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Piedmont Natural Gas Co Inc. (NYSE:PNY)

Q4 2012 Earnings Conference Call

January 3, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Executives

Thomas E. Skains - Chairman, President and CEO

Karl W. Newlin - SVP and CFO

Jane R. Lewis-Raymond - SVP, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance and Community Affairs Officer

Franklin H. Yoho - SVP and Chief Commercial Operations Officer

Nicholas Giaimo - Investor Relations

Analysts

Heike Doerr - Robert W. Baird & Co.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Spencer Joyce - Hilliard Lyons

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Operator

Good day and welcome to the Piedmont Natural Gas Year-End 2012 Earnings Conference Call. Today’s conference is being recorded. At this time, I’d like to turn the call over to Mr. Nick Giaimo. Please go ahead.

Nicholas Giaimo

Thank you, Ryan. Good morning everyone, and thank you for joining the Piedmont Natural Gas year-end 2012 earnings conference call. This call is open to the general public and is being webcast live over the Internet.

If you’d like to access the webcast of this call or view the slides of the accompanying presentation, please visit our website at piedmontng.com and choose the For Investors link. On the right hand side of that page, you will find the appropriate links.

On the call today presenting prepared remarks, we have Tom Skains, President, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer; and Karl Newlin, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. Other officers of the Company are also in attendance to take your questions.

Finally, this call may include forward-looking statements and our actual results may materially differ from those statements. More information about the risks and uncertainties relating to these forward-looking statements may be found in Piedmont’s 2012 Form 10-K filed Friday, December 21st with the SEC.

And with that, I’ll turn the call over to Tom.

Thomas E. Skains

Thanks, Nick, and good morning and happy New Year everybody, and thank you for joining us for our year-end 2012 earnings conference call. I know many of you’re just getting back into the office after the holidays and we appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. As you know we filed our 2012 10-K and issued our year-end earnings release on December 21st.

This morning I’m going to talk about our 2012 accomplishments and provide you with a general update on the Company, and then I will turn the call over to Karl Newlin to give you a more detailed discussion of our 2012 financial results and our 2013 earnings guidance. Following Karl’s remarks, I’ll conclude by discussing our recently announced Constitution Pipeline joint venture as well as our Marcellus supply diversification strategy.

Let’s begin on Slide 2, since Nick has already covered Slide 1. I’m extremely proud of what our team accomplished in 2012, despite weather that was the warmest that we’ve experienced in over 35 years, we were able to generate net income of $120 million and diluted earnings per share of $1.66. This was a 6% increase from 2011 and at the upper end of our guidance range for the year.

2012 was also an encouraging year for customer growth. We added more of the 13,000 new customers to our system, the strongest year of customer additions since 2008. Growth also came in the form of capital expenditures and in 2012 we completed the largest capital expansion program in Company history.

This includes the completion of the Wayne County power generation delivery project for Duke Energy Progress in June and substantial progress towards completing the Sutton project. I’ll speak to our overall capital expenditures in greater detail in just a moment.

In September 2011 we filed a general rate case in Tennessee for the first time since 2003. In January of last year the Tennessee regulatory authority approved a settlement of that case and new rates went into effect in March. The settlement included $11.9 million in full-year in incremental margin with a 10.2% return on equity. All additional margin comes in the form of fixed facility charges, improving our fixed component of margin recovery to 37% from 29% in Tennessee.

In addition, our weather normalization adjustment in Tennessee was expanded to include the month of October and April.

During the year, we also took advantage of the favorable interest rate environment and issued $300 million of long-term debt at a blended interest rate of about 3.5%. And finally, our Board once again demonstrated its confidence in the Company’s growth by raising our dividend for the 34th consecutive year.

Slide 3 shows our 2012 earnings of $120 million, which were 6% higher than 2011. Higher margin, lower general taxes and lower interest expense were offset somewhat by increased O&M expense, higher depreciation expense and lower contributions from SouthStar.

I’ll let Karl speak to these items in more detail in just a moment, but I will note – that with the exception of utility margin and contributions from SouthStar which were both adversely affected by warmer weather, all income statement line items performed at or better than our expectations.

On Slide 4, we highlighted our gross customer additions for the year. As you can see customer gains of 13,274 were 26% higher than the prior-year and translated into a gross customer growth rate of about 1.3%. We are also encouraged that growth was across all categories and believe that it reflects an improvement in the new construction markets in our service territory. It certainly reflects the competitive pricing dynamics of natural gas compared to other fuels in our conversion markets. As a result, we anticipate modest continued improvements in customer growth in 2013 and beyond.

Moving to Slide 5, in 2012, we invested over $550 million in utility infrastructure and growth projects, the largest program in the Company’s history. This was primarily fuelled by our portfolio of power generation delivery projects for Duke Energy Progress. Last January, we put into service our Dan River project and then in June we completed our project at Wayne County. The remaining project to be completed is the Sutton project, the largest of the five we originally introduced in 2009. We broke ground on Sutton earlier in 2012 and it remains on schedule to be placed into service by June of 2013.

While I am proud of all the work our team accomplished in 2012 to complete this capital program, we’re challenging ourselves yet again in 2013. Our current estimate for 2013 CapEx is between $525 million and $575 million. The increase in our utility CapEx in ’13 and future years is primarily related to our pipeline integrity program as we work to make our system among the safest and the most reliable in the nation.

With that, I’d now like to turn the call over to our Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Karl Newlin. Karl?

Karl W. Newlin

Thank you, Tom and good morning, everyone. As Tom mentioned, we had an excellent year in 2012 with net income of $120 million and diluted earnings per share of $1.66. This was a 6% improvement from last year and came in spite of weather there was 19% more than normal and 27% warmer than 2011.

As for the details of income statement, let’s start with Slide 6. Margin of $575.4 million were slightly higher than in 2011, increased services to power generation customer’s, new rates in Tennessee and customer growth were partially offset by warmer weather, which negatively affected residential and commercial volumes in South Carolina and Tennessee, industrial customer consumption and wholesale marketing activity.

On expense side, Slide 7, O&M of $243 million was 8% higher than last year due to higher pension expense, medical cost, incentive compensation accruals, contract labor and regulatory expenses. I’d like to remind everyone that despite the increase in O&M expense we did perform better than expected as our original guidance forecast as expense increases of 9% in 2011. This is due to expense discipline by our employees across the Company.

Slide 8 shows depreciation expense of $103 million, which was slightly higher than last year and general taxes of $35 million, which were 9% lower than in 2011. The increase in depreciation was due to growth in utility investment and plant and service. Lower general taxes were function of higher sales taxes on certain customer accounts in 2011, as well as lower 2012 Tennessee gross receipts tax.

On Slide 9, income from joint ventures was $24 million in 2012 basically flat compared to last year. Lower contribution from SouthStar primarily due to lower customer usage as a result of the warm weather primarily in Georgia was offset by an increased contribution in Cardinal due to its expansion to serve the Wayne County project.

Turning to Slide 10, interest expense of $20 million was 54% lower than 2011. This was a result of AFUDC offsets, lower long-term debt expense due to debt retirements and refinancings, and higher interest income on amounts due from customers.

Finally on Slide 11, we’ve outlined our 2013 earnings guidance of $1.67 to $1.77 per diluted share that we issued in November and reaffirmed in our December 21st earnings release. Our margin assumptions include customer growth of slightly greater than 1%, a full-year impact of the Wayne County power generation delivery project and five months of the Sutton project, which is expected to go into service on June 1, 2013. This is partially offset by $1.1 million reduction in margin from South Carolina, under the RSA as well as lower levels of secondary marketing margins due to lower price and basis volatility.

As Tom mentioned, capital expenditures are estimated to be between $525 million and $575 million with $75 million to $85 million to complete the Sutton power generation delivery project. Growth in utility capital expenditures is primarily a result of transmission integrity spending. Guidance also assumes $28 million in income from AFUDC, a modest improvement from joint ventures and a 5% increase in O&M expense due to higher pension, payroll and pipeline integrity costs.

On the financing side, we anticipate issuing $250 million of long-term debt and approximately 4 million shares of new equity during the year. These capital raises are a result of the future growth that we’ve outlined and have been shaped to maintain our targeted capital ratios.

In a moment Tom is going to discuss our investment in the Constitution Pipeline project as well as our supply diversity strategy. Before he does that, I want to note that Constitution will not have a significant impact on our 2013 results and any impact is captured within our guidance range. The vast majority of funding for Constitution is planned for our 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. Thank you.

I’ll now turn the call back over to Tom.

Thomas E. Skains

Thank you, Karl. As many of you know two of our strategic objectives at Piedmont Natural Gas are to provide our customers with the benefits of supply diversity and to enhance shareholder value through complimentary energy related investments. We recognized early on that the development of abundant low-cost natural gas in the Marcellus Shale basin could help us achieve both of these objectives and our team has been working diligently over the course of about two years to find an entry point into that market. And so with much of that good work behind us I’m excited today to talk to you about the execution of both our Marcellus investment and supply diversification strategies.

So turning to Slide 12, in November we announced that we would be joining Williams Partners and Cabot Oil & Gas as a 24% equity investor in the Constitution Pipeline. Constitution is a FERC regulated pipeline to be operated by Williams Transco that will transport Marcellus gas from Northern Pennsylvania to major northeastern markets. The pipeline will be capable of transporting 650,000 dekatherms a day and is already fully subscribed under long-term negotiated rate contracts by two producer shippers who currently operate in that supply basin. Subject to appropriate regulatory approvals, the project is scheduled to go into service in March of 2015.

Our portion of the overall investment is estimated to be about $180 million with about 90% of that investment anticipated to be made in our fiscal years 2014 and 2015. We’re excited about this pipeline infrastructure investment because it will create value for both natural gas producers and consumers by transporting clean burning low cost natural gas and the largest supply base in the North America to premium East Coast markets.

We also have a long history of working with Williams Transco as a joint venture partner and project operator given our relationship with them and our existing Cardinal Pipeline and Pine Needle LNG storage businesses. The development of Marcellus shale is also allowing us to reduce our dependence on natural gas from the Gulf Coast.

On Slide 13, you’ll see that in November we executed two long-term contracts that will enable our customers to receive the benefits of supply diversity and reliability of Marcellus natural gas. The first is a competitively priced supply agreement with Cabot Oil & Gas. The second is a firm transportation agreement under Williams Transco’s Leidy Southeast project that will transport the Cabot Gas supplies to our Carolina markets. These supply arrangements will commence in December of 2015 as scheduled and will provide supply diversification, reliability and gas cost benefits for Piedmont’s customers for years to come. The Transco Leidy Southeast project is obviously subject to regulatory approvals to maintain that project schedule.

I want to conclude by saying that we believe that this is an exciting time to be a shareholder and customer of Piedmont Natural Gas. We’ve outlined multiple growth and expansion initiatives that we believe will reward investors and we’ve made plans to ensure that our gas cost remain competitive and dependable in the future as we operate a safe and reliable natural gas distribution system for the benefit of our customer.

Now I will turn the call back to Nick to take your questions.

Nicholas Giaimo

Thank you, Tom. Ryan, we’re now ready to open the call for questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

Thank you. (Operator Instructions) And we’ll take our first question from Heike Doerr with Robert Baird.

Heike Doerr - Robert W. Baird & Co.

Good morning. Happy New Year.

Karl W. Newlin

Good morning.

Thomas E. Skains

Happy New Year.

Karl W. Newlin

Same to you.

Heike Doerr - Robert W. Baird & Co.

I was hoping we could start talking about regulation in each of your states. I know in North Carolina you have a new Governor, in South Carolina you have four commissioners whose terms expire next year, and in Tennessee we have that part time commission taking effect. I wondered if you could comment on those three kind of pending regulatory items.

Thomas E. Skains

Yeah, I’ll be happy to start. As you know, we do have a new Governor in North Carolina, and we’ll have vacancies in the North Carolina Utilities Commission this year that he will appoint. So, we’re waiting for those appointments to occur to see what the new composition of the Commission will be.

I will say that we have an excellent working relationship with the North Carolina Utilities Commission and expect to have one in the future. From my perspective they’ve engaged in fair and reasonable regulatory rule-making and opinions and have a balanced focus on consumers as well as the utilities they regulate.

In Tennessee there’s also been a restructuring of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority there and have been some recent appointments to the authority and I’ll ask Jane Lewis-Raymond to kind of give a brief overview of how the Tennessee Regulatory Authority will operate under the new structuring?

Jane R. Lewis-Raymond

Good morning and thank you, Tom. We don’t know exactly how they are going to be structured under the new authority. They are working now to try and figure that out. And they’ve been very proactive in reaching out to the regulated industries in Tennessee to get Company’s input on what that structure might look like. It will be obviously part-time Directors with a full-time Executive Director, Earl Taylor who is busy trying to shape up what the authority will look like, but we have every reason to believe that it will continue to be a positive regulatory environment for us to operate in.

Heike Doerr - Robert W. Baird & Co.

And in South Carolina?

Thomas E. Skains

In South Carolina, really there have not been any significant changes over the course of the past year or months. And as you know, Heike, there we operate under a rate stabilization adjustment filing every year, which trues-up our cost and revenues. It’s essentially an annual mini rate case within our allowed rate of return band, but we don’t expect that structure to change. Going back to Tennessee, as I’ve explained in my earlier remarks we executed a rate case settlement last year and we’ll get a full-years benefit of the new rates, this fiscal year. And in North Carolina as always we kind of examined our cost and revenues and our allowed return to see whether or not and when a rate case could be necessary in that case and those deliberations continue as a matter of course.

Heike Doerr - Robert W. Baird & Co.

Okay, that’s helpful. And how should we be thinking about the CapEx budget past 2015?

Karl W. Newlin

Hey, Heike, it’s Karl. Past 2015, I mean it’s a bit of an unknown. I think a lot of the increases you know that is occurring in our estimates of CapEx in ’14 and ’15 stems from pipeline integrity and depending on what future regulations come out of Washington as well as the state capitals. We’ll just have to make adjustments in the future periods. I think the amount of pipeline integrity spend that we’re seeing as well as likely increased distribution integrity spend into the future is something that that -- is something we can all count on down the road, but trying to quantify what that would be past 2015 would really be a bit of a difficult task.

Heike Doerr - Robert W. Baird & Co.

But as a floor, we would look at – you’d be spending at least the $150 million or so you had spent in prior years on utility CapEx, correct?

Karl W. Newlin

Yes, I mean, I’m going to be careful about trying to give estimate past 2015, but you’re right, I mean typically we’ve seen capital expenditures of this Company at around $150 million in kind of our regular way capital spend, and so I’d say that’s a pretty good baseline going forward, but again there’s just a lot of focus on the industry, there’s a lot of integrity spend that’s been promulgated and will be in the future coming out, so the numbers maybe north of that in the future.

Heike Doerr - Robert W. Baird & Co.

Yeah, understood. Thanks, Karl.

Karl W. Newlin

Yeah.

Operator

And we’ll take our next question from Dan Fidell with U.S. Capital Advisors.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Good morning, and Happy New Year from me as well.

Thomas E. Skains

Good morning, Dan.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Just a couple of housekeeping question’s from me and then a few broader questions, if I may. First, I guess, just on Constitution. Are you still on track for the planned FERC filings, I guess, Q1 here?

Karl W. Newlin

Yes. In early ’13 they are expected to file for the FERC certificate, that’s right.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Okay. Essentially, all the comments that were in the original release from Constitution, all those dates and timings are still on track?

Karl W. Newlin

Yes. As far, I don’t know exactly what releases you’re looking at, but yes, as far as I know they are, that’s right.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Okay, great. And then, just in terms of the 2014 and 2015 funding for the pipeline. How should we be thinking about the spend; is it fairly evenly spread in those two years kind of $90 million a year or is that going to be a little lumpier?

Karl W. Newlin

It’s evenly spread. I’d say; its backend loaded in ’14 and ’15. It’s not something that’s earlier in ’14, though in ’14 and ’15 it’s 90% as we said in our prepared comments, so it’s more backend loaded in ’14. We haven’t made any final decisions about exactly how we would fund it, but I can tell you that we’d fund it, commensurate with our existing ratings profile.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Okay, great. And then just on the fiscal ’13 guidance. Can you just talk a little bit, maybe a little bit more color on the timing of the financing here, the $250 million long-term and the 4 million in equity, is that kind of earlier or later in the year in terms of what you’ve assumed into the guidance?

Karl W. Newlin

Yeah, Dan, I think you’ll appreciate that I don’t want to give a lot of comments about additional timing around the funding. I think I’d like to stick with we’re going to do the $250 million of debt and approximately 4 million shares of the equity within fiscal 2013.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Got it. And then just if I may one or two more questions, I guess; the first on the customer growth dynamic, including the conversions, certainly seeing the faster path of -- faster trend of gas conversions across yourselves and many of your peers. For 2012, I think, you said the gross number was up 1.3% but you’re assuming I think just over 1% for 2013. Can you just maybe talk a little bit about those assumptions and what could sort of – what’s driving those; what could maybe notch that number up a little bit more closer to 2012.

Karl W. Newlin

I’m going to ask Frank Yoho, our Chief Commercial Operations Officer to answer that question.

Franklin H. Yoho

Yeah, Dan. We do see this growth as a continuing trend. This year was an exceptional year. We had a couple of big projects, but we still see all of the growth continuing to trend upward slightly. And when we say up approximately 1% we’re rounding, and so when we say 1.2%, 1.3% that’s all in order.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

Okay, very good. And then last question from me, if I may. Just on O&M, certainly seeing that that coming up with many of your peers as well, pension, medical et cetera. It does, I guess as you kind of previously mentioned back the question for a potential rate case filing in North Carolina it’s been several years, I guess. Just your thoughts on how important that might be kind of near-term in your thinking, I know you said you’re always looking at this, but I guess is that getting to the point now where you think the cost drivers are really just starting to accelerate?

Karl W. Newlin

Dan, its Karl. I’d echo Tom’s comments, I mean this is something that we do as a management team and our regulatory team is constantly reviewing the inputs and whether or not we have a need to seek rate relief, and that process is ongoing across all of our jurisdictions. At this point in time we do not have plans to file a rate case in any jurisdiction, but we continue to always evaluate the information as it comes in. And as you saw yesterday with the new law, with the extension of the bonus depreciation -- the 50% bonus depreciation; that mix of input is always changing. So, we’re always going through that process. We just haven’t made any decisions at this time.

Daniel Fidell - U.S. Capital Advisors

I appreciate all your comments. That’s it for me. Thank you.

Operator

And we’ll take our next question from Spencer Joyce with Hilliard Lyons.

Spencer Joyce - Hilliard Lyons

Hey good morning guys, Happy New Year and nice quarter and really nice year ahead for you guys.

Karl W. Newlin

Thank you.

Thomas E. Skains

Thank you.

Spencer Joyce - Hilliard Lyons

I just had one kind of brief follow-up on the O&M discussion. I guess, little under 8% pretty good compared to the 9% forecast. What driver or two maybe came in a little bit under expectations and then with the 5% growth projection for this year maybe versus last year kind of where are you looking for that O&M growth to slow a little bit?

Karl W. Newlin

Yeah, it’s Karl. So, the expense control by the employees was really a broad based effort within the Company. And I’m very proud all the employees for pulling together. It was everything from just watching all the individual expenses that people incur in doing their job throughout the day every day of the year as well as through payroll and hiring processes. So, we were able to save a little bit across the board and I think also on the payroll side it was helpful to come in a little under the expectations.

For the increase of 5% expected in the current fiscal year, I mean, the pension with the lowering of the discount rate continues to be something that we and all other companies that have a pension plan continue to face. We do have payroll increases around merit increase both for union as well as non-union employees, and that’s some of the pressure that you’re seeing on the O&M going forward.

Spencer Joyce - Hilliard Lyons

Okay. Thanks again. Nice year. It’s all ahead.

Karl W. Newlin

Thank you.

Operator

And we’ll take our next question from John Hanson with Praesidis.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Good morning.

Karl W. Newlin

Good morning.

Thomas E. Skains

Good morning.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Just a follow-up on a couple items, just to confirm that the ’14, ’15 CapEx you guys have in there, that includes your 118 on the Constitution?

Karl W. Newlin

It does not.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Okay.

Karl W. Newlin

That capital expenditure number is the utility CapEx item. The Constitution amounts are outside of that.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Okay. I think that’s kind of what I figured, but okay. The second part of that is that, you mentioned the financing that you may have to do here in ’13. Is that possibly moderated some by this bonus depreciation, does that have much impact in that or at least maybe even in the timing of that?

Karl W. Newlin

Our financing in 2013 is not impacted by any of the legislative news yesterday.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Okay, all right. And the third item I have is on the contract with Cabot. You mentioned that was a longer-term contract, does that -- has that been approved by the commission or what -- or how does that work in your different jurisdictions?

Thomas E. Skains

Yeah, this is Tom Skains. I’ll take a crack at that, and I’ll ask Frank Yoho to chime in, if I need him to do so. The contract with Cabot is a gas purchase agreement that does not require any specific approval to initiate. Although as I mentioned, it’s not scheduled to begin until December 2015, but we have had of course as we do always frequent communications with our state regulators about our gas supply plans and are specifically our supply diversity strategy. So, we’ve had discussions with the state regulators, but no specific approval is required on that gas purchase agreement.

On the Williams Transco side, the capacity that we would contract for to move that gas from the Marcellus Basin back to the Carolinas, Williams Transco will need to file their Leidy Southeast expansion project with the FERC and get that certificated. So that portion of the supply arrangements does require a regulatory approval in Washington.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Okay. Back to the Cabot supply side of that. You said it’s long-term; about how many years is that?

Thomas E. Skains

It’s about a 15 year primary term agreement that would begin again in 2015 and the term of that agreement coincides with the term of our capacity commitment under the Transco Williams Leidy Southeast project.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

And you’re comfortable that then that the risk to that with the commission if down the road on how that all may work out is, you’re comfortable with that then right?

Thomas E. Skains

Yes, we are. Yes, we are. We believe and we’ve communicated to the commissions that these arrangements will provide many benefits including supply diversification, reliability and gas cost benefits for our customers across the Carolinas.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

To that end, what kind of order of magnitude; is this going to be a big chunk of your supply or is this a fairly modest part of your supply?

Thomas E. Skains

Yeah, the terms of the agreements that we have with both Transco and Cabot at this point are subject to a confidentiality provision, so I can’t get into the specifics of them. But I would say, say it this way, the contract that we had with Cabot is for a meaningful portion of our annual gas supply commitments.

John Hanson - Praesidis Investments

Okay. Thanks a lot.

Thomas E. Skains

Thank you.

Operator

And we have no further questions in the queue at this time. I’d like to turn the conference back over to Mr. Nick Giaimo for any additional or closing remarks.

Nicholas Giaimo

Thank you, Ryan. Ladies and gentlemen this concludes our year-end 2012 Earnings Conference Call. Thank you all for joining us this morning.

Operator

And that does conclude today’s conference. Thank you for your participation.

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