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VCA Antech, Inc. (NASDAQ:WOOF)

Bank of America Merrill Lynch Health Care Conference Call

May 17, 2012 14:20 ET

Executives

Tom Fuller – Chief Financial Officer

Jeff Framer – Corporate Controller

Analysts

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

Bob Willoughby – Bank of America

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

….services team with Bob Willoughby. We are happy to have such a strong animal health contingent this year at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Health Care Conference. Up next, we have VCA Antech, the leading animal hospital chain and leader of what we’d like to call the diagnostic sector.

And with that, I’ll hand it over to the Chief Financial Officer, Tom Fuller.

Tom Fuller

Thank you, Erin. I am Tom Fuller, the CFO of VCA. With me is Jeff Framer, who is actually our new Corporate Controller. And about six months ago I think Jeff has the – unfortunately he jumped into a company and spend the last six months at Vetstreet managing the financial side of that business, which is a great business that we’re behind schedule and we’re trying to achieve. But he’s doing a great job. So he is here today. As you take a moment to peruse our Safe Harbor disclosure, take a moment to reflect on what amazing company we have and what we’ve done. Just noticed one of our latest versions of the hat is 1986, which is actually, Bob’s asked me what that stands for, and that’s actually when we started the company, so we’re in our 25th year now. Look back what we’ve accomplished the past 25 years, it’s really transformative; invested in the industry, really created an industry.

So where we are today is, I think we’ve done a fantastic job the past three years, three and a half years of dealing with a tough economy; cut cost significantly; mitigate the brain damage on margins by cutting costs. Along the way, we’ve done a great job of continuing to invest in the company, and I think we’re well positioned to see a terrific growth in revenue and margin once – if the economy continues to see stability and grow in the future. We are now the industry leader in what is a great market; $29 million market; 189 million pets; over half the households in the country own a pet. And the great thing is really across all socioeconomic demographic, we have hospitals in Beverly Hills, West LA, Manhattan, and hospitals in Redding, California and in Redding, Pennsylvania. So really they’re everywhere, and those of you who have pets, know firsthand, and those who don’t have pets, Joe, I am sure you know from friends (indiscernible) habits, are frankly kooky about our pets, we will spend money within reason.

Specialization is exploding in veterinary care. So, all the ologies you see in human healthcare from dermatology, oncology, radiology, surgery, cataract surgery is huge, ACL surgery is huge. It’s exploding in veterinary, which is a growth driver. But not just in specialty medicine, but also because the specialization makes general practitioners think more medically oriented, do more work cases up do more medicine. So it’s a great market. It appears to be growing in all the signs we can see from lab volumes are up, so doctors are doing more diagnostics; pet adoptions are up. Bob covers PetSmart, and I think with record adoptions last month, Erin?

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

Yeah, record trends.

Tom Fuller

Record adoptions that you may emphasize as we do a lot of business, we’re getting referrals from nursing; increase in pet adoptions after several years of decrease in pet adoptions. So everything we can see is moving in the right direction. We are the industry leader; the largest owner-operator of standalone hospitals in the country. VCA Antech services 16,000 to 22,000 hospitals nationally plus up in Canada. Sound-Eklin is a leading seller of ultrasound and digital radiology solutions for veterinarians. And our new addition Vetstreet – Vetstreet is 6,500 subscribers, the clear leader in terms of subscribers and products and that, because one of our background segment could be to focus in that 180 million pets in the country. And what’s amazing about Vetstreet is their database contains pet information for 40 million pets. So 20% of the pets in the country is in Vetstreet’s database, which has potential huge, huge power going forward.

Looking back, what we have done to the industry, the amount of investment we’ve made both in terms of capital and in terms of focus on the industry, really have been transformative. Starting back 25 years ago, creating an industry; creating jobs and providing careers; providing doctors, seller, hospital owners liquidity so they could retire; really changing that business. And then bringing and growing through more quality medicine on that foundation that people are bonded with their pets. And much of that growth in the quality of medicine comes from diagnostics, both Antech Diagnostics, which we are the leader in and technologies.

Before we got involved, laboratory and veterinary was mom and pop. We call it garage because literally the first lab we bought back in 1988 was a garage; and now, it’s not unlike what you’d see in the human side. We’ve invested in people. We’re the largest employer in the veterinary channel; creating careers in medical administration. We train – we have trained 1,000 interns in post-graduate training programs, currently training 152, internship programs, externship programs, residency programs, which really allows us to imprint VCA on the new generation. Of roughly 22,000 veterinary graduates per year, we actually get to train 152 of them post-graduate. We’re investing in hospitals. We continue to invest last year $90 million, $100 million plus in the first quarter of this year.

Great, great market, lots of opportunities. Of the 20 some odd thousand hospitals, probably 2,500, 3,000 we want to buy. So a lot of ground to cover because as you consolidate that market. Proven track record, we’ve been doing it for years. And the best thing about the acquisitions we fund them with internally generated cash flow. Tremendous free cash flow, which we redeploy back into the business, grow our hospital base. We’re investing in specialty medicine, 40 specialty hospitals employing 340 board certified specialists.

As I mentioned, all of the ologies you see in human healthcare, you see it in veterinary care. And investing in our hospital as you can see here, in South Shore in Weymouth, Massachusetts, before and after. So, the hospitals you’d actually want to take your pet to. Our first specialty hospital was in Gaithersburg, Maryland. We especially call it the barn, because frankly it was a barn, and now it’s a beautiful hospital. Technology, don’t get scared by the MRI and the CyberKnife. We probably – this is not like human healthcare where it’s extremely capital intensive on the equipment here.

We probably have 5, 10 MRIs in the whole company, one CyberKnife, which is great as a leader in the community – within the community of veterinarians has been the cutting edge, to use a pun, in terms of technology and medicine in the profession. So where we are now, almost 600 hospitals in United States and up in Canada. We have entered Canada with both the – in February with the acquisition of AVC with 44 hospitals, roughly $95 million of annual revenues. Throughout the hospital business, we’ve seen a little bit of slow up in growth in the past three years and we’re seeing improvements, I’ll talk about in a second, in revenue and margin.

So the biggest part of our business, Antech Diagnostics, again transforming that business, adding stat-labs, investing, improving service levels going to twice-a-day, sometimes three times a day, pick up in many, many markets. Adding services like AIS, which facilitates the telemedicine, so as digital radiology become much more prevalent in the veterinary channel, the ability to transport x-rays for board-certified radiologists to read and do telemedicine. We facilitate that and adding new platforms for testing like AccuPlex, which we launched in the first quarter.

So, from a garage growing into a lab like you would see in human lab, Hitachi analyzers, AccuPlex albeit their analyzers, huge throughput, huge operating leverage. When I look at this map, I was really seeing earnings machine, a very high fixed cost business, very high incremental margins business. The platforms in place, 53 labs, including four up in Canada allows us to pick up samples. If you look at this, the triangles are really, what we call, stat-labs for that quick turnarounds for market like – I guess we’re in Las Vegas. We’ll pick up samples between 12 and 1, do the simple chemistries locally and get this up back to doctor by 5, 6 that afternoon.

We’ll pick up again at 6, 7 at night, fly that work down to Irvine and do the work overnight, because that infrastructure is in place and allow us to put more samples through and capture very high incremental margin. Revenue, where we estimate on things like chemistry is as much as 65%, 75% margin, so I’ll show you in a second the earnings power with that. So with reducing cost, with saving the cost, we believe that margins are somewhat spring loaded as revenue grows, we’re in a good position to see some pretty significant margin expansion.

So coming out of 2007, where we’re seeing significant comps, with the economy comps going negative and now we’re in a position where we are in our six consecutive quarter of positive comps in the lab, progressive growth up to 5.1% a day adjusted in the first quarter. Hospitals, three consecutive quarters of positive growth and continuing the improvement and stability, which makes us while still cautious, very optimistic on the ability to continue to see stability and improvement going forward. Looking back at the hospital business for five years, you can see in the bottom same-store growth 5.2% in 2007, dropping off to negative.

What’s amazing to me is given the state of the economy, given that we do have a fair amount of consumer exposure to the economy, so what we do, 6% roughly three years stat comps through 2011 down about 6.5%, which I think is phenomenal. And really to me the story here is we’re only about 300 basis points off peak margins. We have done a terrific job holding margin in the tough revenue environment. And the great news is going into Q1 of 2012 on 2.2% same-store gross margins roughly flat down 40 basis points to 12%. But the same-store margins were actually up 10 basis points and then the lower margin had some acquisitions for us to consolidate hospital margins down 40 basis points essentially. So there is margin power in the hospitals. Laboratory, similarly going from low-teen growth rates before through 2007 growing roughly zero, 2011, about 500 basis points off peak margin.

When you look at first quarter on 5.1% day adjusted comps, the margin is up 110 basis points. So and if you look at the actual numbers, roughly a $5 million increase in revenue, so about a $3 million drop to offering and about a 55% flow through on incremental revenue growth. So it’s a huge margin potential in the lab space. Our third business Vetstreet which we entered – we acquired in February of this year, that’s really about veterinarians connecting with their clients, particularly as the world changes with email and challenges from online retailers, from pet stores holding onto traffic, holding onto the bonding with clients and that’s what this is really all about.

They are in four businesses. Lower left Vetstreet.com is a subscription model where for a monthly fee we will do veterinarians email reminders. So there is 16 million email remainders going out, 20 million direct mail reminders and we have 6,500 clients in our client base with the addition of I think in February of this year. With all that data, we are in the top right VetInsite is a leading analytics company similar to IMS where we connect veterinarians with pharma to do marketing, drug marketing, and also do vet pharma analytics.

And then, Vetlearn is a leading educator about 50,000 CE courses for veterinarians now, which bonds veterinaries with the Vetstreet brand. And then coming soon, a little bit of a delay; we hoped to launch it sooner, but with the effects of extracting Vetstreet from the larger corporation we brought it from, with stabilizing improving and making their data bases more scalable, delaying our launch in the consumer site. But ultimately that will be a place where veterinarians can compete, if not to compete to descend in the online space, with that bond, with their client allows them to shop and buy products online.

So, when we look at Vetstreet, a big investment as I said last year, fourth quarter of last year with the further investment with – I think that’s in the February this year. It’s really where we have to be sort of the markets going, where the industry is going and we are in a unique position with Vetstreet to help the industry, bond with their clients and hold traffic in a changing world. On a consolidated basis, again, margins down, but I think the story here is really how well we got it with the whole margin, and going into the first quarter margins are down.

Remember, lab margins and hospital margins roughly flat, down slightly, but the decline of 150 basis points in the consolidated margins is due to the losses at Vetstreet, which we hope to eliminate by the end of this year as we continue to invest, stabilize and improve their platform. But there is some investment involved which does have some earnings impact, which largely offset by the better than such performance in the hospital and lab space. So, we are still comfortable with our guidance for the year.

A $0.01 increase in EPS, the balance sheet is strong; $172 million of cash; $650 million in debt, floating rate, plenty about 2.2 times debt EBITDA. So even though we fund our acquisitions with internally generated cash flow, we still have capacity if we need to generate more capital with additional lending on the credit facilities. So we are in a great place, great cash flow. We’ve done a lot of investing in the past 25 years and a lot of investing in the past three years.

While we have done a good job of controlling costs, hopefully getting the cost structure in place where we have a lot of margin potential and we are seeing improvement in the macro space, which is reflected in our improved growth rates and we are seeing margins expand. That’s what we hope to continue.

So it’s a pretty short presentation and plenty of time for questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Unidentified Analyst

Okay. Just to start out, given the competitive dynamics in the reference laboratory business, I guess why doesn’t it make more sense to establish some sort of formalized collaborative approach or outright point-of-care offering at this juncture?

Tom Fuller

We – it is a good question. We’ve been looking at that for years, whether to buy, lease, license, develop some sort of strategy product. I think we are getting closer to doing something there, but it’s definitely of interest. But our approach is really going to be – I don’t think it’s going to be as aggressive as you might be thinking. To try to take our two competitors, a very, very good companies, head on will be tough. So our initial approach really is more internal based. So we spent a lot of money on supplies, because those machines are expensive to operate. So our initial approach is actually to – we think we could cost justify doing something just on the savings alone of cutting our costs on supplies and then slowly introduce that to some of our clients that may want to take advantage of a similar strategy. But I think we’ll definitely move in that direction.

Unidentified Analyst

Okay. And then on Vetstreet, do you think that it will be still profitable by year-end and can you explain I guess what’s left on the integration front?

Tom Fuller

You want to do it? Is that on?

Jeff Framer

Sure.

Tom Fuller

Is that on?

Jeff Framer

Yeah, hello, first off, what’s left on the integration front, we are in the process now of extracting all the information, all the – it’s an IT centric business so, we are pulling out all the software applications out of the parent company’s data center and at the same time, we are upgrading to the latest software level. So, we can further scale the business. What we found is that some of those software levels weren’t that the actual software applications weren’t on the latest addition and that would prevent us from scaling into growing the business quite a bit larger. So, actually doing that at the same time and making fixes to anything we find in the upgrade process.

Ultimately, we are migrating all of that to our datacenter in Arizona. That’s all happening right now and I think it’s taking a little bit longer than we expected, but there’s no significant problems and we are getting through it. I think it’s going to take probably the rest of this year to ultimately get the company kind of where we thought it would be probably six months earlier.

But at that point, I think we’ll be able – or maybe a year behind, and we’ll be able to start operating at the level that I thought – I think we expected to originally. So in terms of profitability by the end of the year, we think that on a cash flow basis, it definitely will be. We have a lot of D&A as a result of the acquisition that we would have to make up for it to make it profitable on a net basis by the end of the year. But we are hopeful that we see improvement as we continue to stabilize the IT environment. And when I say that it’s not – it’s not so difficult, it’s just a little more difficult than we expected.

Tom Fuller

And at the same time, we are adding ThinkPet hospitals and we are also adding our – putting our hospitals on the pet portal. So a lot of stuff going on; we piled extra work on after we bought that.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

And just with regards to the ThinkPets acquisition, are there any other assets out there that would make sense to add on to Vetstreet as well?

Jeff Framer

I don’t think so. I mean there maybe something, but right now there is really nothing we are focused on. And regarding the losses, Vetstreet will lose money this year. I view those as just typical start-up losses. In addition to the initial investment, we’ll invest some more in start-up losses as we get them on their feet a little stronger. But the amount we are going to spend in terms of losses are de minimis compared to the original purchase price and it will get us in a really good spot when we are done.

Unidentified Analyst

If you look at the metrics that Erin has been tracking in terms of the adoptions and euthanasia rates, what have you that suggest the industry is rebounding at a nice clip. Certainly you see some of that in the hospitals. I guess there is a bit of a disconnect that the guidance is a little bit lower than where I would have thought given some of those trends. Is the issue simply the Vetstreet expense there or are there other factors there?

Tom Fuller

I think it’s a combination. I think as we said on the call, the extent that Vetstreet generate losses, those losses will offset or will be offset by the better performance in the lab and the hospital stay. So that’s why we still feel comfortable in the range. But beyond that and we are cautious, after 10 years of meeting – consistently meeting and beating expectations, and after three quarters of missing and really not liking missing, we are trying to be cautious, trying to be conservative, put ourselves in a position where we can comfortably make the number, hopefully beat the number and go from there. But to try to put expectations out there that we think given that there is still even though we have seen successful improvements to building the comps. There is still a lot of uncertainty both in the industry and the macro environment with Greece and whatever, that makes sense to be more on the conservative side. It’s funny we have been doing this 25 years and whether it’s this quarter or last quarter, certainly the show that I care about at the end of the day, I care about the next three, four, five years and buying hospitals, investing in the hospital bay, keeping expectation and the stock will take care of itself if we perform and we’ll just let guidance be as conservative as we can.

Unidentified Analyst

And I think last year at this time, there were some good natured debate about share repurchases possible dipping in where the stock was at the time. It would have been a tremendous return for you. We still see the stock as somewhat undervalued. I mean still no thoughts of putting $25 million into a program to generate a better return for you as these trends follow through and the Vetstreet losses dissipate?

Tom Fuller

We are still buying hospitals with – even with no improvement in commerce, we are still buying hospitals with a 16%, 18%, 20% return, which I think is better than buying back stock. But even if it were a push, if we all believe – and you’re here, we’re here because we believe it that the economy will improve, our comps will improve, our margins. Longer-term, a hospital in and of itself is a better investment, and then in addition to that, there are a lot of benefits to building out the network. Branding becomes more important. You go to leverage our spend on Internet, client acquisition improves. So we are still committed to buying hospitals. Now, if a year from now, we had lot of cash building up and a lot of opportunities to invest it, then, we’re not blind to it. It’s something we’ll be open to. But right now, we’re still focused on buying hospitals and investing back in the business, plenty of opportunities.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

Okay. And on the utilization front, do you think that the current trends are sustainable near-term and what exactly are you seeing on?

Tom Fuller

I mean it’s hard to say. There was some difficult to quantify benefits from the weather. It’s difficult to quantify how much of that was pulled forward versus just barely, still getting some of that benefit in the future quarters. We’ve seen enough volatility in the comps the past three years that we’re still cautious, that while we have had six successful quarters in the lab of improvement, three in the hospitals, but we are still a little cautious. I would probably say that we’re less cautious, more optimistic than we were last quarter, but there is – we’re just trying to temper it. So we feel good, but it’s hard to say.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

And how do you think the – I guess we’ve been hearing a lot more noise recently about wellness plans and also Trifexis. Is that impacting or helping volumes or profits revenue growth?

Tom Fuller

Wellness is something we’ve done components out for years. We are with the parent attractiveness although, I think, Bob mentioned on the call, people he knows well in the industry, there are some potential pitfalls with wellness. So we’re looking at and we’re testing different models, being very, very deliberate, because if you screw it up you can have some pretty adverse effects. So we’re very interested, but deliberately studying it, testing it. Trifexis is part of our product offering as well as generics and both are having an impact, but they’re not – it’s a very small part of our business, amount is difficult.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

Okay. And you talked a lot about specialty, how are the current trends in specialty, have they been lagging the broader hospital business?

Tom Fuller

The current I’ll speak up to the first quarter, which we reported. I think we mentioned in the last call and the call before interestingly enough our specialty segment, which represents roughly 20% of our revenue, actually performed – on growth rates performed better than our general practice hospitals. I’m not sure statistically better, but definitely the numbers are better, which is funny because going in the recession, the question was which one is going to be impacted more, the specialty lower dollar – or the specialty higher dollar, in terms of procedures, people don’t do those, or they delay them or is it the routine medicine which is cheaper but easier to just sort of forget because you don’t go in for your annual exam. And that could go both ways. So we’re excited. We’re encouraged by that people are spending. They are doing the higher ticket items, so I think that’s a very good sign actually.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

Questions? Okay. And then on the Canadian business, that’s been I guess a focus recently. Is that going to continue to be a focus? Is that somewhere where you are going to go back?

Tom Fuller

We love Canada. It’s small – Canada is California, but what’s exciting about Canada is – I’ll hesitate if there is any Canadians, but there are like a lot of these Canadians there. I’ve actually said this to Canadians and they were fine with it. So maybe they’re listening. But they are behind us a little bit, so in terms of the maturity, the amount of medicine they do. Really what’s been driving our business is again awareness, knowledge. I always get a kick out of people saying, oh, you work for veterinary, what a great business, and I go to doctors are more and more expensive, which is true. But it’s more expensive not because of price. Price is probably 2%, 3% a year. It’s really more sensitive because you didn’t get a lab test 15 years ago. You didn’t get an ultrasound five years ago. You didn’t get cases worked up like you do now.

So along with the increase in the average transaction, you are getting a lot more medicine a lot more perceived value. Canada is probably several years behind us in that, so lots of opportunity to see in lab growth through more lab testing, hospitals, revenue growth through more medicine. On the acquisition side, they’re also behind us in terms of smaller hospitals are getting bigger. So as the hospitals get bigger, more doctors, more revenue, it creates an issue for the owner to monetize these assets. So they are as very nice rich market for us, relatively small, but lots of opportunity. So you’ll see – and the great thing about Canada is they have a terrific management team. We will keep on – we’ll keep their office up there, keep their acquisitions guys, keep their operation guys and run it as a little separate mini VCA and hopefully prosper.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

Okay. Bob has one.

Bob Willoughby – Bank of America

Can you speak to some of your strategies to protect the share for the lab business here in the US? We’ve heard from some of your competitors that they have got some building momentum in their businesses. What is VCA doing to really lock-in customers and grow the business and pull share back?

Tom Fuller

I think the first is more stabilizing, which we actually have seen. Part of our improved growth rates in the quarter, where we are seeing – we’ve acknowledged some share losses to a largest competitor the past three, four years. Those share losses appear to be abating as we predicted they would, because we’ve gone through the worst of it. A lot of our efforts are stability, so there are – there is bundling strategies, there is contracting strategies with giving doctors longer term contracts to stay with us. Similar to bundling with products, we can bundle with price. A lot of this frankly is – it still goes down to service, still goes down to connecting with your clients. The new entrant in the space is very, very small and I think the issue that we see for them is we still as that is really going to boil down to how much deterioration service will doctors accept for a little bit of price.

And I think that once doctors do, if they do move we may see some of them coming back, because the hassle factor won’t – and the turnaround time and the quality won’t necessarily be worth (indiscernible) significant. The laboratory spending is not a huge item typical household spends roughly 3% of revenue on outside labs. So, it’s not a lot of them to save a lot of money. And I think particularly as the economy improves, I think we may see less clients willing to even shop than they are now, because that desire of small businesses in general in veterinary hospital to may be shop to save some money I think will maybe be less than it was in the last couple of years. So it’s really about keeping service levels up. It’s bond to make sure the sales force are bond. The worst thing you want to happen is have a client call you and say we are leaving or just stop sending the samples as we found in the past. In competitive situation of our sales force and at least see the offer, we can point out the pitfall. We can maybe match it with price a little bit. We can hold clients if we are bonding enough with our clients, at least get the opportunity to defend any kind of competitive threat. So, it’s about that, getting service levels up and I think a lot of time people will resolve itself with the economy as doctors get less consumed by trying to save a few bucks.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

And then can you explain your relationship with VPI or the other pet health insurance, I guess, relationships out there and how does that work I guess from an economic standpoint?

Tom Fuller

We love VPI. We actually had an ownership interest in VPI many years ago. We believe in it. We believe in pet health insurance. We supported that we have a guy in our staff whose full time job is introducing the product to our hospitals we believe there is payer that it will – can’t help it, that have some positive impact on demand if the cost is being defrayed. The good news is though unlike human side, it’s hard to imagine the pet insurance will ever become the gatekeeper like you’ve seen in the human side. So, we supportively we encourage it and see very, very little threat in head coming back inviting us, but the gatekeeper and price are bonding in the future. So, we are very supportive.

Erin Wilson – Bank of America

Okay, we’re out of time. Thank you.

Tom Fuller

Thank you all for coming in. Please grab a hat or two and thanks for your support and attention.

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