Autobytel Inc. Q1 2006 Earnings Conference Call Transcript (ABTL)

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Autobytel, Inc., (ABTL)

Q1 2006 Earnings Conference Call

May 10, 2006, 5:00 p.m. EST


Jennifer Klein, Investor Relations

James Riesenbach, President and CEO

Michael Schmidt, Executive Vice President and CFO


Christa Quarles, Thomas Weisel Partners

Peter Schneider, Pennsylvania Capital Management


Good afternoon. My name is Malika and I will be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the Autobytel First Quarter 2006 Earnings Release Conference Call. All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise. After the speaker’s remarks, there will be a question and answer session. If you would like to ask a question during this time simply press “*” and the number “1” on you telephone keypad. Thank you. Ms. Klein, you may begin your conference.

Jennifer Klein, Investor Relations

Thank you, Malika. And welcome to everyone on the line. Before we start the call today, I would like to make some comments on forward-looking statements. Today’s conference call including the question and answer period, projections or other forward-looking statements regarding future events and the future financial performance of the company are all covered by the Safe Harbor statement contained in our public filing. We would like to caution you that actual events or results may differ materially from those forward-looking statements.

We refer you to the documents the Company has filed with the SEC, including the Form 10-Q for the quarter ended March 31, 2006. These documents identify the principle factors that could cause results to differ materially from those forward-looking statements. With that, I’d like to turn the call over to Autobytel’s CEO, James Riesenbach. Jim…

James Riesenbach, Chief Executive Officer, President

Thanks, Jennifer and welcome to Autobytel’s First Quarter 2006 Earnings Conference Call. As most of you know, I joined Autobytel as CEO at the end of March. The past six weeks have been an educational and exciting experience for me and quite frankly has validated my rationale for joining the Company. Today, I’m looking forward to sharing some of my views about the future of Autobytel, some of the opportunities and some of the challenges that we’ll face in the months ahead. I’ve joined Autobytel with what I think are highly relevant experiences to the business situation at hand, at both Comcast and in AOL I lead innovation, development, and market roll out to countless media-based products, targeted towards both consumers and businesses, and I’ve been able to carry some symptomatic growth in a number of advertising and media properties, an area where I plan to focus significant energies and attention at Autobytel.

And most recently as head of AOL Search and Directories businesses, I recognized the need for and built world class analytics and optimization capabilities, areas that are critical to creating sustainable revenue and marketing growth in today’s internet staged businesses. Each of these areas of my experience will be central to the work needed to deliver upon the promise this Company has going forward.

We’ll begin today’s call with the review of the financials by Mike Schmidt, then following Mike’s comments I’ll discuss the quarter and the business going forward, and we’ll conclude the call with the question and answer session. Now, I’ll turn the call over to Mike for a review of the financials. Mike…

Michael Schmidt, CFO, Executive Vice President

Thank you, Jim. Revenue for the first quarter of 2006 totaled $29.1 million, a sequential decline of $900,000 or 3% from the fourth quarter 2005 and a decrease of $4.3 million or 13% from the first quarter of 2005. Our revenue mix for the first quarter of 2006 was 62% leads, 22% CRM, 13% advertising, and 3% data applications and other revenues. For comparison, our revenue mix for the fourth quarter of 2005 was 59% leads, 21% CRM, 17% advertising, and 3% data applications and other revenue.

Revenue from lead fees for the first quarter of 2006 totaled approximately $18 million representing an increase of 2% from lead fee revenues in the fourth quarter of 2005 and a decline of 17% from the first quarter of 2005. This is the first sequential increase that we have seen in lead revenues since the first quarter of 2005.

Average revenue per lead, which includes finance leads in the first quarter of 2006, was $17.61 compared to $19.22 and $18.67 for the fourth quarter and first quarter of 2005 respectively. The decline in average revenue per lead we experienced in the first quarter of 2006 was partially attributable to an increase in the number of purchase requests per dealer that we delivered to dealers on a flat fee pricing program, primarily being dealers on our used program. Approximately 50% of retail dealers in our network are on a flat fee contract. This means that they pay us a flat fee every month regardless of the number leads delivered. When we are able to provide more leads for these dealers, the average revenue per purchase request for those dealers will decline.

In the first quarter 2006, we delivered approximately 900,000 purchase requests compared to 1 million purchase requests in the first quarter of 2006. Approximately 500,000 purchase requests were delivered to retail dealers and 400,000 were delivered to enterprise dealers in the first quarter of 2006. We delivered approximately 100,000 of those purchase requests in the first quarter 2006 than we did in the fourth quarter of 2005.

Additionally, we delivered approximately 200,000 finance requests in the first quarter of 2006. Average revenue per finance lead in the first quarter was $13.38 as compared to $13.20 and $11.72 for the fourth and first quarter 2005 respectively. Our lead referral dealer relationships representing domestic and imported mix of vehicle and light trucks sold in the United States as of March 31, 2006, we have approximately 5560 retail dealer relationships, 760 enterprise dealer relationships with major dealer groups, and 9 direct relationships encompassing 19 brands with automotive manufacturers for their automotive buying services, which represented up to an additional 20,000 enterprise dealer relationships. As of March 31, 2006, approximately 690 retail dealers had more than one retail lead referral relationship with us.

Our finance leads business grew in terms of dealers, leads delivered, and average revenue per finance lead. As of March 31, 2006, we had 350 retail finance lead customers, an increase of 15% from one year ago. We delivered 185,000 finance leads in the first quarter 2006 with an average revenue per lead of $13.38.

Advertising revenue was approximately $3.8 million in the first quarter of 2006, decline of 26% from the previous quarter and 21% from the first quarter of 2005. Advertising page views in the first quarter 2006 were approximately $119 million compared to $110 and $99 million for the first and fourth quarters 2005 respectively. CPM per ad page view for the first quarter 2006 was $28.02. This compared to a CPM per ad page view of $42.01 and $36.41 for the fourth and first quarters of 2005 respectively.

Revenue from CRM services for the first quarter was approximately $6.3 million, a sequential increase of 3% and year-to-year improvement of 10%. CRM growth came from both the RPM and web consult products, where we also grew the number of customers for each division. Both web control and RPM grew the customer count in the first quarter. RPM increased the number customers from approximately 750 at March 31, 2005 to approximately 870 at March 31, 2006. And web control increased the number of customers from approximately 2870 at March 31, 2005, to approximately 3020 at March 31, 2006.

Revenues from data, applications, and other revenues for the first quarter of 2006 was approximately $1 million, a sequential decrease of 7% and a year-to-year decline of 18%.

Now, on the costs. The first quarter of 2006 is the first quarter that we have reported the affects of expensing stock options under FAS 123R. The company recorded $1.3 million of stock-based compensation expense, which is now included in cost and expenses in a consolidated statements of operations for the three months ended March 31, 2006.

Cost of revenues, which include traffic acquisition cost of TAC for the first quarter of 2006, totalled $14.8 million. As a percentage of revenues, cost of revenues was 51%. This compares to 45% in the fourth quarter and 40% in the first quarter of 2005. Cost of revenues increased from the fourth quarter of 2005 primarily as a result of an increase in search engine marketing campaigns that were implemented to increase directive byte traffic and purchase requests.

Sales and marketing expense includes cost for developing our brand equity and personnel and other costs associated with dealer sales, CRM sales, website advertising sales, and dealer training and support. Sales and marketing expense was $7.5 million or 26% of total revenues in the first quarter 2006, compared to $6.1 million and $8.1 million for the fourth and first quarter of 2005 respectively. Sequentially, sales and marketing expense increased by $1.4 million. This increase was driven by cost incurred from our attendance at the National Auto Dealers Association Annual Trade Show of $500,000, stock-based compensation cost of $300,000, higher salary and wage cost excluding stock-based compensation of $300,000, entire salary-related costs of $300,000. Salary-related costs consist of the company’s cost for payroll taxes, 401(k), and medical benefits.

First quarter 2006 product and technology development expense was $5.6 million or 19% of revenues. This compares to $5.1 million and $6.1 million for the fourth and first quarter of 2005 respectively. Sequentially, product and technology development expense increased by approximately $600,000, driven primarily by stock-based compensation costs of $200,000 and hired salary-related costs of $200,000.

General and administrative expense was $9.7 million. This compares to $6.7 million and $8.3 million for the fourth and first quarters of 2005 respectively. Sequentially, general and administrative expense increased by $3 million. The increase was primarily due to higher professional fees for accounting and tax of $1.4 million, stock-based compensation cost of $700,000, hired legal cost of $500,000, primarily for defending our patents and severance cost of $200,000.

The net loss for the first quarter of 2006 was $8.5 million or $0.20 per fully diluted share. As of March 31, 2006, the company had $43.8 million in domestic cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments.

Day sales outstanding or DSO was 62 days during the first quarter of 2006, unchanged from the fourth quarter of 2005.

Before I turn the call back over to Jim, let me build a bridge between the company’s results for the first quarter of 2006 compared to the fourth quarter of 2005.

For the fourth quarter 2005, the company reported net income of approximately $100,000, which included the realization of $1.6 million foreign exchange gain due to the dissolution of Autobytel Europe.

With regards to cost in the first quarter 2006, additional costs from stock-based compensation cost due to the option of FAS 123R, increased cost due to timing, hired legal cost for enforcement of our patents, as well as additional setup costs.

With regards to stock-based compensation, the Company incurred an additional $1.3 million of cost when compared to the fourth quarter of 2005. In addition, cost for professional accounting and tax fees increased $1.4 million as the company went through its year audit in the filing of its 10-K annual report.

As many of you know, the company maintains a presence at the National Automobile Dealership Association or NADA convention, which normally takes place in the first quarter of each year, and 2006 was no different and the company incurred approximately $500,000 of cost related to the NADA convention. Finally, the company spent an additional $500,000 in the first quarter of 2006 through legal costs enforcing its patent as well as from additional severance cost. The aforementioned cost resulted in approximately at $3.7 million increase in the first quarter 2006 when compared to the fourth quarter 2005.

As previously described in my remarks, advertising revenue was $1.3 million lower than the first quarter 2006 when compared to the fourth quarter of 2005. Cost of revenues was $1.4 million higher in the first quarter versus the fourth quarter of 2005, primarily driven by higher spending traffic acquisition costs. Jim will provide more color around these two items in his remarks.

Now, I will turn the call over back to Jim. Jim…

James Riesenbach, Chief Executive Officer, President

Thanks, Mike. I’m going to go into a bit more detail on the first quarter before I talk about some of my observations from the past month and some of my plans for Autobytel.

During the first quarter, the company experienced a series of challenging circumstances that affected advertising revenue and operating expenses, particularly the tax cost of revenues. The Company’s prime directive over the past six to eight months was to reduce return in our dealer base by improving the key component, dealer retention, lead quality. Now, we know that the leads that come from direct-to-site traffic are generally of a significantly higher quality than those generated by many of our affiliates. So, in the first quarter to drive and improve quality in our leads, our search engine marketing team was given the mandate to increase the direct-to-site traffic using keywords fitted. Although profits grew from traffic acquisition costs, we saw an improvement in closing rate deals and increase in the number of regenerated and an improvement in retail dealer return. We are seeing a number of encouraging signs in the business.

Now, let’s talk about advertising. As we all know, automotive online advertising in general is on the increase as automotive manufacturers continue to modulate for media spending away from traditional media and onto the internet. However, in the first quarter, sales from that clients both advertising revenue and in CPMs were impacted by several factors. First, the number of our advertising deals came in later than expected because several of our OEM customers did not launch their programs until the latter part of the quarter. Second, our CPMs declined as we increased our search engine marketing initiatives due to the increase number of pages views, essentially available inventories increased at a time that we didn’t have sufficient demand from advertisers in place. Openly, my taken on this speaks of Autobytel’s leads with the significantly improved capabilities for analyzing and understanding the way our individual business units impact each other as well as the opportunity for capturing synergies between each of our products. This certainly includes optimization enhancements to our search marketing program.

Talking about opportunities, this will be a good time to get into where I see Autobytel going forward. Autobytel has an 11-year history of being the leader and innovator in the automotive internet. The company’s original mandate was to create an internet-based market place for effectively and efficiently bringing together consumers and auto dealerships by creating added value search. This was accomplished through creating the most robust online buying experience for consumers and the most expensive set of marketing and customer management tools for dealers.

Over the years, Autobytel developed a network of websites that provide in-depth, accurate, and objective automotive information to consumers. At the same time, we believe it’s the largest network of dealer and auto manufacturer relationships in the business, which is one of Autobytel’s key assets. Autobytel has a lot to be proud of and I believe our assets are in a strong position to again become the number one player in our space and to recapture what I believe is this Company’s legacy.

The challenges that face the Company over the past few years impacted the result of the first quarter. That was the past. It’s now my job to focus on the future. Now, I’m going to outline some of the key priorities for the remainder 2006, and then I’ll elaborate on each of them.

First, we will move to a more media centric business model to significantly expand direct-to-site traffic, advertising, and high quality leads. Second, we will focus on providing massive plans with media and marketing services for our dealers and manufacturer customers. And third, we will take action to capture the synergies and the integration opportunities between our business units to create an enhanced value for our customers as well as operating efficiencies.

So, again, first and foremost, we’re going to transition the Company to a more media centric business model. So, what does this mean for the company right now? It means that we’re going to work aggressively and innovate and reinvigorate our consumer basing offerings, but the objective is growing both our lead base and our advertising revenues. When this true media model is deployed, I expect that advertising will increase with the percentage of our total revenues, upping to diversify our revenue streams. Our major constraint on advertising growth today is the availability of predictable and sustainable advertising inventory. As we reinvigorate our web offerings, I expect that we will see growth in ad page views and advertising revenue, both of them driving advertising as a percentage of total revenues. This process will take some time, so it’s unlikely to have a significant impact in 2006.

The auto industry is the largest advertiser in the world. In the U.S. alone the industry spent more than $17 billion in the first 11 months of 2005, and the recently published E-Marketeer report expects automotive online ad spending will growth from $1.4 billion in 2005 to $2.7 billion in 2007. In order to capture this growth, we must reinvigorate our consumer basing offering and reclaim our position as one of the top automotive sites on the web. Quite frankly, this has not been a focus of the Company in recent years and it’s my thinking that our consumer products have suffered as a result. In spite of this, though, we have a strong foundation in place. We have wealth in data capabilities through our EOC division, expansive original content, comparative tools, podcasts, and much more. And I know from experience at AOL there is more we can do and plan to do to achieve our goal of creating the best auto buying and selling experiences for consumers on the web.

I’ve been on the job for a little more than a month and I believe there are a number specific areas that will come together to create a value. We’re undergoing a comprehensive evaluation of our brand, to rationalize the respective positions in the market place. At the same time, I believe there are a number of unique opportunities in the market to create significant and differentiated value for consumers through innovation in areas such as search, local, community blogs, video and podcasts, our targeted market products, and more. This innovation will be accompanied by appropriate marketing initiatives as part of trial and word of mouth among consumers.

Additionally, we are already working aggressively to be more efficient and analytical in our search engine marketing efforts and expect continued improvement on this front. And absolutely everything we do to create value and innovation for consumers can have a direct and valuable impact on our dealers and OEM customers, which in turn increases the consumer value. There is ultimately a virtual circle, one which I believe we can help redefine. At the same that we will be enhancing our consumer products, our second priority is to provide best-of-brand media and marketing services for our dealer and manufacturer customers. A major part of this focus is to grow our dealer base through improved lead quality, convergence, and ROI for our dealers.

Autobytel must stay true to its original mission of helping dealers generate the most efficient return on their marketing dollars. We must continue to relentlessly improve quality in the lead business. I believe we need to increase our focus on the number of dealers and not the growth volume of leads delivered. While we need to explore a model around lead delivery and pricing, it will provide the optimal experiences for both consumers and dealers. I believe there is tremendous opportunity for innovation in this area as well and you could expect more to come in the months ahead.

According to EBO and 100 report that came out in April, 82% of the top 100 EBO innovation users subscribe to Autobytel’s products or programs. Last week I was out in the field meeting with a number of our sales reps, dealers, and manufacturers. These meetings have reinforced my belief that Autobytel must focus on delivering innovative products that help dealers sell more cars with better ROI, and I see many opportunities in this area.

I think dealers for the most part are just beginning to get acquainted with the content of local search. I think that this is just one of the areas where we have an opportunity to drive more value to our dealers while creating new revenue streams to leverage our extensive dealer network and relationship. As I previously mentioned, our focus on growing the dealer base is important, as that becomes a key task at introducing new products and revenue streams for the company.

At the same time that we are improving the value proposition for both consumers and dealers, our third priority is to capture the synergies and the integration opportunities between our business units to create enhanced value for our customers as well as operating efficiencies. I believe there’s an immediate need for improved sales and an opportunity for improve sales and technology efficiencies. We need to explore how we can create value-added components by integrating our existing products and services such as our CRM offering.

You probably know the common theme through my talk 2006 priorities, the theme of innovation. Dealers and consumers are waiting for new world class products to help with each side of the car buying equation. I believe that those who innovate and deliver ever increasing value to all their customers win in the market place. I’m committed to testing a number of new ideas and programs to reestablish Autobytel’s place as an innovative market leader. Along these lines, as we transition the company for the more media centric model, I plan to enhance the company with management talent and operating leadership in several key areas including marketing, finance, business development, and website management.

At the same, we must tightly control our costs in order to allow for investment in the areas of innovation that we believe will drive sustainable standard growth and return for our shareholders. I’ve already begun a regular review of the costs of each of our business units. I am expecting our expenses on an absolute basis will decrease and I do believe that we can do a much better job of generating an improved return on invested capital. There are I believe many opportunities to improve the leverage in our business.

On the top of the Sarbanes-Oxley when it comes down to us that we must measure stock compliance with tight control, analytics, and processes, a way of doing business. The advanced discipline in automation is a by-product of stock compliance are actually good things for a business like ours. It’s critical that we utilize these capabilities to allow us to move quickly in this dynamic and competitive market place. Along with that, I want to stress my continued commitment to work for improved transparency and predictability to our investors going forward. Ultimately the plans that I’m putting in place are about creating shareholder values, and I believe it is fundamentally important that we be as transparent as we can possibly be in that process. We issued a press release on May 1st addressing that Mike will be transitioning out of the CFO role. We’ve retained a firm to help us with our search. Mike is planning to stay on until a new CFO is found, in order to assist with the transition. I’d like to take a quick moment to thank Mike for his hard work and his dedication.

So, as you can tell, my first six weeks on the job has been educational, and it’s also been invigorating and productive. I’m more enthusiastic than ever about the opportunity for Autobytel. The types of changes that I’ve outlined must be strategic and thoughtful and quite frankly will require a bit of patience. I don’t I have more detail over the months ahead as these plans evolve. I’m looking forward to leading the charge and creating shareholder value as we transform this company.

Operator, with that I’d like to open up the call to questions.

Question-and-Answer Session


At this time, I would like to remind everyone, in order to ask a question, please press “*” then the number “1” on your telephone keypad. We’ll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster. Your first question comes from the line of Christa Quarles with Thomas Weisel Partners.

Christa Quarles, Thomas Weisel Partners

Hi, a couple of questions. First, I was wondering if you could quantify the delayed ad spending, and it looks like your page views grew around 20%, which is not too dissimilar from I guess the prior couple of quarters in terms of increase. I was just wondering sort of a) what the delay was and then b) why you had trouble monetizing that increase? And then as we look at the SEM costs, how can you think about those in terms of a return? It sounds like you had some increased movement towards the site, but obviously the overall cost seemed to be much, much greater in terms of the revenue that came in, and I was just wondering how we should think about that in the next couple of quarters as you sort of optimize that business. Thanks.

Michael Schmidt, CFO, Executive Vice President

Christa, this is Mike Schmidt. The ad spending itself, I mean, in regards to going forward I would think we would hope to see advertising return to a more normal rate than it was in the first quarter, and the delay was across a number of OEMs and wasn’t just related to one. On the SEM side, as you point out, as a percentage of revenues we’re at 51% versus 45% in the fourth quarter and 40% in the first quarter of last year. I think we pointed there was a directive to spend more at SEM, and we’ll look at that going forward to see if we can do that more efficiently, and obviously take that 51% down to probably a more historical rate going forward.

Christa Quarles, Thomas Weisel Partners

And how many portals would that take for you to get there?

Michael Schmidt, CFO, Executive Vice President

As we look at the effort we work on getting more efficient, we’re not giving a specific time at the moment. I think obviously the goal is to get it closer to what it was…

James Riesenbach, Chief Executive Officer, President

Christa, this is Jim. The SEM cost, basically what I said is that we were able to capitalize on the opportunities created in the lead generation space, and we created a large lead that helped with the growth of the lead business. We did not have as much optimization in place in order to capture the concurrent opportunities in advertising, and I think that those are systems that I’m working to put in place right now. We’re looking at a number of opportunities to optimize our buying behavior and then to make sure that anytime that we’re buying SEM we’re able to capture the revenue opportunities in every one of our businesses, and that’s kind of the approach, that when I talk about our third priority being that synergies and capturing those integration opportunities, we’re going to make sure that when we do something for one business that it can have an impact on the other that we’re able and prepared to capture that.

Christa Quarles, Thomas Weisel Partners

Okay and then just finally, in terms of the longer range vision that you have, can you discuss the personnel that you have in place, whether or not you would need to sort of go out and acquire additional personnel to have the capabilities that you have or is it just sort of reorienting the people that you already have internally to basically drive those renewed visions that you have?

James Riesenbach, Chief Executive Officer, President

Well, the answer to that is a mixture. The reality is that we have a great and highly talented team at Autobytel, and I’ve been very impressed and energized by the opportunity to work with so many talented and creative people. At the same time, the experience base within this company has been focused primarily on the skills of building the dealer network and the OEM network, which is absolutely critical to our business. I think that there’s been less focus over the past couple of years on creating compelling consumer facing experiences and understanding how to create around the insight of how consumer behavior is shifting. So, I expect that some of the focus is that I expect to bring in is additional leadership and talent enhancements in marketing and in web site product development, as well as we said with Mike’s transition on the CFO side, we certainly have an opportunity there.

Christa Quarles, Thomas Weisel Partners

Thank you.


As a reminder please press “*” and “1” and your telephone keypad to ask a question. Your next question comes from Peter Schneider with Pennsylvania Capital.

Peter Schneider, Pennsylvania Capital Management

I’m wondering on the lead generation side of the business, how long you’ve been doing the flat rate pricing and what do expect that trend to do over the next couple of quarters?

Michael Schmidt, CFO, Executive Vice President

The Company has been doing flat pricing for many years and has always done so.

James Riesenbach, Chief Executive Officer, President

Peter, as far as the overall direction, we’re taking a look at all of our pricing models and everything that we do, and in some states we have system constraints that cause us to be locked into the flat pricing model, but I believe that in some ways that that model has a lot of value in that we are able to basically demonstrate on ongoing basis the value that we’re delivering to those dealerships. So, I’m going to be exploring a number of models that we’re going to be going out; as I said, last week I was out listening to dealers. I’m going to be doing quite a bit more of that, and all of this is going to be figuring out how we deliver better long-term value to dealers that as we’re trying to grow our dealer base if flat fee pricing is going to be the way that we can grow that and then use that as a launching pad for new revenue stream, we’ll do that. If there are other ways to price more effectively, then we will do that.

Peter Schneider, Pennsylvania Capital Management

And where do you stand with the whole broad kind of projects in terms of increasing the relevance and getting better search results.

James Riesenbach, Chief Executive Officer, President

I think that there are number of things that we’re doing right now. As I said, this is an area that I come in with a base of experience. I think that there was admirable work done here in creating market share. I also think that there are many opportunities to be able to improve upon that, both on the organic side and getting our products placed into search organically as well as to more effectively optimize those terms in the market place so that we’re able to look term by term at the ROI that that generates, not only for the leads but for advertising. So, there’s a lot of work underway and some of television is being driven directly by me and some is being driven from people that I have some experience with and that I trust.

Peter Schneider, Pennsylvania Capital Management

Great, thank you.


At this time, there are no further questions. Mr. Riesenbach, are there any closing remarks?

James Riesenbach, Chief Executive Officer, President

I want to thank everybody, and again we look forward to talking more in the months ahead. Thank you.


This concludes today’s Autobytel First Quarter 2006 Earnings Conference Call. You may now disconnect.

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