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ZipRealty, Inc. (NASDAQ:ZIPR)

Q4 2013 Earnings Conference Call

March 3, 2014 5:00 PM ET

Executives

Samantha Harnett - General Counsel and SVP of Business Development

Lanny Baker - CEO and President

Eric Mersch - CFO

Analysts

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

Mitch Bartlett - Craig-Hallum Capital

Matt Blazei - Lake Street Capital

Operator

Good afternoon everyone and welcome to ZipRealty’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2013 Earnings Conference Call. Today’s call is being recorded. At this time, all participants have been placed in a listen-only mode, although the lines will be opened for questions following the presentation.

It is now my pleasure to turn the floor over to your host, Ms. Harnett, the Company’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel. Please go ahead, ma’am.

Samantha Harnett

Thanks and good afternoon everyone. With me on the call today are Lanny Baker, President and Chief Executive Officer of ZipRealty; and Eric Mersch, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. After their remarks we will open the line for a question-and-answer session.

Earlier today, the Company issued a press release describing its results for the full year and fourth quarter ended December 31, 2013. A copy of that release can be viewed on the Company’s website at www.ziprealty.com under the Investor Relations section. Before we begin, I’d like to note that during the course of this call, various remarks we make about our future business, our plans, goals and activity including future business outlook and evolving market conditions involve forward-looking statements.

Actual results may differ materially from the plans, goals, and activity contemplated in these forward-looking statements and are subject to the risks and uncertainties including those described in today’s press release and in the Company’s most recent Form 10-K, copies of which can be viewed on the Company’s website under the Investor Relations section. Those risk factors are incorporated by reference into this earnings call.

Please also note that to supplement its consolidated financial statements presented in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles in the United States, ZipRealty uses a non-GAAP measure of net income it refers to as adjusted EBITDA, which is explained in detail in the Company’s earnings release. The presentation of this additional information should not be considered an isolation or as a substitute for results prepared in accordance with GAAP and can be viewed at the Company’s website under the Investor Relations section.

With that, I’ll turn the call over to Lanny Baker.

Lanny Baker

Thank you Samantha, and welcome to everyone joining this call. Our agenda today includes a review of ZipRealty’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2013 Financial results, an update on current trends and our business outlook for 2014 and a progress report on the Company’s long-term strategy and priority. As announced in January real estate transaction volume in the markets we serve decelerated suddenly in November and December of 2013, reversing the revenue momentum we enjoyed earlier in the year and resulting in a 4% decline in revenue in the fourth quarter compared to a year ago.

Although we narrowed the gap between our sales volume performance and that of our markets overall in the fourth quarter, those gains were not enough to offset the external trend. With revenue down 4% year-to-year amidst slowing market trends we managed fourth quarter expenses and delivered breakeven adjusted EBITDA for the full year.

Coming into early 2014 our expectation was that real estate transaction volume in our markets would recover from what we saw in November and December, and that this year would be characterized by relatively stable transaction volumes and modest growth in home sale prices over 2013. We have seen external trends improve somewhat from the fourth quarter. However, transaction is down high single-digits in our markets early this year. Home sale prices are stronger with double-digit increases in most markets, though price momentum and transaction activity seems to be greatest at the higher priced end of the market than in other segments currently.

Inventory of homes for sale which is normally low at this time of year remains tight, given last year’s heightened transaction pace and we have not yet seen an uptick in new listings. Higher asking prices and higher interest rates along with recent changes in mortgage finance rules present additional challenges. Others are reporting similar trends, the National Association of Realtors, noted the pending home sales nationwide were down 9% year-to-year in January, the California Association of Realtors estimates that home sales were down almost 14% in January in that state and the Mortgage Banker Association’s mid-February measurement of purchase loan application volume shows a 15% decrease from one year earlier.

All of these data points paint the picture of a softer real estate market today than in recent quarters and our own performance is further challenged at the moment. As a brokerage that’s historically strongest serving the buyer side of the market, low levels of for sale inventory reduced our customer’s purchase opportunities and increased the competitiveness of successfully closing all deals. Furthermore, our client base includes many first time home buyers and mainstream consumers who may be more sensitive to spiky home prices and increases in interest rates in the short-term.

Based on what we’ve seen thus far and our visibility into March, we expect ZipRealty’s home sales and revenue performance to be weaker in the first quarter than it was in the fourth quarter. Our analysis also indicates that we’ve lost sales momentum relative to our markets at least temporarily. Accordingly, we currently expect that our revenue will be between $12 million and $12.5 million for the first quarter of 2014, a decline of approximately 20% at the midpoint compared to 15.4 million in the first quarter of 2013. We are not at all satisfied with either our fourth quarter results or the outlook we’ve shared for the first quarter and we’re taking several immediate steps to improve the near-term performance.

We are reengineering our customer acquisition processes with the objective of driving more high quality customer lease in the cities and neighborhoods where fundamentals appear the strongest. We’re increasing our transaction capacity and production pipeline by hiring new agents in the cities we serve and training them on our systems and customer conversion. We are taking steps to manage at agent attrition and increase retention rates among more seasoned and effective agents and we are rating and operating expenses and managing investment spending cautiously in the near-term.

Looking to the full year, we’re watching buyer interest levels and listings volume in each of our markets closely. And based on what we’re seeing and hearing, we are more cautious about the 2014 outlook than we were earlier this year. Our current expectations are that ZipRealty will gradually recover from the difficult performance of the seasonally small first quarter as we progress through 2014.

Our ZipRealty agent count is growing mid-teens year-over-year and new agent productivity is ramping faster than a year ago, based on improved training and new levels of ease and convenience built into Zap. As we begin to lap the hiring momentum built up in early 2013, the blending down of average agent productivity that we’ve seen in the past year ought to flatten out. And our growing agent ranks and lead volume gains in 2013 are expect to contribute to transaction volume this year. Meanwhile we expect that PbZ and advertizing revenue while small should continue to grow over 2013 levels. We anticipate that our overall revenue for the year will be even with that of 2013, though we recognize the conditions can change quickly and we will be prepared to act accordingly. We’ll continue to manage the Company’s resources prudently and are adjusting expense levels in the context of the external environment as well as our own results.

As I mentioned, we are not happy with the results and the outlook that I just described and we’re working hard to regain the momentum we established in the first part of last year. We firmly believe that ZipRealty possess a special set of core assets and capabilities, strengths which have the potential to drive results far greater than we’re currently achieving and we are committing to unlocking that value. I also believe we made more significant progress in 2013 than the current numbers suggest. Our strategic emphasis centers on developing best-in-class technology, delivering effective online marketing and bringing to life the state-of-the-art for real estate agents and brokerages in the digital age. Towards that end, more than 3 billion real estate value and 11,000 home sale transactions were completed on the Zip and PbZ platform during 2013. Numbers that convey the scales of systems we operate and the size of the real estate business we can support.

During 2013, more than 20 million unique users turned to ZipRealty’s website and mobile apps for access to accurate and complete real estate listings information. And our Zap platform actively supported over 3 million client relationships on behalf of our agent users. Last year, we introduced the mobile version of our website and we improved navigation and user experience within our higher A rated mobile apps. We launched the ZipRealty Seller Center and extended our agent comments product to supply a local inside on approximately 50,000 homes. And we also delivered a mobile version of Zap that adds ease and convenience to agents’ lives.

Our consumer facing products and marketing efforts generated over 650,000 new customer leads in 2013, up 22% from the prior year, while marketing cost per lead declined 18% year-to-year. Those new client relationships should propel agent production in the coming year and we expect that the gains we’re making in marketing efficiency will support customer acquisition in 2014 and beyond. Also during 2013 we grew the number of agents using Zip systems by 24% over the prior year to a total of 2,346 agents, attracting an additional 200 agents to ZipRealty adding seven new hired by Zip brokerages and increasing PbZ agent adoption during the year.

Our brokerage ended the year with 1,745 agents, a 13% increase over year-end 2013 reflecting not only appeal of our agent value proposition, but also strong execution by our recruiting team. All of the accomplishments I just described are consistent with our strategic goal of providing the most relevant and effective technology in real estate. We believe that ZipRealty’s core strength lies in product development for the real estate business and we’re committed to extending that advantage.

Let me describe why we believe this focus is the right formula for creating sustainable value for our agents, customers and shareholders. ZipRealty’s agent facing value proposition of customer leads, online marketing exposure and technology that enables agents to focus on service and sales rather than on hunting for new clients, supports attractive commission splits for the Company and competitive compensation opportunity for agents. As a result, our brokerage is well differentiated from competitors who offer less direct support for their agents’ production and who rely on outdated system. And we are able to attract new agents and maintain and attractive contribution margin that supports ongoing product development and online marketing.

Our digital operating mode which is light on office leases and almost entirely free of paper intensive processing, provides the scale and efficient cost model in which critical investments and that consumer and agent needs are efficiently funded and managed essentially and then leveraged firm-wide across multiple cities. That brings me to Powered by Zip, where we are further extending our opportunity to leverage ZipRealty’s proven technology and digital knowhow. In 2013, we grew the number of Powered by Zip brokerage clients to 20 with seven new brokerage clients added during the year including Coldwell Banker Select Professionals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the fourth quarter.

We increased the number of agents using our platform by 59% and we saw almost 300 million worth of home sale transactions cross our Powered by Zip platform during the year. Under the leadership of our new president, we begun to evolve the role that Powered by Zip can play on behalf of our brokerage clients. In addition to providing co-branded source of online and incremental transaction volumes for brokerages, we’re moving to support more of our clients’ digital presence. We’re working on this evolution and an expansion of PbZ with what will our launch clients and expect to have more to discuss later this year.

In summary, I believe ZipRealty’s core strength and our strategic game plan are stronger than current results reflect. We’re one of the most fully digital brokerages in an era in which mobile, anytime connectedness and a seamless combination of technology and personalized service are increasingly important to consumers and agents. We’re also developing a new business line licensing our digital systems and are expertise to others, thereby providing a new avenue for growth that’s fully in synch with larger, secular trends in our industry.

Having been through prior real estate cycles we have confidence that near-term challenges in the market will work themselves out with time. And having made the operational progress we did in 2013 with agent count, customer acquisition, product enhancement and Powered by Zip. We also believe that our best days are still ahead for ZipRealty.

Let me now turn the call over to Eric Mersch.

Eric Mersch

Thank you, Lanny. For the fourth quarter net revenues were $17 million, a 4% decrease from $17.7 million reported in the fourth quarter of last year. The Company’s net loss for the quarter was $3.7 million or a net loss of $0.17 per share. Adjusted EBITDA for the quarter was negative $902,000, which was lower by $914,000 over the prior year’s fourth quarter. For the nine months ended September 2013 the aggregate value of home sale transactions in our brokerage markets rose 22% over 2012 levels and in that same nine month period ZipRealty’s total home sale value increased 8% from the prior year. We have talked about our ambition to narrow that growth gap and we made progress throughout the year even into the fourth quarter. However when the growth of home sale value in our markets slowed from 22% to 9% in the fourth quarter, ZipRealty’s sales volume also declined from 8% to 4% year-to-year decline.

It is likely that a combination of scarce inventory, higher hosting prices, higher interest rates and buyer hesitation came together just as we went through real estate lower season. And these factors combined contributed to the rough slowdown in November and December. The downshift in the fourth quarter appeared to be pretty consistent across the country, where our results have been most challenged in the Mid-Atlantic, Intermountain West in early 2014.

Within ZipRealty’s brokerage footprint the total number of home sale transactions in our market was down 8% year-to-year in January and our own transaction revenue was down low double-digits year-to-year. The year was started off much more slowly than last year and we’re feeling that across our business. Our outlook for the first quarter and full year reflects this softness and I will return to that in a few minutes.

For the full 2013, net revenues were $75.9 million, a 3% increase from the $73.8 million reported in 2012. The Company’s net loss for the year was $5.4 million or a net loss of $0.26 per share. Adjusted EBITDA for the quarter was 11,000, which was lower by $812,000 versus that over the prior year. For the full year of 2013 our owned and operated business generated $70 million in transaction revenue, which represents approximately 92% of our total revenues for this period. Our transaction revenue was primarily a function of the number of agents affiliated with ZipRealty, the productivity and the average transaction revenue or ATR.

At December 31, 2013 1,745 real estate professionals affiliated with ZipRealty as agents. Our agent count was 13% higher than that at the end of last year. This gain marks the first annual year-over-year increase for the Company in seven years. Agent productivity which we calculated transaction size divided by average agent count was 0.41 home sales per month during the fourth quarter of 2013, slightly lower than 0.51 in last year’s fourth quarter. These metrics are lower than those for the full year which were 0.49 for 2013 and 0.54 for 2012. Reflecting seasonality and for 2013 the rapid growth of our agent base.

Our average transaction revenue for Q4 2013 was $7,337 which was 7% higher year-to-year. For the full year 2013 ATR was $7,184 versus $6,577 for the prior year. Other than transaction revenue we generated marketing and other revenue of $1.4 million in Q4 which was 2% higher than that of prior year. Our Powered by Zip business continued to generate strong year-to-year growth offset by lower marketing relationship revenue due to the transition to our new partner Prospect Mortgage.

Our cost of revenue consist almost entirely waging commissions. We experienced higher cost of revenue this quarter versus the prior year due to two main factors. First, increased percentage of production from our more seasoned agents who earned higher commission rates and second the higher percentage of our transactions were classified with agents generated sphere of influence or SOI deals which carry a higher commission split for the agents.

As a result, our gross margin for Q4 was 42.1% versus prior year’s quarter of 43.2%. For the full year 2013 our gross margin was 42.4% which is lower than that of 44.9% for 2012. Going forward, we are actively seeking new advertising and strategic partnerships, growth in our website traffic to drive complementary revenue and expansion in our Powered by Zip business to boost gross margins.

The low cost of revenue, we report our operating expenses related to the core business in three main categories; product development, sales and marketing and general and administrative the sum of which totaled $8.9 million for the fourth quarter and $35.5 million for the full year 2013. These results were 6% higher than the prior year quarter and approximately equal to that of the full year 2012. In sales and marketing our brokerage recruiting organization which is not yet been fully in place by the end of last year, as well as attrition to our Powered by Zip team this year resulted in a fourth quarter and full year expense that was higher by 12% and 3% respectively.

Product development expense in both the fourth quarter and full year 2013 was up 17% and 9% respectively from the prior year period. This increase is due to additional talent we recruited to our technology team. Given our current outlook, we do not plan to hire as aggressively as in the near-term.

General and administrative expenses were lowered by $317,000 year-to-year for the fourth quarter and lowered by $1.1 million for the full year. Lower legal fees were the main contributor to the year-to-year deduction. In addition to the three main expense categories, we reported expenses related to litigation and to restructuring, under two separate categories to facilitate year-to-year comparison to the core business.

For the fourth quarter 2013 we incurred litigation charges of $1.9 million which is the sum of the $1.7 million legal settlement and associated payroll taxes of $170,000. Litigation charges for the full year 2013 were $2 million. Restructuring charge for the full year was $33,000. We entered the quarter with cash and cash equivalents balance of $14.3 million which is $200,000 lower than on September 30, and $1.4 million higher than on December 31, 2012.

Turning now to 2014 and our business outlook.

Based on our current information, we expect that the first quarter 2014 revenue will be in the range of $12 million to $12.5 million, a decline of 20% year-to-year at the midpoint of the range from $15.4 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2013. Adjusted EBITDA is expected to be in the range of negative $3.5 million to negative $3 million for the first quarter, compared to negative $1.2 million in the first quarter 2013. For the full year, we currently expect total revenue to be even with 2013 levels with year-to-year revenue comparisons improving later this year. We plan to manage expenses aggressively in light of external conditions and our own operating performance. Thank you.

Let us now open the line for questions from participants.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) And your first question comes from the line of Jared Schramm with ROTH Capital. Please proceed.

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

Hi. Good afternoon and thanks for taking my questions.

Lanny Baker

Welcome Jared, go ahead.

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

Looking at mortgage finance standards shifting in the quarter, how large an impact do you think that’s had on the results?

Lanny Baker

It’s hard to say Jared. We knew coming into the start of this year that some of the rules were changing, and the debt income limits and other requirements under the QM mortgage rules, we’re going to make it a bit more difficult for various groups of buyers, typically those that are more limited capital to up against their transaction. As we said what we’re seeing appears to be greater resilience at the higher end of the market, stronger inventory levels, stronger transaction volumes, stronger buyer interests than in the middle part of the market and that could certainly be a factor. Let me -- if you have another question, just a moment, but Eric wants to say one thing.

Eric Mersch

Sorry just to correct slight misread, I believe I misread one section in my prepared remark. I should have said that adjusted EBITDA for the year 2013 was 11,000 and I think I said it was a quarter’s number. I should have stated that it was the full year number.

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

Okay. And have you laid out any marketing initiatives in 2014 for the Powered by Zip business?

Lanny Baker

Can you be a little clear about that?

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

I guess, do you have a marketing strategy to-date looking into 2014 for Powered by Zip, or is this more of a done on an ad-hoc basis?

Lanny Baker

We do have a marketing plan laid out for Powered by Zip. It involves outreach through various industry sources and convention type activities, gatherings, and alike in which we are talking about both the offering and some of the results that we are seeing from our partners. And that along with our sales effort is what we have arrayed against new customer growth for Powered by Zip.

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

And then similarly any marketing initiatives than you can discuss for your new ZipRealty app?

Lanny Baker

We promote that -- we have great opportunity to promote our app on our website. As we said we have got millions of users on our website, they are serious real estate consumers and we really try to put forth for those consumers that if you like the website, you will like the app even more. It goes in the field, it has additional information and it makes it really easy to access, not only information about properties but also any consumers real estate agent. So, we do some online promotion, we do some things in the stores and other places where you can get reviews and alike, but most important vehicle for marketing for our mobile app is going to be the online presence that we have.

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

Okay. And then from a recruiting perspective how does the slowdown impact your recruiting strategy if at all for new agents?

Lanny Baker

Good question. We are very excited about the recruiting momentum that we have built up and we do believe that this is really fundamental to the production capacity of the Company going forward into the future. We continue to attract new agents over the fourth quarter and into the first part of this year. And as we have now got the -- we have talked about this few quarters ago, as we have got the recruiting momentum now where we are seeing kind of double-digit year-over-year gains, it does give us some more leeway to think about targeting specific areas and also targeting members of our existing team who may not be performing up to the level that we would like to see and there is some selective sort of attrition, and proactive management of attrition that we can also do to help improve the strength and tenure of our sales force. So, we are going to continue to recruit new agents. I think they are fundamental to the Company’s future. We are excited to be able to do that based on the strength of our value proposition and I think we have built up some pretty good momentum.

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

And would you ever consider shifting temporarily the commission split or is that a slippery slot to try and attract your agents with?

Lanny Baker

No, Jared the commission split as always is sort of the mirror image of the value proposition and those firms that offer a much support to their agents typically provide higher commission splits and those that provide fairly robust value proposition to the agents are not typically seen at the stratospheric levels of commission split. I don’t think you can do something temporary because really it is that sort of one-two tandem with the value proposition and we continue to invest in that value proposition. We don’t have any intention of slowing it down and therefore I think our commission splits remain fair and attractive and we will continue to work with them.

Jared Schramm - ROTH Capital Partners

Okay. Thank you for taking my questions.

Lanny Baker

Thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Mitch Bartlett from Craig-Hallum. Please proceed.

Mitch Bartlett - Craig-Hallum Capital

Yes Lanny I wonder if you could just address again, I know you did it in your prepared remarks but just for the sake of redundancy what’s going on, I heard you say transaction volume January down I think 8% or something like that. What from your point of view is going on, is it the weather more than anything else that’s hitting the transaction volumes? And then what would see kind of the normal course through the year?

Lanny Baker

It’s a good question Mitch. I think that the factors that are affecting transaction volume are real estate market related sort of at the highest level. Transaction volume in the fields that we serve is down 8% year-over-year. Remember a year ago, interest rates were 0.1 lower. Average home sales prices were 15% lower. There was the mortgage lending rules we talked about a few minutes ago were, had not yet been changed. Inventory levels were considerably higher than they are today. New listings volume was stronger of new properties coming to market. So, I think those are the primary factors that we see across the markets, a sort of high single-digit year-to-year decline in transaction volume seems to also be what the National Association of Realtors is talking about for pending transactions coming out of January that’s consistent with what the Mortgage Bankers Association is taking about in terms of first time purchase applications being down in the mid-teens.

Your second question was how do we believe that that will trend across the course of the year? It’s difficult to say at this point. We clearly study our own numbers, study the history, look at market conditions, talk to our agents and customers, talk to our Powered by Zip clients and listen to all the sort of normal course of forecasters about the business. I think there is a general consensus that the latter part of 2014 maybe stronger than the initial part of this year. And I think that that, if there is any one reason why I think that might be the case, it’s probably an expectation of a bit stronger of economic growth and most importantly an improvement in what our, really almost universally, very tight inventory levels. So that, even buyers who are out there wanting to do a transaction, there is just not a whole lot of property on the marketplace.

Mitch Bartlett - Craig-Hallum Capital

Any geographic difference in listing counts and the vibrancy of total listings, maybe the northern climate is more severely affected?

Lanny Baker

I think what we have seen early this year is that the Mid-Atlantic and the sort of Intermountain West markets have been the places where the transaction volume and our own progress has been the most challenged, so that would include places like Phoenix importantly Denver and then the sort of, obviously the Mid-Atlantic, Washington DC, Baltimore and Missouri.

Mitch Bartlett - Craig-Hallum Capital

Okay, good hank you Lanny. I appreciate it.

Lanny Baker

Sure, thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Matt Blazei from Lake Street Capital. Please proceed.

Matt Blazei - Lake Street Capital

Hello Lanny, any possible good news coming from Powered by Zip?

Lanny Baker

Well, I think there’s a lot of good news there. We’ve grown the customer base pretty dramatically and continue to have a lot of interest in that. We’ve increased the agent penetration of the ranks that our agents, the ranks of our client agents who are up on our system. We’re growing the transaction volume, the revenue of that business very well. And I think there are some, as we talked about -- we’re looking at some expansions and evolutions of the product offering that will complement the lead generation model that we have today with greater support and greater sort of, closer relationship with our clients where our -- we’d offer more of the digital presence that we run ourselves through our brokerage, we become more central to their operating model. I think that’s a pretty important evolution for us and it paves the way to I think kind of a white labeled support of our clients and a very, very essential role in the digital presence.

Matt Blazei - Lake Street Capital

And given the, obviously the disappointments in the brokerage business here in the last, I don’t know three months, is that something that you think might be an exciting news event for investors over the next few months?

Lanny Baker

That’s a good question. We have a pretty fundamental operating plan in the brokerage business, but we have confidence in, in the long-term, and that is, our plan starts with agent recruitment, then follows with supplying them with the tools and leads and marketing opportunities that can support their production, training them on how to use those things and compete effectively in the market. And then retaining them as their productivity grows and I think through the first nine months of 2013 we saw that plan being executed very well across many of our markets and it built up some pretty good momentum both absolute and closing the gap relative to the markets that we serve.

We’ve lost that momentum in the near-term here. We talked a bit about some of the market trends that we’ve seen. As we said we think this is a, we think our value proposition makes a lot of sense. We know the model generates strong contribution margins and we see a lot of opportunity to continue to grow our brokerage operation and we’re exploring all the alternatives that we have to get our brokerage business to the scale and presence that we think it rightfully deserves and can achieve in the long run.

Matt Blazei - Lake Street Capital

Okay, thank you.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes the question-and-answer session of today’s call. I would now like to turn the call back over to Lanny Baker for closing remarks.

Lanny Baker

Thank you very much, operator and thanks to everybody on the call with us today. I also want to thank our real estate agents and brokers out in the field who are serving our customers so well. We look forward to speaking with you again soon. Thank you very much.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen that concludes today’s conference. Thank you all for your participation and you may all now disconnect. Have a wonderful day.

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