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Stewart Enterprises, Inc. (NASDAQ:STEI)

Q2 2008 Earnings Call

June 10, 2008 11:00 am ET

Executives

[Leslie Voiette] – Financial Relations Board

Thomas Crawford – President & CEO

Tom Kitchen – Sr. Exec. VP & CFO

Analysts

Robert Willoughby – Banc of America

Jamie Clement – Sidoti & Co.

[David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

Clint Fendley – Davenport & Co.

Operator

Good day everyone and welcome to today’s Stewart Enterprises, Inc. second quarter 2008 earnings conference call. (Operator Instructions) I would now like to turn the call over to Ms. [Leslie Voiette], Financial Relations Board; please go ahead.

[Leslie Voiette]

Good morning and thank you all for joining us. On behalf of Stewart Enterprises, I would like to welcome you all here today. By now you should have all received a copy of the press release that was distributed this morning. If not, please contact Liz Dolezal at 312-640-6771, and she will send you a copy immediately, or visit Stewart’s website at www.stewartenterprises.com for a copy.

Management will provide an overview of the second quarter, and then we'll open the call to your questions. Before I turn the call over to management, please be advised that the information contained in this call is current only as of the time of this call and the company assumes no obligation to update any statements, including forward-looking statements made during this call.

Statements made by the company that are not historical facts are forward-looking statements. Examples of forward-looking statements include; projections of revenue, earnings, growth rates, free cash flow, debt levels, tax benefits, and other financial items, statements regarding plans and objectives of the company or its management, statements regarding industry trends, competitive trends and their effect on future performance, and assumptions underlying the forward-looking statements regarding the company and its business.

The company’s actual results could differ materially from any forward-looking statements due to several important factors which are described in the company’s Form 10-K for the year ended October 31, 2007. The company uses EBITDA and free cash flow as financial measures. These financial measures are not in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America or GAAP, and are intended to supplement rather than replace or supersede any information presented in accordance with GAAP.

Reconciliation to the most directly comparable GAAP financial measures can be found on the company’s website again at www.stewartenterprises.com, under Investor Information Reconciliation of non-GAAP financial measures, and can also be found in the company’s press release dated June 10, 2008.

With that said, I’d like to introduce management, with us today we have Thomas Crawford, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Tom Kitchen, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. At this point I’d like to turn the call over to Thomas Crawford. Please go ahead.

Thomas Crawford

Thank you and good morning and welcome to all who are on the call with us today. On behalf of all the employees of Stewart Enterprises, we welcome you and thank you for joining us on the second quarter conference call. For today’s call we’ll follow much of the custom as we have in the past. I will provide you with some operational highlights for the second quarter and then I’ll turn the call over to Tom Kitchen, the company’s Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer to give you additional insight into some of the financial items of the company.

Again let me say that we are pleased with our second quarter performance as the company generated a 15% increase in diluted earnings per share to $0.15 for the second quarter of 2008, up from $0.13 for the second quarter of 2007. In addition, it should be noted that the results of the second quarter of 2007 included a $1.5 million unusual tax benefit. So after taking that into account and evaluating both periods on a comparable basis, the company actually generated a 25% increase in adjusted diluted earnings per share.

This is especially gratifying considering the economic environment that the second quarter of 2007 then we’ve been in, and also the second quarter of 2007 enjoyed a very strong growth compared to the previous year.

For the quarter, our funeral business has generated strong results. We grew funeral revenue by 5% or $3.5 million which was a function of increased call volume as well as increases in the average revenue for both traditional funeral and cremation services. Our case line grew by 2.5% compared to the same period last year while the number of deaths was up for the quarter based on data we track, we believe that we continued to [main] our overall market share.

Our average revenue per event also increased by 3.3% which is a result of our actions to further refine our product and service packages and improve in our skill and ability in how we present that information to families. It is our intent to continue to balance growth and revenue per event and growth in calls. Our second quarter revenue growth of $3.5 million along with close watch on labor productivity and costs in general, generated an increase in funeral gross profit of $3.6 million or a growth of 19.1% from the previous period.

Additionally this translates into a 350 basis point improvement in the funeral gross profit margin to 29.3%; our highest funeral gross profit margin in the past four years. With regard to cemetery revenue and gross profit, we experienced a $3.7 million decrease in revenue for the quarter but did produce a slight increase in cemetery gross profit of ten basis points to 21.8%. We believe that is a very positive result given the decline in revenue. As we break down the cause of the decline in cemetery revenue, $4.3 million or $600,000 more then the total category decline, is attributable to a decrease in construction on various cemetery projects when compared to the previous year.

Last year we placed great emphasis on shortening the cycle time of construction projects which significantly reduced the backlog which in turn generated a tremendous increase in construction revenue for the period. We continue to manage to reduce cycle time in our construction backlog and maintain the gains we made last year. However the unavoidable result is that it makes year-over-year comparisons unfavorable as is the case this quarter. With that said, for the quarter we also experienced a $1.2 million or 4% decrease in cemetery property sales, which occurred primarily in our eastern division. As we evaluate the results, we believe some of our markets in the east have been more impacted by the general economic conditions then others. However, even with those headwinds our at-need cemetery operations performed well with an increase in merchandise delivered and services performed of $1.1 million or 5%.

We also experienced a slight increase in cemetery internments of 2/10 of 1%. In the first quarter as you remember we were impacted by escalating merchandise and interview costs. The steps taken in that first quarter to counter those escalating costs are bearing positive fruit in the second quarter and as you can see from the 10-Q our margins have increased for all cemetery merchandise when compared to the previous year as well as comparing to the first quarter. I won’t walk you through the details of the six months’ performance as it is all detailed in the earnings release and our 10-Q which we filed yesterday.

But I will tell you that the trends are the same with strong financial performance in the funeral area and the cemetery performance being impacted principally by the prior year construction progress on cemetery projects.

So as you can see the funeral business is performing well and when performing well we can really leverage our fixed costs and translate that revenue growth into profitability. We rolled out the best-in-class initiative during the first quarter with two major components focused on improving performance metrics and enhancing interactions with our customers and guests. We’re still early in the process but we believe we’re seeing some of the benefits of this initiative today.

On the cemetery side the fundamentals are strong and we’ll stay focused on pre-need production and with new property owners delivering our—reducing our backlog on cemetery construction projects and looking for opportunities for revenue growth and cost reduction.

With that I’m now going to turn the call over to Tom Kitchen to give you a more in depth review of some of the important financial issues affecting the company.

Tom Kitchen

Thanks Thomas and good morning to everyone. By now all of you should have received a copy of the earnings release and the 10-Q for the period ended April 30 of 2008. So I’m not going to cover in detail the topics discussed in the following, but would like discuss several important items.

I’d like to begin by giving you some insight into the company’s cash flow for both the quarter and the six months. For the quarter operations provided cash of $24.3 million compared to $14.6 million for the same period of last year. This approximate $10 million increase in operating cash flow is due in part to a reduction in interest payments of some $3.2 million due to the issuance of the new senior convertible notes in the third quarter of last year and better management of our payables process.

We’ve been closely managing our cash flow and we’re pleased with the results. For the year-to-date period operations provided cash of $28.4 million compared to $32.5 million for the corresponding period in 2007. The overall decrease in operating cash flow is due to an increase in tax payments and a decrease in the cash inflows for our insurance proceeds from hurricane Katrina. In the first half of 2007, we paid $5.6 million in net tax payments compared to $10.7 million in the first half of 2008.

The increase in fiscal 2008 is primarily due to a $3.4 million tax payment reduction in 2007 resulting from the utilization of capital loss carried forward, coupled with a $2.9 million tax refund in fiscal 2007. In addition in the first six months of 2007 we had $4.9 million net cash inflows related to hurricane Katrina of which $3.2 million related to interruption in insurance proceeds. In the first six months of 2008 we had cash outflows of just $400,000 related to hurricane Katrina.

Strong cash flow enabled us to pay some $4.8 million in dividends and repurchase $37.2 million or five million shares of our Class A common stock during the first six months of 2008. Subsequent to quarter-end we’ve repurchased an additional $8.7 million or 1.3 million shares of common stock leaving us with approximately $4.1 million available under the current program. We plan to continue to evaluate our options for the deployment of the cash flow as the opportunities arise.

With regards to our trust investment performance, our pre-need funeral and cemetery merchandise trust investment along with our cemetery perpetual care trust investments were all impacted by the recent decline in market value due to a broad based decline in the overall financial markets. However the funeral and cemetery merchandise trust funds do not experience any immediate financial impact. The contracts they relate to are long-term in nature, generally around 10 to 12 years on average and therefore we can manage the portfolio to mitigate the effects of any short-term fluctuations.

More significant however to focus on the annual returns over a longer period of time which give you a better picture of our portfolio performance. Our five year total annual returns including the second quarter of 2008 were 6.8% and 5.8% for the funeral and cemetery merchandise and perpetual care trust funds respectively. I’d also like to discuss our quarter and year to date tax rates. For the second quarter our effective tax rate for continuing operations was 36.7% compared to 30.4% for the same period in 2007.

In addition for the first six months of 2008 our effective tax rate from continuing operations was 37% compared to 28.6% for the same period in 2007. The reduced rate for both the second quarter and the first six months in 2007 was primarily due to a prior year tax benefit of $1.5 million for the quarter and $3.4 million for the year which resulted from the utilization of the loss carry-forwards. The effective tax rate for the second quarter of 2007 and for the first six months of 2007 would have been 38% which is more comparable to the fiscal 2008 tax rate.

Lastly for the first six months of fiscal 2008 our EBITDA from continuing operations remain relatively flat at $62.2 million compared to $62.4 million for the same period of last year. However for the second quarter our EBITDA increased $2.2 million or 6.7% from $32.9 million in 2007 to $35.1 million in 2008 primarily due to the improved operations in our funeral business.

In closing I want to echo Thomas’ comments, we are pleased with our second quarter performance especially in our funeral operations and our increase in operating cash flow. Business remains strong and we continue to make improvements across the company to further realize synergies and strength in our business.

Now I’ll turn the call back over to Thomas.

Thomas Crawford

Thanks Tom for your review. In summary let me just say that we believe once again we had a very strong second quarter. We have rolled out our new and enhanced funeral packages and are now offering more value-added options to families. As I previously mentioned, we’ve already experienced growth in our average revenue from new packages and we believe that we will continue to see that throughout the remainder of the year. Our best-in-class initiative which highlights improving the quality of the customer experience and enhancing our averages from improved offerings and presentations and utilizing field labor and overhead management has been rolled out and we’re seeing some of those results today.

Additionally we are aggressively pursuing our continuous improvement initiatives to strengthen and streamline our processes to eliminate waste and efficiency within our organization and also to operate with a leaner organization as well.

Finally let me just say that we are clearly focused on growing our business organically and we believe we have significant opportunities to improve our earnings and cash flow. With that we are now ready to take your questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from the line of Robert Willoughby – Banc of America

Robert Willoughby – Banc of America

Can you speak more to kind of anecdotally what items drove the cost structure improvement in the quarter? It’s still a little bit less clear to me what kind of tangible things that you’ve done here to drive those margins higher other then seeing a funeral revenue number come in a bit ahead?

Thomas Crawford

Well what we’ve seen in is managing our costs from our labor standpoint, we’ve watched that very carefully and our labor as a percent of revenue has diminished. Also we look at our merchandise costs as well on the cemetery side and funeral, we’ve seen our margins increase. As we mentioned before, we were very concerned about on the cemetery side on controlling our purchased materials and we’ve taken actions to bring in alternative products, we’re looking at new sourcing as well. We believe that’s had an impact. Also on our funeral side we’ve been—we’ve seen our margins increase with our—as we’ve been able to rebalance through our packages and so we’ve been able to adjust prices to a degree but we balance those with market conditions. We’re just making our packages that have been rolled out extensively in the west and are going now into the east and being rolled out and that’s had an impact on our profitability.

Robert Willoughby – Banc of America

Can you comment [inaudible] so is it just more profitable sales because the packaging is the biggest driver or were there actually tangible headcount reductions of magnitude that were the bigger item? How do you prioritize some of those?

Thomas Crawford

Well I think clearly from us it is on the revenue side that we get the biggest benefit and the packages have helped tremendously but also we have taken action to manage our labor. We have had in our part time labor, we’ve managed that a lot better then we have in the past and we can still do a much better job so we’re just scratching the surface there. But we’ve been controlling both on what the families have seen, how we present it and we’ve spent a lot of time and not just having the packages rolled out is one thing but how we communicate it is very important. We’ve put a lot of time into training and communicating throughout the organization as well.

Tom Kitchen

Also too, I just wanted to mention that we are seeing some benefits in our property and cash liability programs. I think in some previous calls we mentioned that we saw some softening in those marketplaces and we were able to negotiate some more favorable insurance premiums for the FY08 period of time and that’s a favorable variance in the 2008 versus 2007. And also too our experience overall with our program in terms of our casualty program, experience has been favorable in managing those claims more aggressively and now we’re seeing the benefits there. And another factor too, sort of possibly impact the cost deals with the company’s—the reduction in the pre-need selling also has a corresponding positive benefit because there’s less expense that we incur when we generate the lower volume so in a current period there is actually a positive because we recognize the acquisition cost for the pre-need funeral sales in the current period while the revenue and benefits are deferred into some future period. And finally I think also too that its certainly shows I think the current period performance demonstrates the benefits that we can get out of the funeral business as a result of a relatively small increase in the overall number of events. It clearly demonstrates the fact that we’ve got a fixed cost basis and we can certainly leverage those fixed costs into much higher gross margins that we’ve realized from any increase in the revenue of the top line.

Robert Willoughby – Banc of America

Can you comment—one of your competitors indicated acquisition pricing they feel has come down somewhat for some of the properties that are out there, is that your view as well and could we possibly see you more active in the future on the deal front?

Thomas Crawford

Let me say on the deal side, we are investigating companies right now. We made a trip last week, we’ve got some other candidates that we are looking at as well. So we are not passive in that. We are very selective in what we look at. We feel like prices are coming down. They’re more reasonable then they have been in the past. But again for us, it’s making sure that we add the right property to our system where we can take advantage of the scale and the clustering of properties around us.

Robert Willoughby – Banc of America

I note with the aggressive share repurchase activity the actual amount of the dividend payments going out the door, the aggregate amount has come down or is down year-over-year, is it likely the dividend may be addressed here near-term?

Thomas Crawford

Well that is a Board decision and I’ll tell you right now that’s one that we have—of all the things we’re looking at, that’s one that we haven’t discussed at any great length, but we do have a Board meeting coming up.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Jamie Clement – Sidoti & Co.

Jamie Clement – Sidoti & Co.

One thing that I don’t think was really necessarily touched on in the last conference call but can you give us a little bit of an update of your Gulf Coast businesses because obviously out of play for a little bit because of the hurricanes, then some rebuilding and now are back, can you give us a sense of what those businesses are looking like these days?

Thomas Crawford

Let me start with right here in New Orleans, where we were hit dramatically as you know, the New Orleans market, the surrounding market has been very good for us. We’ve seen tremendous growth so we feel that this market is back in force. As a matter of fact, we feel like we are back in full force and then some. Its been a very positive response for us in New Orleans and we feel very gratified with the rebuilding of Lake Lawn Metairie which is open and clearly just a beautiful facility and we were just commenting the other day when we look at the obits in the area that we seem to be getting more then our fair share at Lake Lawn Metairie. In the surrounding areas as well are performing exceptionally well. From that standpoint we’re very pleased with what we’ve seen.

Jamie Clement – Sidoti & Co.

In looking at pre-need in past down cycles, but in this particular quarter pre-need funeral volumes down as a higher percentage compared to cemetery property, is that a trend that you have noticed historically that the cemetery property sales hold up better then the pre-need funeral sales or can you give us a little more color on that?

Thomas Crawford

Historically in the past our pre-need on the funeral and the cemetery side has grown at above average rates, above market rates. You’ll have ebbing and slowing that takes place. Last year we were very strong in both categories. This year it’s down and so as far as in past down cycles, I don’t have the data on that and I haven’t looked at that but we certainly will.

Jamie Clement – Sidoti & Co.

Because what I was just pointing out was that I guess one of the concerns that might be out there is obviously pre-need cemetery property sales have a near-term impact on your earnings more then for example pre-need funeral sales and its seems in the last six months considering what’s gone on in the economy, I think you’re cemetery numbers have actually been pretty darn good.

Thomas Crawford

I didn’t want to say that in the call but actually we’ve been, with everything that has gone on, we think we’ve done okay. And then when we isolate that even further we can go down to some very specific markets that have been impacted from a general economy standpoint far more then anybody else. Our first priority, we love to sell cemetery property and it does have a positive impact on us right now, pre-need funeral is clearly out into the future but our preference is to sell property and I will tell you that when I look at just a flash report—so you have to discount everything I’m going to say—but just for the month we just finished we had a relatively positive month in the month of May so we feel like its one that will ebb and flow. We just need to ride it out. We still have—structurally we’re sound. Our people are positive and where we’ve had the biggest impact is in an area that we have some of our finest people so we think that’ll turn around.

Jamie Clement – Sidoti & Co.

In the first quarter merchandise costs obviously hurt you, it sounds as if you have that very much under control right now, is that a function of the packages you’ve rolled out and then do you expect merchandise prices to rear their ugly head in the future like they did in the first quarter? Do you pretty much feel you have this under control?

Tom Kitchen

Let me address the last part of that first, we certainly have responded to the increase in the cost that we’ve experienced by adjusting prices and certainly adjusting our packages to reflect some of the cost increases that we have incurred. One of the positives, as we’ve monitored that and addressed that issue, one of the positives that we’ve realized is that there is a significant percentage of our merchandise that we deliver really is ordered in the current period so one of the things that I think that we certainly want to—the message to get out is the fact that to the extent that we can address and respond to the increase in our costs we can certainly adjust the price and to reflect those increasing costs and not have to deliver it out of a backlog at a significantly discounted value. So that’s a real positive for us and yes, we have focused on steps that we can take to mitigate the cost. I’m not going to say that you’ve implemented plans and you can completely sit back and rest and say that its on automatic pilot, but we have taken the steps with regard to alternative sourcing, alternative materials. We have looked at ways to completely fine tune the pricing as well as the cost control for the merchandise delivered and we are satisfied that those steps have provided us with some positive results during the second quarter and we’re pleased with that but that doesn’t mean that we can relax going through the rest of the year. We think we are through the worst of some of the merchandise costs but with the commodity prices being what they are, that’s largely going to be a function of what’s coming up down the road with regard to some of the commodity prices and what we experience coming up for the balance of the year and next year.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of [David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

[David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

About the pre-need stuff, I think you were mentioning this, you said in May the pre-need sales were actually up again, did I hear that right?

Thomas Crawford

It was in our property sales.

[David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

Pre-need property sales?

Thomas Crawford

Right, and that’s just again, one month does not make anything but just the initial indicator is that we feel it was a relatively positive month.

[David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

And what are you seeing as far as a trend in pre-need funeral sales?

Thomas Crawford

On the one-month side we’re holding pretty much steady with where we were in the previous year and again its still early but we’re encouraged by what we see.

[David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

So you’re encouraged by the change versus the last quarter’s drop? What is the time line again between the pre-need funeral sales and their actual impact? What is the average time?

Tom Kitchen

I mentioned I believe during my comments that these contracts could be in the 10 to 12 years and that’s something that certainly depends on the different markets that we participate in. For example, Florida it tends to be on the shorter side. The 10 to 12 represents an average, but the Florida experience is shorter then that but if you look at Texas which is a very big market for us, it tends to be even longer then the 10 to 12 years. It could be as high as 15 and above so on average we believe its 10 to 12 and it will vary depending on the individual markets.

[David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

I guess I’m not quite as familiar about the difference between the pre-need property and pre-need funeral, but an earlier comment was that pre-need property hits the bottom line a lot sooner then pre-need funeral sales?

Tom Kitchen

In general when we sold a cemetery property let’s say, if we deliver the interment right currently, it won’t—if we meet the criteria for recording the sale, we’ll record the sale and realize the economic benefit in the current period. If there is a service of merchandise that will be delivered or performed in a future period then that revenue related to that sale is deferred into that period in which the service or the merchandise is actually delivered.

[David Roesky – Sound Post Partners]

And you don’t breakout the pre-need property sales do you?

Tom Kitchen

We don’t distinguish between pre-need and at-need, no.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Clint Fendley – Davenport & Co.

Clint Fendley – Davenport & Co.

On the increase in the funeral services performed during the quarter do you think we’re entering a period here where these higher volumes can be sustained?

Thomas Crawford

Well this is a market that historically has grown at about 1% and actually slightly less then 1% over the past years. Now going forward, you have an aging of the population. I will tell you this is an industry that ebbs and flows and when you look at the projections versus what actually comes in, they are—it doesn’t vary that much. So there is some degree of predictability. But it will ebb and flow and I think we are in the seasonal time right now—that’s one thing about this business, cyclicality not so much, seasonality absolutely. And the month we have just gone through typically is our, we say our highest volumes of case come in so next quarter are we going to see this kind of growth? Probably not. But is it sustainable? We think over time the aging of the population is going to yield more deaths and again some of us are still a little bit sensitive about that whole deal, but we’ll deal with that when we get there. But for right now you also have the impact of cremation that is growing a little bit more of a fast rate then the death rate is. But we think going forward and as we’ve seen even in economic troubled times, the funeral side of the business can still produce very very well.

Clint Fendley – Davenport & Co.

On the pre-need decrease that we did see, you mentioned in the press release that its obviously due in part to economic conditions, are there any other elements at play here? Have you had any change in your sales force or any increased turnover among those employees?

Thomas Crawford

No, we have had, as far as structurally, what we’re doing differently—no we haven’t done anything differently. As a matter of fact we’ve done things to strengthen our sales organization and to even improve and to build upon the success we’ve had by looking at the type of sales representatives that have done exceptionally well for us, trying to map that on to the rest and actually holding to higher standards so if anything, we think we’re really improving the way we operate today.

Clint Fendley – Davenport & Co.

Could you remind us of just the pipeline of activity that you’re looking at on the cemetery side? Just the pipeline of activity on the cemetery side, I mean obviously you had some color on kind of the year-over-year influxes that you had seen on your cemetery business.

Thomas Crawford

Right now it remains about as we said in the last quarter, about $24 million in backlog.

Clint Fendley – Davenport & Co.

Is there a, for the current quarter the percentage of the sales that we pre-need cemetery, are you able to break that out?

Tom Kitchen

No.

Operator

It appears that there are no further questions at this time, Mr. Crawford I’d like to turn the conference back over to you for any additional or closing remarks.

Thomas Crawford

Again, thank everyone for their participation today. We look forward to seeing you in three more months and we wish you all a good summer and we continue to do what we’ve outlined in that working on our best-in-class initiative, focusing on our productivity improvements, making sure that we are taking care of our customers better then we have in the past and as I mentioned we believe we have significant opportunities to grow out business organically.

So with that thank you very much and we’ll see you in three months.

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Source: Stewart Enterprises, Inc. F2Q08 (Qtr End 04/30/08) Earnings Call Transcript
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