Core-Mark Holding Company Inc. (CORE) Q4 2020 Earnings Conference Call March 1, 2021 9:00 AM ET
Scott McPherson - President, Chief Executive Officer
Chris Miller - Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer
David Lawrence - Vice President, Treasury and Investor Relations
Conference Call Participants
Ben Bienvenue - Stephens
Matt Fishbein - Jefferies
Kelley Bania - BMO Capital
Welcome to the Core-Mark fourth quarter 2020 investor call. My name is John and I’ll be your operator for today’s call.
At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later we will conduct a question and answer session. During the question and answer session, if you do have a question, press star then one on your touchtone phone. Please note the conference is being recorded.
I will now turn the call over to David Lawrence.
Thank you and good morning everyone. Today’s call will be led by Scott McPherson, our President and Chief Executive Officer, and Chris Miller, our Chief Financial Officer.
Before turning the call over to Scott, I will point out that Core-Mark intends to take advantage of the Safe Harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, as noted in the earnings release we filed this morning. Please remember that our comments today may include forward-looking statements which are subject to risk and uncertainties, and actual results may differ materially from those indicated or implied by such statements. Some of these risks are described in detail in the company’s SEC filings, including our annual report on Form 10-K. The company does not undertake any duty to update such forward-looking statements.
Additionally, we will refer to certain non-GAAP financial measures during this call. You can find a reconciliation of these non-GAAP financial measures to the most directly comparable GAAP measure and other related information, including a discussion of why we consider these measures useful to investors, in our earnings release and our annual report on Form 10-K.
I’ll now turn the call over to Scott.
Thanks everyone for joining us today on our fourth quarter call.
The fourth quarter put an exclamation point on a challenging but successful year for Core-Mark. I want to again thank our Core-Mark family and their display of courage and perseverance throughout this pandemic. Not only did our frontline drivers, warehouse staff and sales team members work to provide essential goods and services to our customers and communities, but they showed incredible dedication delivering improved productivity, safety and attendance levels.
We also worked closely with our retail partners to minimize disruptions in what remains a very fractured supply chain. These efforts produced strong fourth quarter and full year results for Core-Mark and set the foundation to continue our strong performance in 2021 and beyond, as demonstrated by the outlook we provided today.
Reflecting on the fourth quarter, we delivered revenues of $4.3 billion, representing a 2.3% increase over the prior year, driven by the continued strength of cigarette and tobacco sales trends resulting from pandemic-related consumer behavior. From a profit perspective, we delivered EBITDA for the quarter of $55.1 million, a 14.1% improvement over prior year. The outperformance was highlighted by our continued ability to leverage costs across our network with 240 basis points of cost leverage improvement. We also saw continued margin recovery during the quarter with remaining gross profit finishing at 5.21%, a significant improvement over the last two quarters.
Also benefiting the fourth quarter was the uncharacteristic fourth price increase from [indiscernible] which resulted in higher cigarette holding gains than anticipated. In all, the outperformance for the quarter demonstrated the resiliency of our business model in a retail segment that continues to be pressured by the impacts of the pandemic.
From a full year perspective, we delivered strong sales of $17 billion along with record-setting EBITDA of $202 million. Our top line was certainly buoyed by the pandemic related consumer behaviors, reversing decade-long trends of cigarette consumption decline and accelerating tobacco growth. Conversely, there was significant compression on other key retail categories causing significant margin declines throughout the year. For perspective, our full year remaining gross profit margins reflected a decline of 30 basis points, but we did see a continued recovery throughout the year as I previously mentioned.
Like many companies, we were forced to make tough cost cutting decisions across our organization, and the timing and decisiveness of those actions allowed us to achieve strong performance from a cost leverage perspective. For the full year, our cost as a percent of remaining gross profit for both selling, general and administrative, and warehouse and delivery were both below prior year levels, delivering meaningful savings that more than offset pandemic-related non-tobacco sales and margin compression.
Chris will go into the details of our outlook for 2021, but at a high level our guidance reflects our confidence that Core-Mark is well positioned to deliver another strong performance. As we enter the year and on the heels of hosting our 2021 Presidents Meeting, our entire organization is acutely focused on executing our strategic priorities of growing sales and margins faster than the industry, leading in category management solutions, and driving cost leverage.
I would like to take a moment to reflect on the meaningful achievements logged in 2020, positioning Core-Mark for the future. From a growth and margin standpoint, obviously the pandemic caused significant disruption to consumer behaviors, compressing margins and growth opportunities. Behind the scenes, we were able to accelerate and complete a comprehensive restructuring of our sales organization, aligning our compensation to drive growth for both our retail partners and Core-Mark. I’m confident this transformation will drive an acceleration of our same store sales growth and market share wins as the impacts of the pandemic retreat.
Beyond sales structure, we have also continued to enhance our technology capabilities around creating optimal pricing algorithms that benefit Core-Mark and its customers, which we refer to as our strategic pricing initiative. Another pillar of growth for the company is acquisitions, which have been a critical and successful driver of revenue and earnings over the past 10 years. Although the pandemic has paused much of the acquisition activity in the space, we continue to be optimistic about accomplishing meaningful acquisitions of convenience distributors over the next 12 to 18 months while also looking at adjacent opportunities in parallel pursuit.
As I’ve discussed previously, given the hyper changing consumer preferences and the importance of innovation in our food and fresh programs, we continue to actively explore potential partnerships, exclusivity arrangements, and acquisitions that will enhance our offering and capabilities. Despite the headwinds of the past year and continuing into the first half of 2021, I’m confident in the company’s ability to drive growth.
We advanced our leadership position in category management in 2020 with meaningful partnerships focused on creating a differentiated experience for our customers, the headliner being our recently announced exclusive agreement with Fresh & Ready Foods to solidify our product sourcing for a fresh food national supply chain through our existing redistribution network. We’re excited about this opportunity which builds on our strategic objectives to capitalize on the increasing consumer preference for healthier and fresher convenience items.
Starting in Q2 of 2021 and scheduled for completion nationally by year end, this initiative will enable Core-Mark to distribute a consistent fresh food offer to our customers across the lower 48 states. Also bringing value to our customers is the exclusive agreement with PDI, providing a loyalty solution to retailers nationwide which couples well with our Skip Technologies’ frictionless payment alliance. These three exclusive partnerships along with our center of excellence bring Core-Mark’s existing and future customers a differentiated wholesale partner focused on growing their sales and profits.
As the final element of our strategy, 2020 served as proof that despite a world pandemic, we have recessionary resilience in our business model, demonstrated by the cost leverage achieved in our 2020 results. As I have discussed in the past, a meaningful portion of our workforce is variable, and we were able to effectively flex these levers with the volume fluctuations. Additionally, as we continue to centralize many transactional aspects of our business, we are seeing longer term cost savings opportunities consistent with our previously communicated levels approaching $8 million. We have also deployed technologies like Omnitracs 1 to optimize our fleet and driver efficiency, and invested in robotics and voice selection solutions to gain efficiency in our warehouses. We will continue to deploy technologies and work to centralize the transactional aspects of our business and are confident we have a meaningful pathway to continued cost leverage in 2021 and beyond.
Moving to our capital allocation strategy, Core-Mark has a long history of delivering value to shareholders through reinvesting capital in the business, successful acquisitions, share repurchase, and dividends. Entering 2020, we were confident in our business and the strength of our balance sheet, demonstrated by the announcement of a $60 million share buyback plan, a 9% increase in our dividend, and the continued pursuit of acquisitions. Unfortunately, the impacts of COVID-19 forced us to pause our share repurchases, only spending $10 million, and disrupted many of our acquisition conversations. We did, however, move forward with the growth of our dividend for the ninth consecutive year.
We enter 2021 with tremendous confidence in the resiliency of our business, the strength of our balance sheet, and our ability to drive growth and profits. With that perspective, the board of directors has approved the replacement of our existing share repurchase program with a more robust, three year, $375 million shareholder return plan that supports both more aggressive share buybacks and continued growth in our dividend. We are confident our approach to capital allocation provides sufficient flexibility to execute on our strategic priorities while driving strong shareholder returns.
Looking back, I am proud of the commitment shown by the Core-Mark family in 2020 and as we set our course for 2021. Our customers have been incredible partners and we will work to bring them increased value and differentiation throughout the year. Finally, I am very optimistic about Core-Mark’s future as we look to build upon our strategic priorities propelling us to the forefront of our industry and the supplier of choice in the retail convenience space.
Now I will turn the call over to Chris, who will provide some additional color on our financial performance and 2021 guidance.
Thanks Scott, and good morning everyone. I’ll start off by covering our fourth quarter performance, share some thoughts on our capital allocation strategy, and wrap up with commentary on our guidance for 2021.
Net income for the fourth quarter increased to $19 million compared to $16.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2019. Diluted earnings per share for the quarter increased to $0.42 from $0.35 per share in the prior year quarter. Excluding LIFO expense, diluted EPS increased approximately 27% to $0.57 per share versus $0.45 in the fourth quarter of 2019. In spite of the continued impact of COVID-19 on sales mix and margins, we were pleased to deliver solid earnings growth in the quarter on the benefit of continued strength in operational efficiency and effective cost management.
Total sales in the quarter increased 2.3% to $4.3 billion. Total cigarette sales increased by 4.6% led by cigarette price inflation and a slight increase in total carton sales. Cigarette carton sales for the quarter continued to significantly outperform historical trends. We believe this shift primarily reflects a change in consumer buying behavior as a result of COVID-19, consistent with the trends we saw throughout the second and third quarters. Non-cigarette sales decreased 1.8% for the quarter compared to a decrease of 2.6% in the third quarter.
In addition to continued strong sales of OTP, we saw a sales improvement on a sequential basis in the dairy, grocery and beverage categories; however, consistent with trends in the third quarter, the food, candy and health, beauty and general categories logged year-over-year declines in the fourth quarter.
Total remaining gross profit margin for the quarter declined by 21 basis points from 5.42% to 5.21%, driven largely by the shift in our overall sales mix; however, the 21 basis point decline for Q4 compares to a decline of 58 basis points and 38 basis points for the second and third quarters respectively, reflecting continued margin recovery driven largely by improving sales mix.
From a total sales mix perspective, cigarette sales increased 140 basis points to 66.7% of total sales for the quarter, which compressed our overall remaining gross profit margin by 14 basis points. The remainder of the decline was due to sales mix and rates within the non-cigarette category. Consistent with the trend in the third quarter, growth in OTP in relation to other non-cigarette categories and lower rates in our vapor products drove the majority of the decline in non-cigarette margins. Our year-over-year margins in alternative nicotine continued to be impacted by the benefit of incentives in 2019 tied to volumetric growth targets and shifts in vendor sales mix.
Our cigarette inventory holding gains for the fourth quarter were $9.4 million compared with $10.1 million in the same period in 2019. As I discussed last quarter, we had anticipated lower cigarette price increases in the fourth quarter given the fact that RJ Reynolds announced their third price increase of the year during the third quarter. Also worth noting is that we benefited from a $1.1 million candy holding gain in the fourth quarter of 2019. As I’ve mentioned in the past, large candy price increases have historically only occurred every three to four years.
Total operating expenses declined by $8.5 million or 4.1% to $197.1 million for the quarter, offsetting the impact of the 1.6% decline in our remaining gross profit. The decrease in operating expenses includes a 4.9% reduction in our warehouse and delivery expenses and a 3% reduction in SG&A. Total operating expenses as a percentage of remaining gross profit declined by 91.3% in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 88.9% in Q4 of 2020. While our cost leverage in warehouse and delivery was consistent with our performance in the third quarter, we saw a decline in cost leverage in SG&A on a sequential quarter basis due primarily to the impact of the resumption of the 401k match and higher bonus expense on the strength of our fourth quarter and full year performance.
Turning to the balance sheet, we continue to focus on tight working capital management and increasing liquidity. For the year ended December 31, net cash flow from operating activities was $147.8 million compared to $89.7 million in the same period last year. Our improved operating cash flow was due primarily to working capital management largely driven by a reduction in accounts receivable and increased payables, which more than offset the impact of elevated inventory levels associated with our strategic year-end cigarette inventory build.
We generated $117.1 million in free cash flow which was used primarily to fund dividends of $22.3 million, share repurchases of $10.4 million, and repayment of debt. We ended the year with $258 million drawn on our credit facility and $402 million available to borrow. Our debt leverage at the end of 2020 was 1.3 times adjusted EBITDA compared with 1.7 times at the end of 2019, excluding the impact of capital leases.
At this point, I want to provide a few additional comments on our capital allocation strategy and follow up to Scott’s comments, and reflect on our capital allocation priorities over the last three years.
It’s important to recognize that in 2017 on the heels of two large acquisitions, the company’s debt had risen above its leverage target of 2.5 times adjusted EBITDA. Since that time, the company has generated over $440 million in operating cash flow which was deployed as follows: 51% to debt repayments, 18% to maintenance and growth capital expenditures, 14% to dividends, 11% to share repurchases, and the balance to other financing and investing activities. While we paused in 2020 on more significant share repurchases given the uncertainty related to the COVID pandemic, we remained committed to growing our dividend and generated strong free cash flow in support of our revised capital allocation strategy.
Through our new three-year, $375 million shareholder return plan, we are committed to pursuing more aggressive share repurchases and continued increases in our dividend. As I mentioned, we target financial leverage of 2.5 times or below but are comfortable with short-term increases in our financial leverage of up to 3.5 times adjusted EBITDA in support of M&A opportunities. In short, we feel confident about our ability to execute on our three-year capital allocation plan which reflects a more aggressive approach to return of capital to our shareholders while still being able to execute on meaningful acquisition opportunities and staying within our leverage guidelines.
Turning to our outlook for 2021, we will benefit from the cost savings initiatives and operational efficiency gains realized in 2020, but we anticipate some partially offsetting costs and profit headwinds as we enter 2021. On the cost front and consistent with our prior communications, we will have returning 401k and travel expenses along with expected increases in healthcare costs due to the pent-up demand caused by the pandemic. From a profit perspective, we have guided to $28 million in 2021 cigarette holding gains as we anticipate three increases for all major manufacturers and flat to declining cartons, consistent with prior historical trends.
We of course face tough comparables in the first quarter of 2021, given that the first quarter of 2020 was not significantly impacted by COVID-19 and actually included some benefit from pantry loading leading into the height of the pandemic. Despite the aforementioned headwinds, we believe we’re positioned to deliver strong performance in 2021 as reflected by our guidance. We anticipate revenues to be between $17.2 billion and $17.5 billion driven by same store sales growth, market share gains, and inflation. From a margin perspective, we anticipate continued improvement throughout 2021 as we work to regain our historical margin growth algorithm of 10 to 20 basis points in non-cigarettes and 5 to 10 basis points overall.
Our continued work to achieve cost leverage throughout the supply chain coupled with sales growth and margin expansion drives our adjusted EBITDA guidance range of $208 million to $218 million in 2021. Our overarching assumptions related to the pandemic reflect Q1 experiencing similar impact of prior quarters, Q2 showing steady improvement over pandemic-related impacts, and with Q3 and Q4 largely returning to normal historical consumer trends. Our 2021 guidance assumes no new acquisitions or large customer wins, and lastly capital expenditures for 2021 are expected to be approximately $45 million, which will be utilized primarily for maintenance and technology initiatives as well as upgrades to certain distribution facilities and the relocation of one facility.
Thank you everyone. I will now turn the call back over to Scott for some closing comments.
To summarize, I want to highlight three main takeaways from our call this morning. First, in 2020 we took decisive action at the outset of the pandemic, reducing costs across the business in order to drive solid performance in a challenging environment. Second, our business is strong. We are generating significant cash flows that we are allocating towards dividend increases and expanded share repurchase to drive value for our shareholders; and third, we are executing clear strategic priorities to drive growth that gives us optimism for 2021 and beyond.
With that, I will now turn it back to the operator to begin the Q&A session.
Our first question is from Ben Bienvenue with Stephens Inc.
Hey, good morning everybody.
I want to ask first on the $375 million shareholder return plan. You mentioned M&A as a subset of that plan, but you also talk about your willingness to go up to a higher leverage load on the balance sheet to support M&A. Could you support meaningful share repurchase and M&A, or would you think about oscillating between the two if an opportunistic M&A deal is presented to you?
Yes Ben, absolutely I think we can do both. I think that with the balance in the plan and the way we approached it, if you think about our free cash flows in the $100 million range, and we’re talking about $125,000 a year of repurchase and dividends, clearly we would have the bandwidth to make meaningful acquisitions or multiple acquisitions in that three-year period and still fulfill that share buyback and dividend.
Okay, great. My second question - Scott, you made mention of technology and robotics investments in the warehouse and distribution capabilities of your business. You also talked about a largely variable cost structure. When you think about the contribution to margin improvement and leverage in 2020 and you think about the contribution going forward, how do you think about those two pieces? Obviously with sales coming back, that variable cost should come back as well, but I would imagine investments you’ve been making in capabilities should yield margin improvement as well going forward.
Yes, I think that’s fair, Ben. We definitely have increased over the course of this year our productivity in both warehouse and transportation, which was a big part of us performing this year, is not just eliminating some of the variable labor but also creating a more productive workforce. That definitely will help enhance the margins from a cost standpoint, and then from a revenue standpoint, I think we’ll continue to see improvement in mix this year. We anticipate as the year progresses, we’ll get back to a normal margin run rate by the fourth quarter, so both of those things combined will definitely help. I think that really was the main driver behind what we consider a pretty aggressive guide for 2021.
Okay, great. Thanks. Congratulations on the results, and best of luck for 2021.
Our next question is from Matt Fishbein from Jefferies.
Hey, good morning. Thanks for the question and congrats on a great quarter.
I wanted to touch on, I guess, cost inflation in ’21 as it relates to a couple of the buckets, that that could impact you guys particularly. I just wanted to understand how you’re thinking about labor costs going into the year, what type of an impact maybe minimum wage may have on you as we go into this year and beyond, and then maybe on the food products end, suppliers are talking about raw material cost inflation this year, particularly in the back half. Just remind us how that works through your P&L - I believe that’s a benefit to you, if anything.
Then lastly just on the distribution piece and transportation costs, potentially with higher fuel costs now relative to last year, if you could just give any color on how those puts and takes interact with each other, that’d be great.
Yes, absolutely. We’ll start off with product inflation.
I think we--you know, definitely with the challenges we’ve seen in the supply chain and the challenges that’s caused manufacturers this year, I would not at all be surprised to see some product inflation over the back half of this year, and I think that’s consistent with a lot of what we’ve heard and seen. We haven’t seen a lot of inflation to date outside of cigarettes, but that would not all surprise me. From a benefit perspective, we definitely are on a cost-plus mark-up scenario for most of our customers and we also get holding gains, inventory holding gains when we see price increases, so it is definitely a benefit to us when we see some inflation.
From a fuel standpoint, I would anticipate some fuel increases. The one thing that we have built into our pricing algorithms with customers is as fuel rises, we get fuel surcharges; as fuel declines, obviously those surcharges decline, so there is a sliding scale there, so it mitigates any material impact on fuel increases.
The last one on labor, we definitely have seen some inflation in labor rates over the last couple of years. We’ve modeled out the impact--even if we were to see a federal minimum wage of $15, we’ve modeled that out, and it definitely has an impact but I think we have a plan to navigate that if it comes to pass. We definitely anticipate some wage inflation this year and have built that into our guidance.
Great, thanks. Just a follow-up on the distribution end, if you can give any color on the shape of your drops to customers, whether it be the truck utilization and delivery frequency, maybe relevant to normalized or 2019 levels, that’d be helpful, and I guess how you’re thinking about maybe that normalization as vaccines and consumer behavior kind of normalizes as well.
Yes, so one of the things that we’ve benefited from this year is we worked really hard on our efficiency and routing, so our average drop size and truck utilization was up this year, even in an environment where sales were down, especially non-cigarette sales. I think we expect that that will continue into next year. I think that we’ve done a great job with fleet utilization and efficiency.
I think from how does vaccines affect that going forward, I think the biggest challenge that we think we’ll face around driver and transportation next year is just availability. That’s been a challenge historically, and I think with the challenges in supply chain issues over the course of this year, we think warehouse and driver workforce availability is going to be a challenge, and we’re working hard to position ourselves for what we anticipate to be a strong summer in this business.
Got it. Thank you very much. I’ll pass it on. Congrats again.
Once again if you do have a question, press star then one on your touchtone phone.
Our next question is from Kelley Bania from BMO Capital.
Hi, good morning. Thanks for taking our questions.
Hi. Just wanted to ask about your outlook for 2021, a little bit more detail between the two--your two categories, between cigarettes and non-cigarettes. I think Chris maybe mentioned flat to declining cartons. Would it be fair to say a little bit better than the historical trends in terms of carton declines there, maybe just talk about that, and also just what you’re seeing in the non-cigarette or food categories and what kind of visibility you have there, given some of the initiatives that you’re seeing at many of your large customers.
Yes, so Chris did call out, Kelley, in his remarks that we anticipate cigarettes to remain generally the same trends over the first quarter of this year and into the second, and we expect combustibles to probably head into a decline mode as we get into the back half of the year, more consistent with historical combustible norms. That’s the way we’ve modeled cigarettes, obviously offset by inflation.
From a non-cigarette standpoint, we have seen steady recovery both in our convenience and non-convenience channels over the last two and a half quarters, and we think that first quarter of this year will be fairly consistent with the fourth quarter of last year, and then we look to see steady improvement in non-cigs. I think I mentioned on an earlier question, I think we’ll see--we look for mix and margin to be back to kind of a normal environment by the back half of the year. We show in our non-cigs in our model growing somewhere in the 5% to 8% range, and cigarette cartons being down slightly.
Got it, that’s helpful. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about your private label initiative.
Yes, so we just kicked both of those off for the fourth quarter. We have a private label initiative where we’ve kicked off some candy and snack lines, and then we also have what we call Core-Mark Curated, and that is where we really went to the market and are looking for manufacturers of unique products and brands, and that’s one of the things we see with today’s consumer, is a real demand for craft and unique and close to home, so both of those initiatives kicked off.
We’ll kick off with--in Core-Mark Curated, we selected five brand partners that will kick off in the first half of this year, and we’ll start distributing their brands across all of our distribution centers. From a private label standpoint, again we will--we’ve already rolled some of those products into our centers, but will roll a number of products that are consistent across our network into our distribution centers over the first and second quarters this year.
I think from a revenue and profit impact, yet to be seen, but definitely we make a higher margin on all those goods, as do our customers, so I think we’ll see really strong traction as that moves throughout the year.
Thank you Kelley.
We have no further questions at this time. I’ll turn it back over to David for closing remarks.
Thanks everyone for joining us this morning. We appreciate your interest in Core-Mark. If you have any follow-up questions, feel free to reach out to me, David Lawrence. My contact information is available under the Investor Relations section of our website.
Thanks for joining us.
Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes today’s call. Thank you for participating and you may now disconnect.