Has Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ:GMCR) fumbled in managing its inventory or has it engaged in an inventory fraud to inflate earnings?
As the criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie, I learned that the overstatement of inventory levels was the easiest way to inflate earnings. Auditors don't always supervise the counting of each and every physical inventory item to confirm their existence. Even if the auditors confirm the physical existence of all inventory items, they don't always trace how every single item arrived in a company's storage facilities. Therefore, the same inventory items can be moved from location to location and counted several times to inflate earnings.
In September 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission started a probe of Green Mountain Coffee's revenue accounting practices. Shortly afterward, a class action lawsuit was filed against the company alleging that it engaged in securities fraud by inflating its inventory numbers to overstate its reported earnings. According to the amended class action lawsuit, several confidential witnesses who worked for Green Mountain Coffee allege that it moved around its inventory from location to location without a document trail to overstate inventory counts and inflate earnings. For example, paragraph 79 of the amended complaint alleges that:
CW7 [confidential witness 7], a lower-level employee in the Company's shipping department in Knoxville Tennessee, who worked at the Company from August 2009 through August 2011, also witnessed GMCR improperly transferring product from one plant to the next for no apparent reason. (Bracketed information added for clarity.)
In October 2011, money manager David Einhorn slammed Green Mountain Coffee's and noted "odd material movements" of inventory to possibly confound its auditors.
If there is inventory growth that is higher than revenue growth over extended periods of time combined with declining inventory turnover trends, it is considered to be a red flag for the possible inflation of inventory numbers and overstatement of earnings. For example, before the Crazy Eddie fraud was uncovered, independent analyst Thornton L. O’Glove noted that its inventory levels were growing much faster than revenues. He was suspicious that Crazy Eddie was fraudulently inflating its inventories to overstate its profits. Unfortunately, most investors and analysts ignored the red flags that he spotted. (Source: Wall Street Journal -- "By the Numbers: How One Analyst Scores Big by Finding the Dark Side," by Jeffrey A. Tannenbaum and Lee Berton, Aug. 4, 1987.)
Is Green Mountain Coffee Another Crazy Eddie?
Green Mountain Coffee's inventory levels have grown much faster than its growth in revenues in the last seven quarters since the SEC started its probe. Therefore, Green Mountain Coffee's inventory turnover rate declined in each quarter reflecting longer periods of time to sell its products. A comparison of Green Mountain Coffee's financial reports reveal that ever larger amounts inventory on hand are required to sell relatively less products quarter after quarter and year after year. See the chart below comparing Green Mountain Coffee's reported revenue increases compared to its reported increases in inventories.
Likewise, Crazy Eddie's had a similar pattern of inventory increases that exceeded revenue increases over an extended period of time resulting in declining inventory turnover. It seemed like Crazy Eddie needed ever larger amounts of inventory to sell relatively less product. For example, in fiscal year 1987 Crazy Eddie's reported revenues increased 34% while its inventories increased 82% when compared to the previous fiscal year. Its reported inventories grew at more than twice the rate of reported revenues. In November 1987, new management ousted the Antar's from Crazy Eddie and discovered that most of the inventory on its books did not exist!
Similarly, Green Mountain Coffee's reported inventories grew at more than twice the rate of revenues in the last two quarters. In the most recent quarter ended June 23, 2012, its reported revenues grew 21% while its inventories grew 60% when compared to the previous fiscal year's comparable quarter. In the quarter ended March 24, 2012, Green Mountain Coffee's reported revenues grew 37% while its reported inventories grew 100% when compared to the previous fiscal year's comparable quarter.
Consistent Decline in Inventory Turnover
In each the last seven quarters, Green Mountain Coffee's inventory turnover has decreased when each quarter’s numbers are compared to the same quarter of the previous fiscal year. For example, in the latest quarter ended June 23, 2012, it took Green Mountain Coffee an average of 102.04 days to sell its inventory compared to 72.12 days in the same quarter of the previous fiscal year. In the quarter ended June 26, 2010 it took Green Mountain Coffee an average of only 64.89 days to sell its inventory.
Green Mountain Coffee has claimed that it stocked up on inventories in each quarter in order to meet anticipated customer demand. However, in each of the last seven quarters, Green Mountain Coffee's rate of inventory buildup exceeded its own estimates of anticipated revenues. When it beat its own revenue projections, its inventory turns should have increased because it ended the period with fewer inventories on hand than it had anticipated. However, Green Mountain Coffee's inventory turnover still decreased in those periods.
When Green Mountain Coffee failed to meet its revenue projections, inventory turnover understandably decreased because it had more inventory on hand than it had anticipated. However, even if it had made up for the shortfall in sales by selling more products and depleting more inventory to match its revenue projections, its inventory turnover rate still would have decreased. Therefore, Green Mountain Coffee's consistent decline in inventory turnover rates cannot be explained by its failure to meet revenue projections. In any case, its inventory buildup appears to defy rational explanation.
Inventory Turnover Declined Even When GMCR Beat Minimum and Maximum Revenue Expectations
In four of the last seven quarters, Green Mountain Coffee's reported revenues exceeded both the minimum and maximum guidance it gave to investors several weeks before the close of the quarter (see green highlighted areas in the table above). Inventory turnover should have been higher because the company pushed its product out the door faster to meet unexpected excessive demand from its customers. However, Green Mountain Coffee’s inventory turnover decreased, reflecting a longer time to sell its inventory despite reporting revenues that exceeded its minimum and maximum projections.
When GMCR Sales Fell Below Expectations, Inventory Turns Would've Still Declined If It Had Met Expectations
In two of the last seven quarters, Green Mountain Coffee failed to meet both its minimum and maximum revenue projections it gave investors just a few weeks before the end of each quarter. Therefore, a decline in inventory turns would be expected because it sold fewer products than it anticipated to its customers and had more inventory on hand than it anticipated at the end of the period. However, even if the company had matched its revenue projections by selling more merchandise, its inventory turnover would have still declined in those same quarters. The decline in inventory turnover cannot be explained by a failure to meet revenue expectations. (See red highlighted areas in the tables above and below.)
For example, in the quarter ended March 24, 2012, Green Mountain Coffee’s reported revenues of $885.052 million were $54.052 million short of its minimum revenue expectation and $86.435 million short of its maximum revenue expectations. Green Mountain Coffee reported a gross profit on revenues of 35.37% in that quarter. Therefore, the cost of product that it sold to customers was 64.63% of revenues.
To meet its minimum revenue projection, Green Mountain Coffee needed to sell an additional $54.052 million of products costing it approximately $34.934 million ($54.052 million multiplied by 64.63%). To meet its maximum revenue projection, Green Mountain Coffee needed to sell an additional $86.435 million of products costing it approximately $55.863 million ($86.435 million multiplied by 64.63%).
Even if Green Mountain Coffee had achieved its minimum revenue estimate for the quarter ended March 24, 2012, it would have still taken the company 88.0 days to sell its inventory compared to only 64.06 days in the previous fiscal year. If Green Mountain Coffee had met its maximum revenue estimate for that quarter, it would have still taken the company 83.55 days to sell its inventory compared to only 64.06 days in the previous fiscal year.
In the latest quarter ended June 23, 2012, Green Mountain Coffee’s reported revenues exceeded its minimum revenue guidance, but fell short of its maximum revenue guidance. It took an average of 102.04 days to sell its inventory compared to only 72.12 days in the same third quarter of the previous fiscal year. Its revenues increased 21% while its inventory levels increased by 60%. The company had projected a revenue increase of 20% to 25% for the quarter. Even if it had met its maximum 25% increase in revenue projection, it still would have taken an average of 97.55 days to sell its inventory compared to 72.12 days in the previous fiscal year. See the yellow highlighted areas in the tables above and below:
During a conference call with investors, Green Mountain Coffee CFO Fran Rathke attempted to deflect criticism over inventory levels by explaining that it was stocking up on brewers far in advance of the holiday season:
Because of the time it takes to ship brewers to the US from our contract manufacturers in Asia, we must have on hand all of the brewers we expect to sell during holidays by early October to ensure availability on retailer shelves. It is this timing dynamic that necessitates that we begin building brewer inventory starting in Q3 toward anticipated demand.
Green Mountain Coffee reported that total inventory at the end of the quarter had jumped 60% to $667.0 million compared to only $417.5 million in the previous year's comparable quarter. The brewer and accessory portion of the total inventory increased 73% to $301.5 million compared to $174.2 million in the previous year's comparable quarter. However, the balance of the total inventory excluding brewers and accessories grew still grew at 50% over the previous year. As I detailed above, revenues for the quarter only increased by 21% over the previous year's comparable quarter. Brewer and accessory sales increased only 32%, single serve pack sales increased only 31%, and other sales categories declined when compared to the previous fiscal year. Therefore, inventory turnover decreased in every revenue category.
Portfolio manager Ben Strubel took issue with Rathke and noted that the purported buildup in brewer inventories ahead of the holiday season was much higher than the buildup in the previous year taking into account anticipated revenue projections by the company.
On June 6, 2012, Green Mountain CEO Larry Blanford told investors at a Piper Jaffray Consumer Conference:
…But should something like that happen we have a number of tactical responses, one of which could in fact be deciding to raise the price of the K-Cup brewing system.
It appears that both Rathke and Blanford were fibbing to investors. On Tuesday Sept. 26, 2012, Green Mountain Coffee announced that it was offering $50 rebates for its brewers. Investor Daniel Yu noted in his blog that:
GMCR is offering up to a $50 rebate in Keurig brewers, after saying they might raise prices just a few months ago. Should Larry Blanford, CEO of GMCR/Keurig, change his middle name to 'liar'? Larry Liar Blanford?
Apparently, Green Mountain Coffee had too many brewers on hand ahead of the holiday season and must now cut prices to move them, contrary to previous comments by Rathke and Blanford. Fibbing by management aside, still the question remains as to whether Green Mountain Coffee also inflated its inventory numbers to create fictitious profits. Green Mountain Coffee's inventory buildup does not appear to be solely the result of mismanagement. Its unusual growth in reported inventory levels could be the result of intentional inflation to overstate earnings as alleged in the class action lawsuit.
Was It a Fumble or Fraud?
No matter how you slice and dice it, Green Mountain Coffee’s troubling growth in inventory levels is not a single quarter fluke. As evidenced by the consistent decline in inventory turnover over the last seven quarters, the company continues to build excessive layers of inventory on top of previous excessive layers of inventory.
The SEC is investigating whether Green Mountain Coffee’s excessive growth in inventory levels resulted from mismanagement or a fraud. However, I caution them that claiming incompetence is the last refuge of the white-collar criminal. Fraudsters know that stupidity is not a crime.
Was it a fumble or fraud? Maybe it is both.
Disclosure: I do not own any GMCR securities long or short.
Disclaimer: I am a convicted felon and a former CPA. As the criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie, I helped my cousin Eddie Antar and other members of his family mastermind one of the largest securities frauds uncovered during the 1980's. I committed my crimes in cold-blood for fun and profit, and simply because I could. If it weren't for the heroic efforts of the FBI, SEC, Postal Inspector's Office, US Attorney's Office, and class action plaintiff's lawyers who investigated, prosecuted, and sued me, I would still be the criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie today. There is a saying, "It takes one to know one." Today, I work very closely with the FBI, IRS, SEC, Justice Department, and other federal and state law enforcement agencies in training them to identify and catch white-collar criminals. Often, I refer cases to them as an independent whistleblower. I teach white-collar crime classes for various government entities, professional organizations, businesses, and colleges and universities. More recently, I've helped the AICPA Fraud Task Force develop better methods for detecting fraud. I do not want or seek forgiveness for my vicious crimes from my victims. My past sins are unforgivable.