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Valassis Communications (NYSE:VCI)

Deutsche Bank's DbAccess 21st Annual Media and Telecom Conference

March 04, 2013 4:20 pm ET

Executives

Robert A. Mason - Chief Executive Officer, President and Director

Lorne Groe - Senior Vice President of Finance and Corporate Development

Unknown Analyst

Next up is Valassis. Thank you all for being here. Valassis, as you know, is a promotional media company, $2.2 billion of revenue, 15,000 clients including many of the nation's largest advertisers and ad agencies, consumer brands are RedPlum, and the soon to be launched, currently tested, soon to be launched Spree, well-known is how the acquisition of ADVO back in 2007 transformed the company by bringing Shared Mail capabilities into the business and by reducing the dependence, newspaper-delivered products. And now there's another transition of sorts involving digital data, I'm sure we'll get into, during the discussions. So I wanted to --

Unknown Executive

What kind of transition is that?

Unknown Analyst

Indeed. Indeed. So welcome to Rob Mason, President and CEO, and Lorne Groe, SVP Finance and Corporate development.

Robert A. Mason

Thanks, Matt. It's good to be here.

Unknown Analyst

Thanks. So what we're going to do is Q&A, fireside chat, and we'll do Q&A and we'll pass the mic around for some conversations as well.

Lorne Groe

Perfect.

Unknown Analyst

Probably the place to start is in the Shared Mail business, let's talk a little bit about recent performance. You've laid out the goal for 2013 to grow Shared Mail 3%, and you articulated a plan to solve that, involving sales leadership and some other initiatives about growing the business. That said, you said that for 2012, didn't quite get there, so what, give us the sense of what gives you the confidence that 2013, you're going to be able to deliver on that plan?

Robert A. Mason

I think there's 3 things primarily, Matt. And I think before I go there, and I just mentioned that we believe the fundamentals of this business to be very sound. We've been able to grow Shared Mail, both from a top and bottom-line perspective over the last 3 years, and that's a counter to a lot of the other trends that are happening within the offline world. So we're -- we've got history behind it. But -- so we go on to '13, there's really 3 things that give us confidence. One is an increased focus on share and gaining share. There's available share in the marketplace and primarily it is, through an enhanced effort on new business acquisitions and it's typically within our new account development group that's responsible for bringing new users to the Shared Mail package. In the back half of 2012, we went through a significant reorg, restructuring there, brought in some new talent, and we think that group will provide benefit to us as we work through, particularly through the first half of 2013. Secondly is, is enhanced, focused on our rap product. The rap is the 4 pages that carry the inserts in the Shared Mail program. Throughout '12, it was a drag, in terms of revenue, primarily because of 4 -- or less than anticipated sell through. We've enhanced some of the compensation programs with the sales organization behind the rap. We've got them oriented towards selling the rap earlier, I think that's going to do a better job in terms of sell-through, improve the revenue generation from that product, and also put them in a position where they can turn to filling out that package with inserts as we go through the year. And then finally, we're very pleased with the growth in our variable data postcard, which was a new product we had launched in really, Q4 of 2011, saw it ramp throughout 2012. We think there is a significant amount of headroom for that product, and it will make a measurable contribution at 3% growth as we go through '13. So that's really the factor that gives us confidence.

Unknown Analyst

Can we jump in a little deeper into a number of those different items and...

Robert A. Mason

Absolutely.

Unknown Analyst

In terms of the new business performance. I realize that it takes -- there's a pipeline, and conversion takes time to sales. Maybe you can articulate a little bit about what the pipeline looks like, and any expectations around conversion for that?

Robert A. Mason

Yes, I mentioned we went through a pretty significant restructuring within that group, and any time you do that within a sales organization, and what happens, what you think is in the pipeline, is no longer part of that pipeline. So basically we've gone through a process of restocking that pipeline with the right type of target. When you're talking about large clients, the typical selling cycle that we see is somewhere between 6 and 9 months. So between bringing new talent, bringing new leadership, restocking that pipeline, we believe we'll start to see again the benefit of those efforts as we work through the first half of '13.

Unknown Analyst

And then, in terms of the rap performance, what aspect about what gives you the confidence that there's an opportunity to improve the rap performance? You talked a little bit about kind of a focus on the upfront? What is -- what exactly does that translate to for you?

Robert A. Mason

I think it's enhanced focus. We came out of the upfronts kind of at the point we were in terms of last year, in terms of sell-through. We've enhanced the sales compensation programs, I mentioned that, and I think that will be a positive contributor. It is about sales focus and urgency of selling that product, because the more volume, the more inventory we can sell out front, the more benefit we're going to get in terms of sell-through. And it's really that focused effort that we think will make the difference in selling that product. The other move we've made that I talked about on our Q4 call, is to bring John Rogers in as our Chief Sales Officer. John has led our field sales organization, he's primarily responsible for selling that rap. He's a Shared Mail guy, he's very pragmatic, he's a finance guy, I think John's leadership will help improve that product, too.

Unknown Analyst

Where is this rap sales through metric at currently? Where do you think it can go?

Robert A. Mason

The upfronts were at where we were leaving 2012 upfront, so we're kind of par with 2012. I think the opportunity is to build from there, with the urgency for new comp plans, things like that.

Unknown Analyst

Okay. Let's jump into a couple of categories. Retail was one, which is, been a bit of a -- which has stood out. It gets 2 months in the quarter, the quarter in the bag right now. To the extent you're willing to address how has retail fared so far in the calendar first quarter.

Robert A. Mason

You know, Matt, we don't have enough visibility to get into what we're seeing specifically from retail. What we know is it's a little bit smaller percentage of the total volumes, in Q1 as opposed to Q4. By the reports that I've seen, retail started sluggishly as we go into Q1, there are issues with the change in payroll taxes that caused a pullback in terms of consumer spending. Since then, we're seeing, multiple dynamics that are continuing to influence and create an economic environment that's pretty uncertain. With the gas spike up to $4, and there's talk about that. Consumer confidence, on the other hand, was up. Some of the discretionary spending numbers are up, so I can't see that there is a significant turnaround, but it is a smaller component of our Q1, and based on what we do see in Q1, we are confident we're going to return to positive growth in Shared Mail.

Unknown Analyst

What type of an economic scenario, broader economic set of conditions did you factor into your guidance? If you can just pretty much -- what you've just described --

Robert A. Mason

Yes, from a macro standpoint, just kind of more of the same, we saw no real change in the economy, we saw what we projected is, low single-digit growth in terms of ad spend across the board. We saw slow growth within retail, and then to our benefit, we see continued consumer behavior that orients them toward trying to maximize their savings on virtually everything they bought.

Unknown Analyst

So we've been talking a little bit about the Shared Mail business, let's shift a bit to Free-standing Inserts. So FSI, I think if we were standing here a year ago, we would have been talking about the over redemption phenomena, where CPGs were scaling back their marketing. Budgets, you based upon the strong redemptions that they were seeing. They were exhausting budgets prematurely. You guys have noted on recent calls that some of this has turned favorably for yourself, which is very encouraging to see. The question would be, for us is, is this just a bounce back from a depressed level, an overcorrection or is it something that is more sustainable for growth?

Robert A. Mason

I would tell you, it is more sustainable. When we saw that run-up in terms of redemptions in Q3 of 2011, we saw the pressure that, that was placing on CPG budgets. Same time, they were faced with flat volume sales in this country, increased commodity costs, some of that commodity cost is relaxed some. But I would tell you, as long as CPGs have a desire, and more importantly the need to protect and grow their share of market in this country, they will turn to a very proven performer in our FSI. Interestingly enough, FSI actually grew its share in terms of carrying CPG upwards in 2012, slightly. And it's still running at historical high levels in terms of total industry page counts. So I think as long as the CPG's objectives continue to be focused on maintaining or growing share, this return of the spending levels, more normalized spending levels ends up being sustainable. Certainly, as far as we can see, to the first half of 2013.

Unknown Analyst

Well, we did talk about the transformation to Digital. So let's jump right in it. It was a large focus of yours over the last year. There have been acquisitions, you bought Brand.net, which brought you display capabilities, and then there was a technology acquisition, Circle Street, as I understand now, that's a focal brand speak, like bigger brands sort of amplifies what they have to do. The run rate of your business has grown, along with these efforts. You started 2012 with $30 million of revenue. You brought that up when you bought Brand.net, and now you're targeting $100 million run rate. So how are you tracking along that?

Robert A. Mason

We feel good about the traction we're seeing within our Digital business, and Lorne, you jump in where you see appropriate. But we talked on the Q4 call, about 60% growth in the organic business, the organic digital business, and then overall, over 105% growth in terms of topline in Digital. We think Digital offers, as well as our online display business, have a great applicability to what we're selling to clients today. And integrate very well with our product portfolio. We talked in Q4, too, about some of the metrics we saw in terms of -- over 300 new digital users, and those are clients that use Digital Solutions for the first time in Q4. And has generated almost $11 million.

Unknown Analyst

New customers for the company, or existing customers?

Robert A. Mason

Combination of new customers. About 1/3 of them were -- digital is the only product that they purchased so they would be new customers, Matt, and then 2/3 would be customers who have bought other Valassis's products and services before. So we're very pleased with that mix. We think that puts us in a great position to grow our share of client marketing spend, and there's a lot of work to be done to get to that $100 million run rate at breakeven profitability by the end of '13. But we feel like we're on a pretty good track to achieve that

Lorne Groe

And Matt, the thesis is, we've got 400 sales reps actively engaging with 15,000 clients. So we're one of the only digital companies that we've seen that have that kind of breadth --

Unknown Analyst

Are they -- they're selling both?

Lorne Groe

They're selling both, that's correct.

Unknown Analyst

For the 2/3s that are your existing customers, how much of the digital growth is incremental?

Robert A. Mason

That's a good question. We haven't put our finger on exactly what percentage of that is incremental. Part of the thesis of that business is, is that we see, a tide, not -- certainly not a tidal wave, but a tide running toward enhanced digital spending. Our idea is to use the existing sales organization to capture a greater percentage of our clients, marketing advertising promotional spend as they move dollars to digital.

Lorne Groe

And our focus is on location-based or geo display. So it ties in really nice with our print buy as well.

Unknown Analyst

And when you think of Digital, at this point, is it -- is there a mobile component to it? For the geo local?

Lorne Groe

Yes, and we're partnering with some mobile companies right now, and we definitely see more demand for that, but has of right now, it's still kind of a wait and see.

Unknown Analyst

Okay. So certainly on acquisitions, Brand.net, Circle Street and the big one was ADVO. Significantly larger. You must have bankers that approach you, regularly with lots of interesting ideas. What are your plans? What are your thoughts on what would fit well at that -- into your suite of blended solutions, which is, how I've always thought that is your unique approach was that, you did bring your multiple capabilities to the market. So are you looking for capabilities that you could add to that or new platforms to be adjacent to that?

Robert A. Mason

Matt, I -- we look at a lot of different things. People, bankers, to your point, bring us a lot of different ideas, Lorne and I, we're both very closely, or very heavily involved in the ADVO acquisition. So I don't know that the appetite's there for another $1 billion acquisition. Anything we do, it is going to be complementary to the current product portfolio, and very likely, similar to the Brand acquisition, a tuck-in acquisition that we can do, continue to keep the majority of our free cash flow, working for ourselves and our investors and something to complement the current portfolio.

Lorne Groe

And the goals we have in Digital don't include an acquisition. So the $100 million run rate breakeven, that's just what with the assets we have today, and that's really our focus right now, is to make that key thesis work, continue to develop those assets and grow those assets.

Robert A. Mason

And I think the other notable element to that is, is that in April of '11, we went out and hired Jim Parkinson as our CTO and EVP of our Digital business. And what Jim has done is brought a capability that we didn't have previously, and that is the ability to build solutions. We've been focused on adding resources to our Digital business, primarily in the areas of sales and engineering and product development. So today, we are in a far better position to build and take our own solutions to the market, rather than have to rely solely on acquisitions.

Unknown Analyst

Lorne, you talked about the 400 person-strong sales force, which is key in the unique assets. How are you addressing the distribution on the Digital side? What's your strategy for distributing the content?

Robert A. Mason

In terms of content?

Lorne Groe

Well, in terms of display. We own a display network now, and we've been selling display before we acquired Brand.net, so we had been working with other pop partners. So really having that distribution direct to the screen was really important to us. And Brand.net was more about having that media ops than having the software to be able to do that effectively, to do our TV, to do exchange, to do premium, whatever it might be, we were able to now have those capabilities. So for our sales force, it's really depends what the client wants. For the most part, we're an open system. We can take in third party data, we have proprietary data, we get an exchange, we do have premium sites on that as well. And like I said, we've partnered with a couple of mobile companies now, and we can do that, as well as video. So the capabilities keep moving, the industry unfortunately, keeps moving as well, so we keep having to work pretty hard. On Digital offer, it really comes down to redplum.com, which is and Save.com, which are our 2 affiliate coupon sites. Retailers, grocery retailers, is where we get distribution and then third party sites as well.

Robert A. Mason

I think the other thing you touched on a bit ago, Lorne, is as it relates to distribution is our capability in terms of geographic targeting. It's really what has fueled the growth of our offline business, and bringing that to online, particularly display, is the discriminator in the marketplace that we think turns into the competitive advantage, particularly given the fact that probably 95%-plus of our client base, Matt, is brick-and-mortar, in terms of their concepts. And so our ability to target their specific trade areas and deliver Digital solutions within that trade area that overlay well with what those clients are doing with us in an off-line basis, really ended up being a very complementary offering that has significant value to our clients, and is also, to Lorne's earlier point, very easy for our sales organization to get their arms and take to market.

Unknown Analyst

Let's talk about this, this new product, your RedPlum Spree, that's a result of -- enabled by a negotiated service agreement that you have with the Post Office, it's a weekend package, and you're targeting major national retailers, as I understand, it's not yet in the model, and it's in testing phase. Can you give us an update on where you're at with that, and just perhaps what you're looking for to determine whether or not it -- whether or not to roll it out more broadly?

Robert A. Mason

Sure. And I think first, it's important to go back to why Spree, right? And if you look at the landscape today, that major retailers are working through. They have been, primarily dependent on the Sunday newspaper to distribute the bulk of their circular business. We all are aware of some of the pressure point the Newspaper industry is faced in terms of declining penetration and reach of home-delivered to subscribers. So Spree fills in that gap. And previously, the challenges we got from retailers, bringing them in to the Shared Mail package were twofold. One was environment, given the fact that almost all of the retailers in that big-box or department store category are very focused on being around their competitors or complementary retailers. We did not have any of those in the Shared Mail package. The bigger objection was sale break day in our in-home day, and most of our Shared Mail packages having a midweek in home day, by anchoring Spree on a Friday or Saturday distribution. We got much closer to their traditional Sunday sale break day. And then created what we thought was a great opportunity. Negotiated the NSA, the negotiated services agreement with the Post Office, a lot of noise around that, a lot of opposition from the Newspaper industry, that I think everybody's aware of. Went out to market with a Q1 launch date. The Newspaper industry was effective in creating a lot of noise, they get close to their customers, there's no question to us, and then we're working through the logistics of bringing multiple retailers into that package right now, because we know that, A, readership and consumer adoption of that product is going to be heightened, the more retailers we're bringing in the package, and then also, we want to make sure that, that test is profitable, if possible. So the logistics of organizing and starting cooperative packages is providing some challenges, but what I would tell you is, we're still very committed to launching a test package in Q2. We're in late stage conversations with multiple retailers, we have not built in any revenue or cost from our Spree into our 2013 model. We think that the test will be neutral when you consider both of those things. And there wasn't any sense of building it into our model because at the end of the day, the test's got to perform for to the retailers, and we think they'll be learning as it goes along, and be able to ramp the business from there.

Unknown Analyst

How is this program different than a second package in an old ADVO market, which you guys, ADVO was really aggressive in building that out, and that kind overdid it, and you guys rightfully, undid some of those extra distributions.

Robert A. Mason

I would suggest that Spree is far more demand-oriented. We see a clear need, and especially by orienting the package in-home, with the primary retailers sale break date. We think it speaks to their needs today. We know that we've got to make sure the program works, and so, unlike efforts that may have happened prior to the acquisition, where packages were established, with the idea that the clients would come, we're taking an approach that we want to make sure we've got a complete package in the marketplace. It is a valid test, and it will roll from there, if it's successful.

Unknown Analyst

Somebody, ask questions, sort of thinking about now? And so you raise your hand now, I'll keep going, trust me, I have plenty of questions. So the postage, there's also a lot of buzz around the potential impact around new M&A shifts, Saturday home delivery. Is this an issue for you at all? Is there any adjustments to your business model that you can made or are you...

Robert A. Mason

No, I mean that there is a potential impact to Spree distribution. We would move the primary distribution to Friday, based on conversations with the prospects. We don't see that as an issue. As it relates to our primary package today, somewhere less than 0.3% of our total package count gets distributed in-home on Saturdays today. So we can compress production cycles to accommodate the elimination of in-home dates just -- if that happens. We've been in close conversation with the Postal Service. Our understanding is, is that the postal facilities will still be open to receive packages on Saturday, and you know what, anything that Postmaster Donahoe is able to get, put into play that makes the Postal Service more viable and more profitable, in our mind, is a good thing.

Unknown Analyst

Okay. Okay. And turning to costs, last year, you were very active in addressing the cost structure, optimizing Shared Mail products, why don't we cover a little bit about that. You exited some businesses, some of the Newspaper delivery businesses, sampling in polybags, do you think you're right sized for growth now based on the actions that you've already taken?

Robert A. Mason

We do. We -- I think we've proven, over time that we're very good at managing the cost side of the business. What we did in 2012 was both a reaction to kind of market conditions, where we were seeing growth, and then wanting to make sure that we were more rightsized for the longer-term. We think we made the right moves, exiting the seller direct mail, and stampling [ph] businesses was the right thing at the time, given both those facts were declining, in terms of client demand. And, you know what, we can always go back to the cost side of the business and take cost out, but I would tell you today, as we look into the rest of '13 and our prospect for growth, we're very much more oriented toward driving volume, driving growth, and in delivering the earnings number that way.

Unknown Analyst

If you were to go back, what types of broad areas would there be at this point? Are they a little bit less obvious to -- at least to call out in this type of forum?

Robert A. Mason

No, I don't think we want to speculate on that. I mean, you can always do things to cut cost. We've proven our ability to do that, and that's not in the plan right now.

Unknown Analyst

Okay. And the other parts of the Newspaper, the Neighborhood Targeted business, can you just talk about, real quickly, is that a business that you're still aiming to grow, maybe you can talk about some initiatives that you have in place?

Lorne Groe

Can we take that?

Robert A. Mason

I'll talk to that. We're not looking at Neighborhood Targeted as a growth business for us. We think, there's a solid business rationale, where being in the Neighborhood Targeted segment, and that is the great place to bring client into Valassis, and then migrate them in the Shared Mail. As you're looking at '13, don't think about that business as a growth business. Going into '13, we changed the business model with the Neighborhood Targeted so that, instead of recognizing gross revenues for a significant client segment, within Neighborhood Targeted, it's your larger client, we're now based on the predominant model in the marketplace. Just recognizing revenue on a fee-based, it'll probably take out, I think what we've projected about $204 million out of the Neighborhood Targeted segment. We've provided a pro forma for the quarterly impacts there. But we don't -- we have not built any measurable or significant growth in -- for Neighborhood Targeted.

Unknown Analyst

Okay. In-store, can you talk about any in-store business?

Robert A. Mason

Yes, you know what, we saw a return to positive growth in, in-store in Q4. Part of that is the spending from CPGs flowing back into promotional media and the predominant activity in, in-store is in fact, promotional. The other thing that we're very pleased about is, we've grown our footprint in that space in Q4 of last year, we added 12,000 new stores to our retailer network from RiteAid and Family Dollar. We continue to try and expand that footprint. We announced that we have added Roundy's, which is a Midwest retail client here in the last couple of weeks. So between expanding our retail footprint, more dollars coming back into the in-store industry, and then growing our share of that business, we think it will contribute to significant top line growth in 2013.

Unknown Analyst

Okay. Let's shift a little bit towards capital allocation. Last year, investors were asking you about a dividend, when you're going to put on a dividend that, now you have one. So the obvious question is, how do you balance your dividend with share repurchases and other uses of capital?

Lorne Groe

Yes, we've announced we're going to use about 60% to 65% of our free cash flow in '13 for share repurchase and dividend. The share repurchase should be about 35 to 45 points of that, and then the rest will be the dividend. At the end of Q4, we initiated our first dividend, a $0.31 quarterly dividend that we paid out in January.

Unknown Analyst

How do you think about growing that? Do you want to maintain a payout ratio?

Lorne Groe

I think right now, we're pretty comfortable, and we'll wait until we probably get to the end of the year before we review it again. The share repurchase is probably where we'll put more of growth, if there is. That is a little bit more dependent on, obviously, on the stock price valuation.

Robert A. Mason

What we've tried to do the last 2 years, Matt, is you'd give investors an assumption that we built our model on, especially as it refers to share buyback. We significantly exceeded those assumptions. I think it's absolutely the right decision, when you look at the average share price, that we conducted our share repurchase in 2012, the amount of free cash we used for that purchase, or for purpose, we feel good about that. We want to retain flexibility in the market, we don't want to telegraph to the market what we're going to do, but in order of priority share buyback, making sure that, that dividend is consistent, paying down some debt, and then using the remaining free cash flow to appropriately invest in the business is kind of how we look at that.

Lorne Groe

What's nice now Matt, is we have 2 tools to return cash to shareholders. If the price of the stock were to go up, obviously we'd be probably less active in buying shares, but the dividend, is then, is more important to us. Conversely, if the price goes down, the net dividend yield's obviously a lot higher, but then share repurchase becomes more attractive to us. So having those 2 mechanisms, I think, is pretty important for our shareholders.

Unknown Analyst

How do you feel on about the capital structure and our balance sheet right now?

Lorne Groe

We feel really good about it. I think if you look at the Term Loan A, obviously, it's worth a very low rate, LIBOR plus 1.75, and we've got a lot of that swapped out, so we feel pretty good about that. Our bonds are trading fairly high, kind of in the 106, 107, range, but we're not callable until about 2016. So I think June 2016. So that really doesn't make sense for us to look at refinancing those now, but when you look at our total debt, our net debt, just under $500 million today, we feel very comfortable where we're at.

Unknown Analyst

And we have a question.

Unknown Attendee

The Spree product is really an interesting product. It targets a great vertical for you. But it still revolves to the, one of the most important verticals for the Newspaper. So I'm curious how you sort of tiptoe through the tulips with the Newspaper industry, in regards to the launching the product as it sort of seems like it makes you a frenemy.

Robert A. Mason

Any opportunity to tiptoe is long since past, I think. We've announced our intention, we think there's a need for that product, given some of the losses in the Newspaper's ability to penetrate key markets and consumer demographics. Is there a frenemy element associated with that? Sure, because we're going to maintain our Neighborhood Targeted business. We think we've got a responsibility to ourselves, to client base and our investors to pursue what seems to be very fertile ground for us to drive some incremental revenue and volume in the Shared Mail product.

Unknown Attendee

What's the timeline in learning more about, when should we listen closely for updates with regard to Spree?

Robert A. Mason

I think we probably overcommunicated, if anything, as it relates to Spree, and between our own communication and what's been in the press, there's probably been, if anything, overcommunication. I think we keep a close eye on what happens throughout Q2, and there will be some news forthcoming as that date drives near.

Unknown Analyst

Well, if there are no more questions, we'll wrap it up, because we are out of time. I want to, to thank you both for being here.

Robert A. Mason

You're welcome. Thanks, Matt. I appreciate it.

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