different sizes, different tables, they cover all the logos ... But I realised quite quickly that it does not really matter at all. You have to make sure the message is clear but the format really does not matter if the content is good.
JTR: Have you used consultants in your new role, over the course of the last five or six years?
NH: Not much. Maybe as an ex-consultant, I am a little bit allergic to consultants myself. We have used a fair number of specialist consultants – people who specialise in certain HR topics, say, IT topics, obviously or certain technical aspects of the business – but we have not really used any high-level strategy consultants or management consultants. And I don’t plan to. What I believe is we know what we need to do – or at least we believe we know what we need to do – and the challenge is really in the execution. And I don’t think having an external person to help in the execution sends the right message in relation to the empowerment of the people and getting the change done internally by those who need to get it done.
EC: You started your turnaround with the Middle East business and you obviously found a diagnostic or a team-building exercise, essentially, that made the turnaround successful there. Was there anything from that exercise that, when you took it globally, transferred over? Or are these things quite regional and people-specific? Are solutions to problems in the Middle East applicable when you are working in France, say, or in New Jersey?
NH: There are, obviously, cultural differences in every region – you know, the way you can speak to people, the level of directness people appreciate or respond to best, is different. One thing I learned a little bit late is that, if you want to make a change in a team – make a change in the team. Or, if you think there is something that needs to be changed, you are probably right and waiting is typically not a good idea. So that is one thing I learned and did apply when I moved to the group level. We made a number of changes in the executive team and I am very happy with the team we have today and were able to build over the last few years.
But you definitely do work differently with different people. France still has quite a hierarchical mentality and I think Arc’s historical culture was also very much top-down – you know, ‘the boss is always right and I will do what he says’ type of mentality. That has advantages in the sense you can get stuff done quickly, because people typically obey, but it is not something I believe in. I really believe in team-based leadership and empowering the people because I don’t know every decision – I don’t know what to do all the time. At a very macro perspective, I might, but it is so much more powerful to have the input of the people who are closer to the everyday decision-making – whether it is from the customer side, from the factory side, from all different parts of it.
So that means leading, not necessarily by consensus, but having open dialogue and being able to disagree and encouraging disagreement so you can really debate ideas. That has been and used to be a real challenge – you know, how can you create an atmosphere and a culture where you can create conflict, but conflict around ideas, not conflict around people. You have to build a level of trust so people know that, when I am criticising your idea, I am not criticising you. And it is not because I don’t like you or because I think you are an idiot – it is because I just don’t agree with your idea.
And that works maybe a bit better in an Anglo-Saxon culture but less so with a French or Middle Eastern or Indian mentality, say – because most of our employees in the Middle East are from the Indian subcontinent. Same thing in China – it is culturally more difficult to put that in place there – but it is very important. It is not a democracy – we don’t all vote and all agree: in the end, you need to have someone who decides and moves forward. But you need to be able to bring all the different ideas and perspectives to the table and debate them in order to come to the right decision.
JTR: That is really interesting. So how have you gone about trying to encourage people to embrace that culture of sharing ideas and accepting it is only their ideas that will criticised and not themselves – especially in cultures, as you mentioned, that are not used to that kind of mentality?
NH: It takes time, unfortunately. It is not something you can just decide and say – now, this is how it is going to be The biggest factor, I believe, is trust – and you cannot mandate trust. You have to make sure people work together and trust each other – so, spending time together as a management team, going even on one-day or two day retreats, small things. You don’t have to do anything extravagant – it is just spending time together, moving the office around so the team is physically closer together so everyone sees each other more. Especially in France, it is such a big site that we have people spread out across multiple buildings so bringing people a bit closer together and spending some time together is important.
Also, being explicit about it – you know, saying and repeating: I want us to disagree. Asking someone who has not being expressing his or her opinion but you can maybe see in their mannerisms or you know they might disagree – you say, well, what do you think about this. So call people out? Ask people – well, why would we think this is a bad idea? What would be the counter-arguments? In our executive team meetings, when we have a big decision, we might all think we agree but I will say, OK, stop – we think we all agree but, if we were to disagree, what would be the counter-argument? So you force those kinds of decisions. These are all small things that help transform this culture.
JTR: This is a podcast about how to make better decisions when dealing with uncertainty. With that in mind, what is the hardest thing about turning around a business? And how do you prepare yourself for making the difficult decisions required to maximise your chances of success?
NH: That is a big question and we would probably need a podcast with multiple episodes to answer it! But I think resource allocation is one of the biggest challenges. You need to move fast ... well, first, you need to know where you are going but that is almost the easiest part. Normally, if you get into a turnaround situation, it is because you have an idea, you have a plan – you know, the reason you invested or you want to get into this is because you know what you want to do.
But then, typically, the reality is that you have no time, you have no money, you do not have enough people so what do you do first? And, by definition, that also means what do you not do first? ‘What do you do first?’ may sound easier but, if you turn it around, it becomes: what do you have to postpone? What do you have to say ‘no’ to? And that is a very difficult part of a turnaround: to be able to set those priorities – and then to change them and change them in a way that does not disrupt the flow of all these projects.
Some things can be easily rescheduled – especially when you are talking about a heavy industry like ours – you know, some projects take months, even years. So launching a project and then, two months later, saying, actually, you know what? We are not going to do this anymore – that can be massively disruptive. So making those decisions fast enough and in the most agile way possible; accepting that sometimes ‘good enough’ is fine, as I said earlier, and you don’t need to get to perfection; and moving forward quickly – I think these are the keys to managing a turnaround.
JTR: You have said before that one of the key issues you found at Arc was having, in human capital terms, two very different pools of talent – people who had worked at the company for a very long time and, potentially, nowhere else; and people who had just joined Arc straight from university or at least extremely young. And you found not having that team in the middle one of the most challenging aspects you needed to cover – is that a fair assessment?
NH: It is particularly true in France. Our French operation went from about 11,000 employees in the year 2000 to under 5,000 employees in 2015, when the new shareholders took over. And during those 15 years, one of the reasons so many people left is because Arc opened factories in the Middle East and in China, which was, net, a good thing for the group because we need to produce closer to where we sell. Our products are not valuable enough to justify being transported around the world and it is a real competitive advantage over producing in the middle of Europe because we don’t have to deal with high transport and duty costs – and this was the case even before the extremely high transport costs we see today.
But, for the Arc France site, that means a bunch of production was shifted away. And, during those 15 years, Arc did not hire anyone – all those people left at retirement, on early retirement, Arc paid people to leave. So, today, we have that 15-year gap that has now moved up in age and we have a large portion of the Arc population that is, you know, 50 and older, another chunk that is under 30 and really not much in the middle. And that is indeed a real challenge. We have, over the last few years, started to recruit a bit more in that middle bracket – on the higher management side, where it is really challenging, in the middle and the first-line management side – and we are filling that gap. Certainly the fact that people have not seen practices at other places – have only seen how Arc does things – makes change more difficult.
JTR: I would like to circle back to your time in the Middle East when you became the CEO of what was a small business but also, in itself, a turnaround. You have never worked in glass manufacturing before but you are right in the middle now – what is the first thing that you do? Do you put a plan in place? Do you put a plan in place before you start? Do you meet people before your first day on the job? How do you think about it? And what happens when you move from turning around a small business to trying to turn around a bigger, more global one?
NH: It happened quite quickly. I joined Arc in February 2015. I spent a couple of months in France, at the headquarters – just to understand what was going on and the basics of the business – before going to the Middle East. The group CEO at the time and I had planned for three or four months overlap with the exiting Middle East CEO but, after about two weeks, we both realised that does not work – you can only have one boss and you cannot have that much overlap so that time shortened quite a bit.
The fact it was a relatively small business meant it was relatively easy to analyse. I had talked a little bit to people who knew the business before we got going there and the general consensus was there was a sales problem. We are a fixed-cost business: our furnaces burn a huge amount of energy and they run 24/7 – you cannot stop them – and, whether you are producing or not producing, you are using just as much energy and you have just as many people. At the same time, our marginal costs are almost negligible – it is a bit of sand and some packaging – so, if you don’t have a full furnace, you are in real trouble.
One of the first thing I did – as I was moving or before I even joined – was to look for a new head of sales. We found someone who was not new exactly – they had worked for Arc for many years but had left a few years prior and we brought him back on. We also did a massive transformation on the sales-organisation side – things like putting in place higher variable pay, because our sales team had much too high a proportion of fixed remuneration. And we said, listen, we are actually going to reduce your base pay but, if you make your budget, you can earn a lot more. Some people did not like that and left and others took on the challenge – and that was one big piece of the success.
We focused a lot on the product side. We did not have the resources in the Middle East to go into the high level of innovation I was talking about earlier in terms of R&D and glass type. It was more just on the design – some new glass types on the decoration side – and we realised what our strengths were on the manufacturing side. Our Middle East entity continues to be our best site in terms of our manufacturing capabilities and flexibility and we have a great tool to decorate plates. That is a good business in the Middle East but, when I arrived in 2015, we would launch maybe four or five new decorations a year. Today, we launch about 30 new decorations per month.
It was a complete change in our business model, really – and that implies big changes in how we design, how we sample and how we work with our customers. Rather than having a new collection every year, we will produce something once and never again. Those things we either knew already or discovered pretty quickly, even before really starting.
What I realised, once I was there, was there was a lot of work to be done on the supply-chain side as well –even though the manufacturing was pretty good, the way we scheduled our production and thought about our inventory turns and our service level was antiquated. And we have really looked deep into what our changeover costs are and how we can be more flexible, make shorter runs, have lower inventory, free up cash and offer much better service. So there was a lot of work done on the supply-chain side but that was something I discovered once I was there.
So, to come back to your question, there were a few things in the Middle East site that were pretty obvious and you could discover without even having to spend too much time there. And then some of the other key elements, we discovered over the first few months and we realised, this is how we need to change – although it was heavily focused on the customer and on how to generate the volumes we needed there.
When I moved to the group level, the focus was then really on France. So even though, yes, it was a move from the Middle East to the group, one of the reasons for that change was to improve France. The Middle East had improved, the US was doing fine, China was doing fine. We had a furnace in Russia at the time, which we sold in 2020, and that was doing great. But France was the real issue – and there, I would say, the biggest lesson I brought over from the Middle East was the prioritisation aspect of things.
We had so many things to do in France – there were so many questions, so many issues, so many ideas – so we had to structure and put in place a system and a process to decide what was going to happen first, what we were not going to do and how we would follow up. And we put in place a programme management office – not to manage the projects, but to manage the project management! This was one level above to make sure that stuff is happening and we are allocating resources, we are getting things done and we are not getting lost in all the ideas. And that worked well – 2019 was a good year, we met all our targets and the turnaround was really starting to happen. And we had a great start to 2020 until Covid-19 hit and obviously that hurt us really badly because, in a fixed cost business, if you are not selling it is a disaster.
JTR: That is a good segue to my next question. Most systems, by default, are built with some slack so, if things go wrong, there is room to absorb the shock – time to fix, improve and carry on – but a company going through a turnaround, by definition, will have less margin for error. So how do you account for the probability, low as that might be, that a tail-event – a pandemic or a war in Europe, such as we are sadly seeing at the moment – will happen before the strategy starts to yield results?
NH: I don’t think you can – at least in my opinion. It depends, obviously, on the situation of any turnaround and some turnarounds might have more buffer than others. What has helped us and the way we managed to go through this was thanks to our good relationships with all the stakeholders – with our shareholders, our lenders and the French government as well. We are the largest employer in northern France and so obviously we have a close relationship with the government in France.
JTR: Were those good relationships with your shareholders in place when you arrived or did you have to work on them? I guess, if a company has been struggling for some time, sometimes those relationships can become strained.
NH: Arc was a family-owned business that finally got bought out in 2015 and part of the turnaround was linked to the purchase of the company. And keeping a strong level of transparency, making sure everyone understands the issues – what we are and are not doing – and building that level of trust with all the stakeholders is very important. What we saw is that, when things got difficult and we had these tail-events you mention, if your stakeholders trust you and believe you are the right person to do what you are doing, you have a much higher chance of them cutting you slack – rescheduling loans, adding capital and so on.
Whereas, if they don’t understand what you are doing, if they don’t necessarily trust you or if they think you are hiding things or are just not even aware of what is happening, then the likelihood they pull the plug is a lot higher. So we really try to keep everyone informed, put in place strong corporate governance with our board, inform our lenders, our shareholders, the government authorities – everyone. To keep a level of trust is not always easy when you don’t have good news every month – sometimes you don’t necessarily want to share your news every month – but it definitely does help in the long term, if you are more transparent and build that trust with the relevant stakeholders.
EC: We were really excited to have you on the podcast because, as value investors, we do love a turnaround situation, just by default of our investment style. A lot of the time, value investors will inject capital into turnaround situations after examining balance sheets or the delightful bedside reading of reports and accounts but what are some catalysts people who are interested in investing in turnaround situations should look at other than the numbers? After all, as we have been talking about today, there are a lot more factors in play than just correcting a balance sheet.
NH: Understanding the market and the relative position of a company within that market, I think, is very important – and one of the reasons why I believe in this turnaround and why our shareholders believe in this turnaround is that, in our view, we are the market leader. In 2015, we were also the market leader – but we were an ageing market leader that had been losing market share. So we had to say, well, why is that? And our analysis was, OK, we had not brought any new products to the market; we had not focused on innovation; we had spent our money on letting people go instead of investing in automation and better production methods.
But we still had this leading position in a market with very high barriers to entry. It is a capital-intensive business – you cannot really build a new factory without spending tens, if not hundreds, of millions of euros – and that makes it an interesting situation. So, where there is a story beyond the numbers, you look at the history – yes, things have not been doing well – but, between things you could do from an external position and things that could be done internally, does it look like the right kind of opportunity for a turnaround?
JTR: Nick, we are coming to the end of our session and we always ask our guests two final questions. Could you share with us, first, a book recommendation and, second, an example of a bad outcome to a decision that was down to bad process and not bad luck.
NH: I just read a thriller so I am not going to give you that one! But one I read only a couple of months ago was Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. It is about the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, the makers of the painkiller Oxycontin. It is not a turnaround story but I think it is a very interesting account of process, of probably bad process and of how things can go seriously wrong when you have incentives that are wrong and processes that don’t work and can lead to very sad and pretty catastrophic results. Plus it was a very, very good book.
In terms in terms of bad outcomes – I am not going to speak for others. I will let others talk about their own bad outcomes but I made reference to this example a few times earlier in the call. Really, the difficulties we had – particularly in the first few years of the turnaround and particularly in France – had been on prioritising and putting in place the right process to execute on our ideas. Having ideas is obviously critical – if you don’t have any ideas, you are not going to do anything – but it is almost the easy part
And if you do not have the right process in place to systematically be able to choose what needs to happen first, and what has to be postponed, and to make sure you are executing on your ideas, then it is not going to work. And when we launched, there were so many things to do – almost all the ideas we had were fundamentally good ideas – but you cannot do it all at once. And I would say one of the reasons for our success in 2019 – and what is going well now as well – is we have a much better structure and process in place to prioritise, to make sure that we follow through on the execution of our ideas, versus just launching all the ideas as fast as we can and then having little to show for it afterwards.
JTR: That is great. Nick Hodler, thank you very much for coming on The Value Perspective podcast and best of luck going forward to you and Arc.
NH: Thank you so much. It has been a pleasure.
Juan Torres Rodriguez
Fund Manager, Equity Value
I joined Schroders in January 2017 as a member of the Global Value Investment team and manage Emerging Market Value. Prior to joining Schroders I worked for the Global Emerging Markets value and income funds at Pictet Asset Management with responsibility over different sectors, among those Consumer, Telecoms and Utilities. Before joining Pictet, I was a member of the Customs Solution Group at HOLT Credit Suisse.
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