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rue21 Inc (NASDAQ:RUE)

Q4 2009 Earnings Call Transcript

March 16, 2010, 4:30 pm ET

Executives

Jean Fontana, IR, ICR

Bob Fisch – Chairman, President, and CEO

Keith McDonough – SVP and CFO

Kim Reynolds – SVP and General Merchandise Manager

Analysts

Brian Tunick – JP Morgan

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Lorraine Hutchinson – Bank of America/Merrill Lynch

Steph Wissink – Piper Jaffray

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

Operator

Good day, and welcome the rue21 Fourth Quarter 2009 Earnings Conference Call. Today's conference is being recorded. At this time, I would like to turn the conference over to Ms. Jean Fontana of ICR. Please go ahead, ma'am.

Jean Fontana

Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us for rue21's fourth quarter 2009 results conference call. Hosting today's call will be Bob Fisch, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Keith McDonough, Chief Financial Officer. After management has made their formal remarks, we will open the call to questions.

Before we begin, a reminder. Some of the statements made on the conference call during the prepared remarks and in response to your questions may constitute forward-looking statements and are made pursuant to and within the meaning of the Safe Harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 as amended. Such forward-looking statements are subject to both known and unknown risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from such statements.

Those risks and uncertainties are described in the 2009 10-K, which will be filed in early April. Investors should not assume that the statements made during the conference call will remain operative at a later time, and rue21 undertakes no obligation to update any information discussed on the call.

Now I'd like to turn the call over to the company's CEO, Bob Fisch.

Bob Fisch

Thank you, Jean. Thank you everyone for joining us for our fourth quarter conference call.

Joining me today on the call is Keith McDonough, our CFO, and Kim Reynolds, our Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager. I'm going to spend a minute talking about the fourth quarter as well as the great year we just finished, and the upcoming year that we are already charging into. Keith will then give you more details on the fourth quarter and also provide you with a financial outlook for 2010.

The fourth quarter completed a year that we are very proud of here at rue. Sales for the quarter and the year increased by approximately 30%, and operating income growth for both periods was more than 65%, both well above our plan. We opened three stores in the fourth quarter, bringing our total for the year to 88 new stores added in 2009, and ending the year with 535 stores in 43 states. We have now more than doubled our store base over the past four years, while growing our operating margin during this period of significant investment for the company.

As we have stated, we have our sights firmly set on doubling our store base again over the next four to five years, and more than doubling our earnings over that same period, as we begin to leverage our infrastructure of systems, people, facilities and merchandising and sourcing capabilities. Additionally, we are beginning to increase our market presence and the strong brand awareness that we have built and we will continue to develop.

Looking at some of our other accomplishments in 2009 that will benefit us going forward, we had successful openings in new states for rue21 such as Oregon and Washington in 2009. We were very excited about what the strong achievements of these 10 stores means for expanding into new markets in the future. In Oregon and Washington alone, that could mean 40 to 50 new additional store locations for rue.

Sales and earnings for new stores exceeded any previous year for our company. We are continuing to learn, and we will continue to get better real estate deals, and to benefit from a brand awareness that is spreading quickly, and that helps us gain market share, and I do not see any reason why this would not continue to benefit us in 2010. We also successfully completed an upgrade to our distribution center, and are now pushing to make this facility as productive as possible to support our future growth.

And of course we could not forget our IPO, which has not only given us that balance sheet to continue with our growth plans, but also has added a heightened focus within the company to make sure we are executing at the top of our game in all facets of the business. It took a strong focus and determination to achieve consistent profit and sales growth over the last eight years as a private company and we welcome the challenge of maintaining that same consistency and growth now as a public company.

As we look out into 2010, there are a few things that will drive our continued success that I'd like to go over with you. First, we are planning to open 100 stores in 2010, and are in good position on that plan from a site identification, lease signing and construction standpoint, and we are very optimistic about the performance we will get from our new stores this year. We also plan to convert approximately 30 more stores to our etc! format which will bring us to approximately 444 etc! store formats by the end of the year, and will continue to drive productivity in many of our markets that are really starved for our merchandise.

The strength of our business is our ability to successfully open stores in underserved, small and middle market communities that don't otherwise have fashion. We like to think that we are bringing an A mall concept to smaller markets that have never had access to such a concept. In addition, Kim Reynolds and her team are also doing an amazing job in identifying trends and bringing them quickly to market, while continuing to drive lower cost of merchandise. Speed to market is key at rue21. But most important, we are going to make sure we continue to execute on our long-term plan.

I preach consistency at rue21 every day. Consistency in our merchandise, consistency in our stores and our connection with our customers, consistency with real estate, and consistency in our overall results. We strive for total growth which is a combination of new stores and comp store sales increases and margin increases, but we equally strive for consistent and disciplined growth, and we do not go into new markets or open new stores without thoroughly analyzing our options, and using our experience to make the right choices.

And while we have again raised the bar for ourselves in 2010, we feel very good about our three-pronged strategy of merchandise, real estate, and sales growth. We believe we will have a strong spring break season, and continue with our momentum to gain market share during the course of the entire year.

With that, I will turn the call over to Keith McDonough to go through the financials.

Keith McDonough

Thanks, Bob.

I'll review the details on the financials for the quarter, then the year, and then provide our outlook for 2010. Net sales for the quarter were $155.4 million, up 30% from $119.1 million for the fourth quarter of 2008. The increase was driven by comparable store sales increase of 8.6%, combined with square footage growth of 23% from a year ago. The comp increase was on top of an 11.2% increase in the fourth quarter of 2008. The comp store increase was driven by combination of increases in the number of transactions and a 4% increase in the average transaction dollar value across all stores.

Each of our major merchandise categories performed well, especially guys. We opened three stores in the quarter versus 17 in the fourth quarter of 2008. And we closed two stores during the fourth quarter this year, versus closing one last year. We operated 535 stores at the end of the year consisting of 417 comp stores and 118 non-comp stores, or about 22% of the total versus last year's total count of 449 which had 330 comparable stores and 119 non-comparable stores.

Gross profit for the quarter increased by 44% to $55.4 million, and our gross margin expanded by 340 basis points to 35.7%. The gross margin expansion was driven primarily by a 250 basis point increase in merchandise margin, plus a 90 basis point of leverage of store occupancy, distribution and buying. This merchandise margin improvement is partially a result of an ongoing vendor pricing improvement initiative led by Kim Reynolds that we see continuing into the first quarter, which I will discuss later. It should also be noted that gross margin for the fourth quarter of 2008 last year declined by 180 basis points from the year earlier, as we were in an aggressive environment and being very promotional.

Selling, general and administrative expenses increased by 38% to $37.9 million. As you saw in the press release, there was a nonrecurring management fee paid to Apax Partners for $1.5 million that coincided with our IPO and the $250,000 annual fee that we were paying to Apax. There were also public company costs for 2009, which were all booked in the fourth quarter and amounted to $864,000. Additionally, we had incremental stock option expense in the quarter of $217,000. As a percent of sales, expenses increased by 130 basis points to 24.4% versus 23.1% last year. Without the Apax fee, public company and stock option expenses, SG&A would have leveraged by 40 basis points in the quarter.

Depreciation and amortization totaled $4.7 million, and increased by 43% over a year ago. The increase was driven by our capital expenditures for new stores and conversion stores, as well as IT and DC infrastructure and systems. Net of tenant allowances, capital expenditures for the full fiscal year of 2009 were $23.4 million versus $17.6 million in 2008. We are planning 2010 CapEx to be roughly $32 million, net, which includes the opening of 100 stores, 30 store conversions, store maintenance and fixture CapEx and approximately $1 million left outstanding on the DC upgrade plus continuing IT investments.

Operating income for the fourth quarter was $12.9 million versus $7.7 million a year ago, a 68% increase. Our operating margin expanded by 190 basis points to 8.3%, driven by leverage over our corporate infrastructure from 30% of total sales growth and an improved contribution from comp stores, offset somewhat by the Apax fee and new expenses associated with being a public company. Without the nonrecurring Apax fee, operating margin would have been 9.2%.

The quarter's effective tax rate was 39.5 versus 38.2 for the same period a year ago. The higher effective tax rate is the more normalized rate, although we do expect improvement going forward due to nonqualified stock option grants in the future as opposed to our ISO program of the past, plus our ongoing tax rate reduction focus. Finally, net income increased by 68% to $7.7 million for the quarter, up from $4.6 million a year ago. Fully diluted earnings per share were $0.32 versus $0.20 a year ago on a fully diluted share count of 24.3 million versus 22.8 million last year. Excluding the one-time Apax termination fee, EPS for the quarter would have been $0.36.

Now turning to our results for the full year of 2009, as Bob mentioned, we are reporting balanced top line growth and margin expansion for the full year of 2009. Sales increased by 34% to $526 million, reflecting a comp store sales increase for the year of 7.8%. We opened 88 stores and closed two and total square footage growth in the year was 23%. This is on top of opening 99 stores in 2008, and closing two that year.

For the year, the breakdown of our sales by category is as follows. Girls apparel, 57 versus 58% last year. Girls accessories contribution was 24% versus 24% last year, and guys apparel and accessories accounted for 19% of sales versus 18% in 2008. Importantly, all categories comped strong positive in 2009.

Gross margin expanded by 170 basis points improvement of which was split evenly between merchandise margin and leveraging occupancy distribution and buying costs. Operating margin expanded by 130 basis points to 7%, including the absorption of the nonrecurring Apax fee, as well as public company expenses and stock expense in the fourth quarter. Depreciation and amortization also increased by 30 basis points. Net income for the year increased by 74% to $22 million from $12.6 million a year ago, and diluted earnings per share were $0.96 versus $0.55 a year ago.

I'm also pleased to present our year-end balance sheet highlights as well. Cash and cash equivalents at year end were $26.8 million compared to $4.6 million at the end of 2008. Inventories totaled $72 million which was 8.8% higher than last year, but on a square foot basis, was down 11%. Due in part to our IPO, but also to an exceptional year of operations, equity now represents 36% of assets at year end, as compared to 13% a year ago, and we have zero long-term debt at year end compared to $19.5 million last year. I would also note here that we expanded our revolver facility to a borrowing capacity from $60 million to $85 million in conjunction with our IPO.

Now turning to our outlook going forward. As we have stated, we plan to open 100 stores in 2010, originally planned 40/60 for the first and second halves but may move closer near to 50/50 for the first and second half, with approximately 30 stores opening in the first quarter. We also may close a handful of stores later in the year, all of which have leases that are expiring. We are planning for a mid single digit same store sales increase for the first quarter and low single digit increases through the remainder of the year. We expect total expenses associated with being a public company to approximate $2.7 million or $675,000 per quarter, plus $700,000 related to our secondary offering cost in the first quarter. Total stock option expense is expected to be $2.2 million, increasing by quarter as the year progresses.

The net result is roughly $8 million a year year-over-year SG&A increases in each of the quarters of 2010, assuming our current sales projection and excluding the impact of the secondary offering cost that I just discussed, which was $700,000 in the first quarter. We expect gross margin for the year to increase by approximately 100 basis points with the biggest increase coming in the first quarter, and annual operating margin to expand by 30 to 50 basis points, including the incremental impact of the additional public company and stock option expense. Depreciation and amortization is expected to grow at a faster rate than sales.

So for the full year 2010, incorporating the store growth and same store sales increases I have discussed, we expect sales to increase by over 20%, net income to grow by 25 to 30%, earnings per share to be in the range of $1.08 to $1.13, and that's on a fully diluted share count, expected to be 25.1 million versus 23 million for 2009, which reflects our IPO in November. For the first quarter of 2010, we expect diluted earnings per share in the range of $0.16 to $0.18. Again, this guidance assumes a mid single digit same store sales increase and is based on total sales growth in the mid-20% range, coupled with expanding leverage in gross margin, including merchandise margin in the quarter, as compared to last year, as discussed.

We expect first quarter SG&A to increase by approximately 30%, as already discussed, due in part to incremental public company expenses, stock comp expense and the cost of our secondary stock offering that was concluded in the last week of February. Diluted weighted shares outstanding is projected to be approximately 25.1 million. As a reminder, our long-term forecast includes square footage growth total in the high teens, low single digit comp growth and annual net income growth of between 20 and 25%.

That completes my prepared remarks, and so I will turn this call back over to Bob.

Bob Fisch

Thank you, very much, Keith. And we are now ready for questions for Keith, Kim or myself.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator instructions) Our first question comes from Brian Tunick with JP Morgan.

Brian Tunick – JP Morgan

Hi, good afternoon and congrats guys. I guess two questions for us. First, are you willing to give us a little more color on how same-store sales either for Q4 or for the year shook out between the different concepts, the strip center, mall and outlet rue stores? And then, Keith, obviously last year, I think, the second quarter was impacted as you had some back-to-school shifts. Can you just maybe talk about how we should be thinking about comps for Q2?

Bob Fisch

Well, on the first part, Brian, how are you doing? Good to hear your voice.

Brian Tunick – JP Morgan

Thanks, Bob.

Bob Fisch

By center type you don’t really break that out, but I will say that we were very comparable in all center types, in mall, strips and outlets in that quarter and for the year. We have been very, very consistent as well as consistent in our businesses by family of business. So there really was not any big deviancy, and we were pretty successful across the board.

Keith McDonough

Then the comp question that you asked, Brian, is, yes, we did have a shift in the calendar last year later Labor Day, later back-to-school selling that did shift, what we think is between 2% and 4% out of the second quarter and into the third quarter. That calendar isn’t changing as we look forward in 2010, so that shift won’t happen. And we are conservatively estimating low single-digit comps in the second quarter as well as in second half.

Brian Tunick – JP Morgan

And then finally one for Kim if she just could comment here, what were any opportunities last year, she looked at the spring season, talk about dresses, or skinny denim or anything for merchandising category, Kim, that you really think is going to be the key driver here to these continued strong comps.

Kim Reynolds

It is probably not as much a department as it is certain categories of business. We are seeing particular strength and continuing strength in denim in girls, fashion denim and also in the cardigan categories, whether it is knit or it is sweaters. We’ve gotten lot of great playoff new fashion palettes for spring, and we have some new categories of business that we are testing now for future rollout.

Operator

Mr. Tunick, do you have anything further?

Brian Tunick – JP Morgan

No, we're all set. Thanks so much.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question will come from Michelle Tan with Goldman Sachs.

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Great, thanks. Hi, guys.

Bob Fisch

Hi Michelle, how are you doing?

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Good, how are you?

Bob Fisch

Great.

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Great. So we had a couple questions. I guess first on the product cost side, can you talk a little bit about what you're seeing in terms of general deflation there and then also some of the structural sourcing changes that you're making? And then also, what's happening with AUR from some of the initiatives in the good, better, best kind of breakdown of the product categories, and what you expect to see going forward?

Kim Reynolds

We have had particular success with a lot more selling at regular price this year than last year and previous seasons. We are dramatically lower in reduced product in stores, and we had success with the good, better, best category in every department of the company and continue to grow that. With regards to sourcing, part of being public means that we have actually met a lot more vendors, but our current vendor structure remains intact and we are getting more competitive costing than we were last year at this time.

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Okay. That's great. And is there any reason that wouldn't continue? Sorry, go ahead.

Bob Fisch

We're not seeing a drop-off as far as being able to make costs lower and get cost lower. We are not seeing that because we work with US-based importers. Their getting any cost increases is not being passed on to us, and I do not see that happening in the future for 2010. I can’t talk about 2011, it is way too premature. But I think we are in good shape on that this year.

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Okay. Great. That's helpful. And then any color on the economics that you saw – any more color on the economics that you saw with the new markets in Oregon and then any color on sales trends that you're seeing quarter to date? Thanks so much.

Bob Fisch

As far as new markets business, the one thing that’s very important to rue that we see is very consistent that is across almost every single state, in every market, we are having the same type of results; and in new markets, as we probably have said before, that our stores are opening up at least at 90% maturity of sales. So we are not seeing major waterfall effects or anything like that. And so that we are very excited about the markets like Oregon and Washington; and we opened up with six stores in April and 10 at the end of the year, and I see that expanding because we’ve already opened some stores this year.

Keith McDonough

I would add to that what’s nice, as Bob said with regards to 2009 family of stores, it is really from a margin standpoint, from a performance and ROI standpoint, the best family of stores that we have ever opened and that includes the Pacific northwest which is right in the middle of the pack in terms of performance. So very pleased with that result.

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Great. That's helpful. And then any color on the quarter to date comps?

Keith McDonough

We would rather not get into that Michelle. But we are satisfied certainly with the guidance we just gave.

Michelle Tan – Goldman Sachs

Okay, great. Thanks so much.

Bob Fisch

Thank you, Michelle.

Operator

We will take our next question from Lorraine Hutchinson with Bank of America/Merrill Lynch.

Lorraine Hutchinson – Bank of America/Merrill Lynch

Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody.

Bob Fisch

Hi, Lorraine.

Keith McDonough

Hi, Lorraine.

Lorraine Hutchinson – Bank of America/Merrill Lynch

Hi. I was just wondering if you could give a little bit more detail on how you're planning inventory. It seems like inventory has been down the past couple quarters on a per square foot basis and you've still been able to drive a pretty solid comp. How should we think about any improvements you've made there and then your plans for the year?

Keith McDonough

I agree. I think we have made solid progress over the last – even before we were public, the last four or five quarters has been a great performance by Kim Reynolds and Mark Crystal, Senior Vice President of Planning and Allocation. I think that going forward, we need to be a little more conservative in our estimates relative to inventory turns and square footage – inventory per square footage movement. It is a great result I think a part of the result is just a tremendous sales performance in the fourth quarter. But I would be conservative in terms of additional improvement, at least big improvement in that area. I would remind you, as we look forward, and we talk about on the road show that we have advanced planning and allocation systems implementations ahead of us long term that we know will generate additional productivity in that world.

Lorraine Hutchinson – Bank of America/Merrill Lynch

Okay. Kim, are there any new categories that you are planning to add to the stores this year?

Kim Reynolds

Yes, but many of them are in testing phases right now.

Lorraine Hutchinson – Bank of America/Merrill Lynch

Okay. And I guess finally, when we think about SG&A, I appreciate that this year does have some anomalies and some extra costs. But over the longer term would you expect to begin to leverage that line item and grow your sales faster than your cost base?

Keith McDonough

We do. We do. I think that we will enjoy the investment that we – and our investors will enjoy the investment that we made in the DC for certainly the mid-tier in the long-term future. So we will leverage that. We are certainly going to leverage the administrative expenses bucket, if you will. That won’t grow as quickly as sales going forward. I think the store operating expenses looking forward will play on the same margins, just as we see a little bit up tick in the square footage footprint of our stores on average. I think it’s more prudent to keep the same margin, as we go forward, knowing that we’ve got gross margin opportunities in the merchandise market side.

Lorraine Hutchinson – Bank of America/Merrill Lynch

Great. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question will come from Steph Wissink with Piper Jaffray.

Steph Wissink – Piper Jaffray

Thanks, guys. Congratulations on a great year.

Bob Fisch

Thank you, Steph. How are you?

Steph Wissink – Piper Jaffray

Great. Thanks. We have a couple of questions. Keith, first of all, if you could just give us any detail on the cadence of the full margins over the course of 2010. I think as we look at 2009, there was a sequential increase each quarter in the margin. Should we continue to assume the same for 2010? And then secondly, just a follow up to Michelle's question for Kim. You're doing some great things on the product costing side. Could you give us some insight into how much more room you think there is on the merchandise margin coming off of a great quarter in the fourth quarter? Thanks.

Keith McDonough

I think the second part of your question is probably the real driver. And specifically, merchandise margin driving gross profit margin and gross profit margin driving operating margins. Kim has been hard at work for at least the last three quarters on IMU and improving that area. I think we are going to continue to see that in the first quarter, but as I said, I think the relative increase year over year will start to normalize going into the second quarter and through the rest of the year. But I see good results in the first quarter and then more normalization thereafter.

Steph Wissink – Piper Jaffray

So should we assume that operating margin will increase sequentially each quarter as well?

Keith McDonough

I would say that it would be better to wait until the end of the first quarter before we start to project what the normalized operating margin is going to be. And I think that what’s important is what we see in terms of the gross profit margin. We have seen an incremental increase just because we are scaling this business and leveraging not only the SG&A, but also the fixed costs embedded in our cost of sales. Occupancy has been a bright spot there. Yes, I mean, the headwinds are – I mean, we’ve got great wins behind us pushing operating margin. I do expect that to continue over the long term whether it’s going to be an incremental increase every single quarter, I would rather not say.

Steph Wissink – Piper Jaffray

Okay. Fair enough. Thanks.

Operator

(Operator instructions) Our next question will come from Janet Kloppenburg of JJK Research.

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

Hi, it’s Janet Kloppenburg. Congratulations.

Bob Fisch

Thanks, Janet.

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

I just had a couple more questions. One was on the men's business, it sounds like it's pretty robust and if you'll be investing in that business further to distort it, and if we should look for maybe that to become a bigger piece of the assortments, and what department or categories would be at the expense of men's; and if the margin outlook is the same for men's as it is for women's.

And I also just wanted to ask about the rents. I know you're in some power strips, some value centers, and I just don't know what their competitive nature of the markets that you're looking in are. Should we look for your occupancy expense to rise as you add all these stores or will there be some cost efficiencies coming your way, because of the great volume of stores you're opening? Thanks so much.

Kim Reynolds

Hi Janet, it’s Kim, how are you?

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

Hi Kim, good. How are you?

Kim Reynolds

Thank you. With regard to your question on men’s, there are many categories and learnings in our girls and accessory department that we think can be replicated in our men’s business. With regards to percentage of contribution, I don’t see that changing dramatically as there are opportunities for every category of business. Your question specifically on margins, we are extremely pleased with our men’s performance.

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

Is it compatible with the women’s? Is it on par?

Kim Reynolds

Yes, it is.

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

It is. Great, good luck, Kim.

Keith McDonough

Janet, on the rents, good reason what we’ve seen most recently and looking forward is that deals that are getting cut for 2010. A lot of reason to be optimistic; we are first to market in many of these centers.

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

Right.

Keith McDonough

We are increasing in terms of our awareness in the marketplace and we will continue to drive rents lower on a per square foot basis.

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

Okay. So that should be as a percentage of your cost. That should be coming in a bit over time?

Keith McDonough

I agree.

Janet Kloppenburg – JJK Research

Okay. Good. Thanks a lot and good luck.

Bob Fisch

Thank you, Janet.

Keith McDonough

Thank you, Janet.

Operator

And with no questions remaining, I would like to turn the call back over to management for any additional or closing comments.

Bob Fisch

Thank you. Thanks everyone for joining us. We appreciate your questions and your interest in rue21. We are off to a good start as a public company, but we have a long way to go and a lot yet to achieve and we are really looking forward to the challenge in 2010. So thank you very much. Everybody have a great day.

Operator

Once again, that does conclude today’s conference call, and we thank you for your participation.

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