Questar Management Discusses Q1 2014 Results - Earnings Call Transcript

Apr.30.14 | About: Questar Corporation (STR)

Questar (NYSE:STR)

Q1 2014 Earnings Call

April 30, 2014 9:30 am ET

Executives

Kevin W. Hadlock - Chief Financial Officer, Principal Accounting Officer and Executive Vice President

Ronald W. Jibson - Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, President, Chairman of Questar Gas, Chief Executive Officer of Questar Gas Company, Chief Executive Officer of Wexpro, President of Questar Gas Company and President of Wexpro

James R. Livsey - Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Wexpro

R. Allan Bradley - Executive Vice President, Chief Executive Officer Questar Pipeline and President of Questar Pipeline

Craig C. Wagstaff - Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer of Questar Gas and Executive Vice President of Questar Gas

Analysts

Carl L. Kirst - BMO Capital Markets U.S.

Timm A. Schneider - ISI Group Inc., Research Division

Christopher P. Sighinolfi - Jefferies LLC, Research Division

Operator

Good morning. My name is Sean. I'll be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the Questar Corporation's First Quarter 2014 Earnings Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] Mr. Kevin Hadlock, you may begin your conference.

Kevin W. Hadlock

Thank you, Sean. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us for Questar's First Quarter 2014 Earnings Conference Call. I am Kevin Hadlock, Questar's Chief Financial Officer. With me today are Ron Jibson, Chairman, President and CEO of Questar Corporation; Jim Livsey, Executive Vice President and COO of Wexpro; Allan Bradley, President and CEO of Questar Pipeline; and Craig Wagstaff, Executive Vice President and COO of Questar Gas.

During this call, we will be referring to our first quarter 2014 earnings presentation that can be found on our website at www.questar.com.

Moving to Slide 2. Before we begin, let me remind you that we will be making forward-looking statements during our call today and actual results could differ from our estimates for a variety of reasons that we described in our SEC filings. Also, this call references non-GAAP financial measures. Our slides in the appendix of the presentation provide reconciliations to these measures.

Let's begin by reviewing the first quarter on Slide 4. Yesterday, we reported first quarter 2014 net income of $85.1 million or $0.48 per diluted share. This represents an increase of 17% over first quarter of 2013 net income of $72.9 million or $0.41 per diluted share. Adjusted EBITDA was also higher in the first quarter of 2014, totaling $206.3 million, an increase of about 12% compared to the same period in 2013. Combined O&M and G&A expenses, excluding demand-side management costs, were down $2.6 million or 4% compared to the same period last year despite inflationary cost pressures. Capital investment for the first 3 months of 2014 was $69.7 million compared to $84 million in the first quarter of 2013.

Turning to Slide 5. Each of the business units performed very well in the first quarter. Consolidated net income was $85.1 million, which represents a 17% increase over the same period last year. Earnings in the first quarter increased by $0.07 to $0.48 per diluted share compared to $0.41 per diluted share during the same period last year.

Moving to Slide 6. Questar Gas, our local natural gas distribution utility, showed a $13.7 million increase in gross margins during the first quarter of 2014 to $141.7 million. Adjusted EBITDA was higher by $6.7 million, and net income was up $2.6 million. This improvement was due to higher customer rates, strong customer growth, increased infrastructure replacement revenues and lower employee-related costs. Questar Gas' capital investment in the first quarter was $48.9 million, an increase of $17.2 million compared to the first quarter of 2013.

Turning to Slide 7. Wexpro, our natural gas development and production company, grew adjusted EBITDA to $76.1 million in the first quarter of 2014, up $13.7 million or about 22% compared to the same period in 2013. Net income was up $5.5 million to $31.8 million, an increase of 21% over the first quarter of 2013. These results were driven by a higher 12-month average investment base, which increased $54.6 million and by the addition of the Trail acquisition. Wexpro invested capital of $6.9 million in the first quarter of 2014, which was $30.9 million lower than the same period last year due largely to lower drilling activity.

Moving to Slide 8. Revenue at Questar Pipeline, our interstate natural gas pipeline and storage business, was down $500,000 in the first quarter of 2014, primarily due to lower revenues from natural gas liquids. During the quarter, Questar Pipeline delivered net income of $15.7 million, essentially flat with the prior year's first quarter. Capital investment at Questar Pipeline in the first quarter of 2014 was $8.5 million, which was $5.6 million lower than the prior year.

Moving to Slide 9. With regard to costs, Questar's adjusted operating and maintenance costs in the first quarter of 2014 were down $300,000 compared to the same period last year due to lower employee-related expenses. Despite inflationary pressures, general and administration expenses were down $2.3 million compared to the first quarter of 2013, primarily due to lower employee-related costs. Production and other taxes were $2.6 million higher driven by higher natural gas prices and larger production volumes at Wexpro. Depreciation in the first quarter of 2014 was up $6.8 million compared to the same period last year due to higher balances of property, plant and equipment. Consolidated interest expense was $1.3 million higher due to the replacement of interim low-cost short-term borrowings with long-term debt.

Turning to Slide 10. For the first quarter of 2014, the company generated operating cash flow before working capital changes of $145 million, a slight decrease of 5% compared to the 3 months ended March 31, 2013. At the end of the first quarter, Questar had net available liquidity of $599 million comprised of $6 million in cash and $593 million of unused commercial paper capacity. While we did not repurchase any Questar Corporation common stock in the first quarter of 2014, we plan to be opportunistic in repurchasing shares under our existing board authorization to buy up to 1 million shares during 2014.

With that, let me turn the time over to Ron to discuss operations and Questar's outlook.

Ronald W. Jibson

Good morning, everyone, and thanks, Kevin, for that summary. I'm very pleased with Questar's strong performance in the first quarter. In addition to a substantial year-over-year increase in earnings, we made important progress on several key initiatives.

Each of Questar's business units performed very well in the first quarter and delivered results consistent with our 2014 earnings guidance. I am proud of the accomplishments our employees have achieved so far this year and their clear focus on controlling costs and delivering results.

Let's take a minute to review the highlights from the first quarter beginning on Slide 12. Questar Gas continues to successfully advance key initiatives and execute in line with our forecast. Importantly, we are seeing strong customer growth, which has accelerated to an annual rate of 1.6%, amounting to over 15,000 net new customers over the past 12 months. I am also pleased to report that Utah regulators recently issued a rate case order that allows Questar Gas to earn a competitive ROE and increase its spending under the infrastructure replacement programs tracker. I will discuss this in more detail later in the call.

During the first quarter, the Utah and Wyoming Public Service Commissions approved the Trail acquisition in the Vermillion basin for inclusion under the Wexpro II Agreement. This new property is now producing cost-of-service natural gas for the benefit of Questar Gas customers. Over the past 12 months, Wexpro's investment base grew by 31% to $687.7 million. The increase includes the $103.7 million Trail acquisition added to the Wexpro II Agreement.

Questar Pipeline continues to control costs, with combined operating and maintenance and general and administrative costs down 1% compared to the first quarter of 2013. Questar Pipeline and Questar Gas' joint project to meet the capacity and delivery needs of Rocky Mountain Power's new Lake Side 2 power generation plant was completed and began generating revenues under Questar Pipeline's demand contract on April 1, 2014.

Finally, Questar Fueling continues to expand its national footprint to design, build and manage compressed natural gas fueling stations. During the first quarter, Questar Fueling announced plans for new CNG fueling facilities in Texas, Arizona and California. We continue to have a healthy backlog of projects around the nation.

Turning to Slide 13. As I mentioned earlier, the Utah Public Service Commission issued a constructive order on Questar Gas' general rate case filed last year. The commission ordered a 9.85% allowed ROE, which is competitive with other recent ROE awards around the country but is slightly lower than Questar Gas' previously allowed ROE. The commission also approved a revenue increase of $7.6 million or 2.6%, which became effective on March 1, 2014. Additionally, a primary focus of the general rate case was to review the infrastructure replacement tracker that was adopted as a pilot program in 2010. The order book extends and enhances the infrastructure replacement tracker program to include intermediate, high-pressure belt mains and allows recovery of up to $65 million annually, which is $10 million higher than the $55 million previously allowed.

Moving to Slide 14. Over the past 2 years, we have communicated an important focus on expanding Wexpro's ownership of properties pursuant to the Wexpro II Agreement. Under the terms of the original Wexpro Agreement, Wexpro produces gas from certain properties at cost-of-service. The Wexpro II Agreement, which was approved by the Utah and Wyoming Public Service Commissions last year, perpetuates this cost-of-service model. Wexpro II stipulates that all Wexpro acquisitions within the footprint of the 1981 agreement must be offered to the Public Service Commissions of Utah and Wyoming for inclusion as cost-of-service properties benefiting Questar Gas' utility customers. If accepted, the initial acquisition cost will earn a rate of return equal to Questar Gas' cost of capital, which is currently 8.4%, adjusting to 7.64% beginning July 1, 2014. Any future development investments would earn a higher Wexpro rate of return, currently about 20%.

Last year, we successfully completed the acquisition of an additional working interest in the Trail field at an attractive price and filed with the Utah and Wyoming Public Service Commissions to include this property in Wexpro II. The acquisition adds significantly to our already strong position in one of our lowest cost and most successful development areas, with the potential to materially add to the long-term gas supplies available to our Utah and Wyoming utility customers.

Effective February 1, 2014, Wexpro's Trail acquisition was approved for inclusion under the Wexpro II Agreement and is now producing cost-of-service natural gas for Questar Gas customers. As part of the approval, Wexpro agreed to manage the combined production from the original Wexpro properties and the Trail acquisition to 65% of Questar Gas' annual forecasted demand. We are very confident that we can effectively manage to the 65% threshold.

Turning to Slide 15. In 2012, we formed Questar Fueling to meet the needs of an expanding market for compressed natural gas for transportation. The market continues to develop and provide opportunities for us to invest in the growing demand for our low-cost transportation fuel. Our strategic focus has been on meeting the fueling requirements of medium and heavy duty trucking fleet operators in high-traffic corridors. We believe this strategy will allow us to prudently and profitably grow this emerging business. During the first quarter of 2014, Questar Fueling announced plans to open new CNG-fueling stations in San Antonio, Texas and Phoenix, Arizona. Both sites will be anchored by contracts with Central Freight Lines and will provide fast field public access for other fleet operators and motorists who drive natural gas vehicles. We expect these stations to open later this year.

Last week, Questar Fueling announced an additional CNG station in DeSoto, Texas, just south of Dallas, which will support major trucking companies like Dart Transit and Swift Transportation. Questar Fueling has also been selected to build 2 additional CNG fueling stations for Frito-Lay, 1 in Dallas, Texas and the second in Bakersfield, California. In addition to these announced facilities, Questar Fueling has CNG stations under development in Kansas City, Kansas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Killingly, Connecticut. We continue to see significant long-term growth potential for the use of natural gas for transportation.

Moving to Slide 16. Questar's return on equity continues to be industry-leading. For the 12 months ended March 31, 2014, we delivered an adjusted consolidated return on equity of 18.9%, excluding the impairment charge for the eastern segment of Southern Trails Pipeline. This superior return is supported by Wexpro, which provided an ROE of 18.8%. On a financial basis, Questar Gas delivered an ROE of 10% and Questar Pipeline's adjusted return on equity was 10% excluding the impairment.

Moving to Slide 17. With a strong first quarter behind us, we have greater confidence in achieving our initial 2014 EPS guidance range of $1.18 to $1.28 per share. Questar Gas' strong customer growth and the enhanced infrastructure replacement program supported long, strong and long-term earnings and rate base growth at the utility. Wexpro is actively looking to acquire new natural gas properties and continue to grow its investment base. Questar Pipeline continues to develop projects to maximize the benefit of its businesses for shareholders. And Questar Fueling is on its way to becoming a major player in the developing market of CNG fueling for trucking fleet operators throughout the United States. We continue to invest for the long-term with the goals of providing superior service to our customers and strong growth with industry-leading returns for our shareholders. These growth opportunities should help us maintain a compound annual earnings growth rate averaging 4% to 6% over the planning horizon. We will update you on our performance and earnings guidance throughout the year. We understand the importance of maintaining a competitive dividend and are committed to continuing a healthy dividend growth rate. We are near our target dividend payout ratio of about 60%. Going forward, we expect dividends will grow in line with earnings over the coming years.

Concluding on Slide 18, I want to emphasize Questar's unique strengths. Our integrated operations span the entire natural gas value chain from wellhead to burner tip. Our constructive regulatory relationships produce appropriate risk-adjusted returns. Questar has an attractive growth outlook, and we're excited about the new opportunities for Questar Gas, Wexpro, Questar Pipeline and Questar Fueling. Finally, our conservative balance sheet supports our earnings growth and long-term strategic plan. While we are pleased with our first quarter performance, our goal is to consistently outperform. Competitive and consistent growth in earnings, dividends and especially Questar share price will be the ultimate measure of our success.

With that, we'd be happy to take your questions. Sean, I'll turn the time back to you.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your first question comes from the line of Carl Kirst from BMO Capital Markets.

Carl L. Kirst - BMO Capital Markets U.S.

Just a few questions if I could. The first, and understanding this won't -- this shouldn't be an issue per your comments, but as we target the Wexpro threshold to Mountain -- or Questar Gas, sorry, I'm about to say Mountain Fuel, to the 65% range, where were we in the first quarter? Or I guess, maybe where do you expect to be for all of 2014? I just want to make sure I understand what the delta is that we have to manage to, if you will?

Ronald W. Jibson

Yes, appreciate that Carl. Jim, do you want to?

James R. Livsey

Yes, the expectation is we'll probably be in the high 60 percentage this year as we absorb the Trail production. And then we had a significant increase in production as we finish up our Pinedale program in PAB last year. And so we're going to work through that, and we anticipate being in that high percentage this year, 65 to 68 or thereabouts. And again, our regulators were aware of that. That's why we have that window to get to 65% by June, starting June of 2015.

Carl L. Kirst - BMO Capital Markets U.S.

Appreciate that. And does that -- as you manage down, and I generally think of, for instance, the Wexpro development CapEx budget, we've kind of been running at, I guess, 1 rig here for a little while. And so is that something that will need to be flexed down even more in 2015 to allow for the production volumes to line up? And again, maybe that gets offset, if you will, by the additional $50 million of property acquisitions. But I'm just wondering if we should expect perhaps to see temporary or onetime damping of the CapEx budget to kind of better align, or if the way you see this, with the perhaps normal ongoing growth at the LDC that, that can realign without having to perhaps shift too dramatically the development CapEx?

James R. Livsey

Yes, I think what we see this year is a more moderate CapEx budget, $50 million in, call it, traditional Wexpro, that allows kind of glide to that 65% for next year. Then we'll look at it in the fall this year and see what we have in mind, where things are looking for next year's program. But there could be 1 year or 2 where we'll be a bit moderate and then we would anticipate building the drilling program up again going forward. And then also you have excess money, funds budgeted for acquisitions on top of that potentially.

Ronald W. Jibson

And Carl, the $50 million this year is representative of bringing on that production that we acquired in the Trail unit end of the year. So that represents that production as well as our other production.

Carl L. Kirst - BMO Capital Markets U.S.

Okay. And then one final question, if I could. I'm not sure if this is for Kevin or for whoever would like to address it. But just on the Questar Fueling, I guess, when -- from the time it was sort of first laid out a couple of years ago, things have continued to go extremely well. What are you now targeting the combined or the cumulative, excuse me, investment in Questar Fueling by, say for instance, the end of the year as stations come on? And has that gotten you to rethink what the potential 5-year opportunities set might be in this?

Ronald W. Jibson

Kevin, why don't you go ahead and address that?

Kevin W. Hadlock

Yes, Carl, we're still expecting this year to spend about $25 million within Questar Fueling for stations outside of the Questar Gas rate base. Add to that roughly $10 million from last year in our aggregate capital through 2014 and this opportunity would be about $35 million. Thinking about capital spending and the contribution of this business over the 5-year plan, we would agree with you, we think the opportunity has gone very well. We really like our strategy, focusing on the medium and heavy duty trucks and specific trucking companies and meeting their needs in a very customer-focused strategy. And as we look over the 5 years, we think that this $25 million a year of spending is appropriate. And when we think about the earnings contribution by the time we get that far out, and as we continue to invest in the business, still don't see it as a fourth leg of the stool, but certainly, something that could be $0.03 to $0.05 per share contributor as we get out 4 or 5 years.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Timm Schneider from ISI Group.

Timm A. Schneider - ISI Group Inc., Research Division

Just a quick one from me. There's an explosion at a processing plant in Wyoming last week. Just wondering if that had any effect on your Questar Pipeline or Overthrust volumes, or if it's having an effect right now, I should say.

Ronald W. Jibson

Timm, I'll ask Allan Bradley, if he'll talk about that.

R. Allan Bradley

Timm, first, let me say, as an industry, we were really thankful nobody got hurt in that explosion. Opal is a confluence of a lot of pipelines, as you point out, Overthrust. For sure, we had some guys out there actually working on a meter that felt the heat from that blast. It's quite stunning. So very happy no one was hurt. On our system, we had only minimal impact. And by that, I mean, prior to the incident, we were flowing about 70,000 decatherms a day. It was eastbound flow and Overthrust. Obviously, after the incident, we lost that volume. Couple of days later, it came back as processors gather, so the Midstream assets sort of rebalanced. And as a result, we're sort of back to normal. So no impact. Most of our -- in fact, all of our transportation on Overthrust is primarily demand-based. So we're not -- we didn't lose any revenue over that day or 2 period where the volumes dropped off. So very fortunate.

Timm A. Schneider - ISI Group Inc., Research Division

Got it. So basically, we should think of this as most of those volumes have been diverted to other plants then?

R. Allan Bradley

Well, certainly, the volume that we were seeing, and I don't want to speak generally because there hasn't been a lot of information released by Williams so I don't know the total volume that was sort of rerouted to the other pipelines.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your next question comes from the line of Chris Sighinolfi from Jefferies.

Christopher P. Sighinolfi - Jefferies LLC, Research Division

I guess, a couple of cleanup questions for me. Going back to Carl's question on Questar Fueling. I'm thinking about the $25 million budget you guys stipulated for the year, and then Slide 15 is actually quite helpful, I think, in terms of lining out or outlining for us when these various facilities are scheduled to come online. It looks like 7 of those 8, scheduled for this year. And so, Kevin, I appreciate the earlier comments about sort of the $25 million run rate is sort of what's in the budget over the next 5 years. But just sort of, I guess, wondering from my perspective, what flexes that up or down. Is it -- as you guys look at it, as the team sort of goes out there and hunts across the country, is it -- how do you think about the backlog of opportunity set and your appetite to spend more or less than $25 million? Is that all driven by individual projects or is it a sense of this sort of buildout really catching fire from the transport perspective? How do we think about sort of the aggregate backlog if we sort of frame it in that context?

Ronald W. Jibson

Yes, that's a great question, Chris, and we appreciate that. I think from a high level -- and then I'll ask Craig if he'll drill down on it. But we're very excited about what's taking place at Questar Fueling, that's certainly the right thing to be doing in the country. And the trucking, the large and medium size trucking industry is really taking hold, with the engines now being available. Last year, we were able to really anchor this business with the very large facility, the largest in the country, in Houston, and our Topeka, Kansas site for Frito-Lay. And then to have these additional sites to be selected for these that we've just talked about for this year has really allowed us to stay right in line with what we were anticipating on our capital spend in Fueling and, at the same time, picking up what we consider to be the key locations in the country. And so, Craig, why don't you talk about kind of looking forward, what you see as far as Chris' question there?

Craig C. Wagstaff

You bet. And you hit it right on the head, and we've had this discussion before, and that is certainly, as we look at locations, we'll identify either anchor tenants or an anchor tenant that will provide us sufficient volumes there. The one thing we're certainly been pleased with over the past 18 months to 2 years is that the demand for the CNG continues to grow. When we started the business in 2012, much of the discussion was, is it LNG or CNG. But certainly, we feel comfortable and confident on the path that we've gone down. And you've heard us use the word discipline. We turned down a fair number of locations, where we could just build locations and wait for trucks to be available. But our intent is to continue to grow this based on customer demand. And each quarter, we'll certainly update you on additional locations, as we are in a position to make further announcements. But I think the $25 million that Kevin mentioned is a good threshold to focus right now. And then we'll continue to see how the market plays out.

Christopher P. Sighinolfi - Jefferies LLC, Research Division

Okay. And then, I mean, you've partnered with some very large transport companies, obviously, already. Just -- you, obviously, have a window into this that we don't. Are there large players that are sort of still waiting in the shadows, and should they emerge and Questar Fueling successfully partner on a couple initial, then there's sort of a meaningful addition to the backlog we might be able to see or is this sort of suite of participants at present really what we're going to -- what we should expect at least over the intermediate period?

Craig C. Wagstaff

I would say over the next year, Chris, you'll see additional major players come into this. There's a fair number sitting on the sidelines. But as each month goes by, we see more and more come to the table. We're in conversation with a fair number of those major players. And the positive thing as well is we're seeing outside volumes at our existing stations, we're pleased with the outside volumes, which tells us these are end users that we don't necessarily have an agreement with or a contract with. But as Ron mentioned, since September last year, when the availability of the 12 liter engines there, you'll see more and more companies come forward throughout the next 12 to 18 months.

Ronald W. Jibson

Chris, there's been a lot of excitement out there with the trucking industry, but I think the real exclamation point to what Craig just said is the fact that when you look at the savings that these companies are experiencing, it's very competitive market, very competitive industry, and I think others are going to have to come up with similar savings in order to compete. And those are hard to find. And this is a direct way to get a real savings on their fuel costs. So I think it goes without saying we're going to see a lot of emerging companies jump in.

Christopher P. Sighinolfi - Jefferies LLC, Research Division

Okay, great. Switching gears real quickly, I just want to touch back with Allan on Timm's question. Any opportunity -- I know you're processing reside further downstream, any opportunities there as it sort of relates to this Opal outage that you're seeing already or maybe could expect to see?

R. Allan Bradley

Thanks for the question, Chris. No, Overthrust pipeline is a 15-degree pipeline. The processing is well upstream, on our system, primarily to meet those downstream specs. So at Opal, there probably is no opportunity to pick that up on any of the processing we have on our system.

Christopher P. Sighinolfi - Jefferies LLC, Research Division

Okay. And then one final cleanup for me, Kevin, the pipeline outlook that you guys gave back in the winter included an expectation of sort of a $4 million pretax one-time safety integrity expense this year. I was just wondering if any of that occurred in 1Q or that still remains sort of balanced?

Kevin W. Hadlock

No, that really is balanced through the year. There wasn't much of that, that came in, in the first quarter.

Operator

There are no further questions at this time. Mr. Hadlock, I'll turn the call back to you.

Ronald W. Jibson

Well, thank you. This is Ron. I just wanted to, again, thank all of you for taking the time to be with us this morning. We really appreciate your support and look forward to visiting with all of you over the next couple of months. We'll be out a great deal, and some good opportunities to meet with you one-on-one. So thanks again and appreciate you making a decision to be with us this morning.

Operator

This concludes today's conference call. You may now disconnect.

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