Billabong’s Annual Report; Why Their Retail Strategy is a Match to the Economic and Industry Environment

Billabong’s annual report and associated documents released around it contain a wealth of information. Some of the questions asked by the analysts in the conference call, and the answers provided, were particularly interesting. But equally important, there are some insights into general market conditions, the evolution of the retail environment and issues with Chinese production. It’s a lot to cover. Let’s get started.

Strictly By the Numbers

First, let’s set the foreign exchange stage since all the numbers I use are in Australian Dollars (AUD) and Billabong’s management talks a lot about the impact of currency fluctuations. On June 30, 2010 one US dollar was worth 1.167 Australian dollars. A year earlier, on June 30, 2009, one US dollar got you 1.24 Australian dollars. That’s a 5.9% strengthening of the Australian currency over 12 months. It wasn’t a regular change. The strengthening was greater during the first six months than the second.
Currency fluctuations (it happened with the Euro as well) mean that reported results become harder to interpret. You can sell, for example, more in a country, but because your home currency strengthens against that country’s currency, you show lower revenue in your home currency.
Some people, including me, have made the argument that, as an investor in Australia, who invests in AUDs and spends AUD, all you care about is the AUD result. I still believe that, but looking at constant currency (as Billabong and other companies do) can help you evaluate comparative performance between periods.
Okay, enough. If you’re curious about the impact of exchange rates, the first Market Watch column I ever wrote in 1995 was on the subject. You can read it here.
But you probably don’t care and wish I would get back to Billabong, so I will.
Revenue fell 11.2% for the year ended June 30, 2010 (they were flat in constant currency) to $1.488 billion (In Australian dollars, remember). “European sales of $344.0 million were up 5.2% in constant currency terms, but down 11.3% in reported terms. Sales of $712.6 million in the Americas were down 1.2% in constant currency terms, or down 14.8% I reported terms. Australasian sales of $425.7 million were down 1.9% in constant currency terms, or down 4.2% in reported terms.”
“Gross margins strengthened to 54.4% from 53.3% in the prior year, reflecting a less promotional retail environment, primarily in the USA.”
Cost of goods fell 13.4% to $676 million. Selling, general and administrative expenses were down 10.6% to $470 million. Other Expenses were down from $125 to $121 million. If I’m reading my footnote 7 on page 69 of their Appendix 4E right, that includes amortization and depreciation, rental expenses, and minor impairment charges. That’s enough time spent on that.
Finance charges were down from $38.6 to $25.2 million, mostly as a result of the reduction in borrowing that the capital raise in May 2009 permitted. Pretax profit was off slightly from $206 to $203 million and net income was $145.2 million, down from $152.8 million.
Profit, if they didn’t have all that pesky exchange rate movement (in constant currency that is) would have been up 8.1% over the previous year. If they excluded last year’s impairment charge expense of $7.4 million, it would have been up 3.1% in constant currency terms. And if they hadn’t had to expense $2.7 million of post-tax acquisition costs under new accounting rules that last year they could have capitalized, their net profit after tax growth in constant currency would have been 5%.
So how much did they make? Every year companies have “stuff” that isn’t consistent with last year. Hey, I’ve got an idea! How about we stick with the $145.2 million Australian dollars at the bottom of their income statement? That seems like a reasonable thing to do, though maybe a little old fashioned. There can come a point where explanations don’t lend clarity, because none of them are “right.” And none of them are “wrong.”   And there are new explanations every year. If I had my way, I’d like to see five years of summary financial statements under the current year’s accounting standards. Then meaningful comparisons would be easier.
Billabong sees 2010/11 as a “transition year.” We’ll talk about what they mean later. They expect NPAT (net profit after taxes) to grow from 2% to 8% in constant currency terms. I completely agree with them forecasting in constant currency, by the way, because nobody has any idea what exchange rates are going to do. They expect an improving outlook in the Americas, continued strength in Europe, but a challenging market in Australia. In fact, Australian forward orders are down 20%, and Billabong is expecting a 20% reduction in sales there in fiscal year 2011.
EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) is expected to be flat. They don’t say if that’s in constant currency or not. I think it is. They also expect higher interest costs and a lower tax rate. So if all this is in constant currency, and EBIT is flat and interest higher, that seems to suggest that all their NPAT growth will be due to a lower tax rate.
Over on the balance sheet, things are pretty much fine. My hat’s off to Billabong for raising capital in 2009 under not the most favorable conditions. It gave them the balance sheet to consistently pursue their strategy even during tougher economic times. The current ratio fell over the year from 3.3 to 2.45, but that’s plenty strong. Total liabilities to equity improved a bit from 0.89 to 0.82. In August of 2010, they refinanced and increased their bank lines to give them lower margins and more availability. The line went from US$ 483 million to US$ 790 million.
The increase in the line isn’t necessarily targeted on further acquisitions, but they won’t rule one out. One other use of the line will be to pay certain of their acquired companies’ bonus payments that are coming due.
I am a little curious about their inventory and trade receivable numbers. As you remember, total revenue was down 11.2%. Inventory fell 5.2% to $240 million and trade and other receivable was down only 1.7% to $398.4 million. It’s not that I’d expect inventory and receivables to fall in lock step with revenue, but I’m curious enough to read a few foot notes.
The first thing I notice in Note 1, paragraph k is that “All trade receivables…are principally on 30 day terms. Boy, good for them. I know a lot of brands who’d love to have mostly 30 day terms. They had a reserve for bad debt of $23 million at the end of last year. It’s down to $21.5 million at June 30, 2010. Billabong thinks they have problem receivables of $26.1 million, but expect to collect some part of that which I’d expect too. Of those, $14.4 million are over six months old. $26.1 million represents 6.36% of total receivables. “The individually impaired receivables mainly relate to retailers encountering difficult economic conditions.” What a surprise.
Note 10, paragraph b then goes on to discuss trade and other receivables that are “past due but not impaired.” They’ve got $82.8 million of these which I guess is in addition to the $26.1 impaired receivables discussed in the paragraph above.
I’m a bit unclear on what “past due but not impaired” means. Of this $82 million, $17 million is more than 6 months past due. That sounds pretty impaired to me. All they say is that “These relate to a number of independent customers for whom there is no recent history of default.” If they’re six months past due, I’d tend to characterize them as having a very recent history of default.
This number is up from $68.5 million at the end of the last fiscal year. It can’t be that there are $82 million of additional problems accounts because that would be a huge number and nobody asked about it in the conference call. So could you ladies and gentlemen at Billabong please help us stupid Americans who don’t understand Australian accounting and provide some more detail?
The Remuneration Report
This report, part of the Appendix 4E, lays out who gets paid what and how. But what impressed me were the remuneration principles on page 15. Here they are:
“Our remuneration principles
 Provide a market competitive reward opportunity;
 Apply performance targets that take into consideration the Group’s strategic objectives, business plan performance expectations and deliver rewards commensurate for achieving these objectives and targets;
 Ensure executives are able to have an impact on the achievement of performance targets;
 Align executive remuneration with the creation of shareholder value through providing a portion of the reward package as equity and using performance hurdles linked to shareholder return;
 Encourage the retention of executives and senior management who are critical to the future success of the Group; and
 Consider market practice and shareholder views in relation to executive remuneration, whilst ensuring that executive remuneration meets the commercial requirements of the Group.”  
Remuneration is divided into three parts; fixed, short term, and long term. The short and long term parts are both “at risk” and, in fact, parts of them haven’t been paid this year or last because certain agreed upon performance objectives weren’t achieve. The “at risk” portion varies by executive, but it’s not less than 20% of compensation for anybody and is typically higher.
This is very powerful stuff and I think goes a long ways to explain Billabong’s long term success. It aligns shareholders with management and doesn’t over emphasize short term results. Somebody’s put a lot of work in to developing and implementing this system, and I hope they got a lot of remuneration for it.
China, Production, Supply and Prices
Every company is talking about issues with labor availability, costs, and supply in China.  Billabong is no exception. Approximately 50% of their world production is in China. CEO O’Neill mentions a conversation he had with one supplier who was struggling to get workers. He also noted that the minimum wage went up 20% in May and that the currency has strengthened slightly. He points to cotton prices as being at a 13 or 14 year high and that there’s almost a shortage of it. Shipping container prices being triple what they were 12 to 15 months ago and freight prices are up as well.
He states, “I think that every apparel company you talk to would say that at some point over the next six to nine months that some apparel prices will have to rise.” I agree.
They are responding by looking for other production opportunities. Currently, they produce in approximately 27 countries. He mentions more production in South America and that “Europe’s actually began producing some items, fast turnaround items, back in places like Portugal.”
The Retail Environment
Company owned retail stores (380 at year end) contributed 24% of global sales for the year. “…in growth terms, our company-owned retail outperformed wholesale. This shows the benefit of having the extra opportunity to get the right product in front of the consumer.”
Billabong’s focus on retail isn’t new. They said many of the same things in their half year report. You can see what they said in the analysis I did at that time:
In North America, revenue from the 111 company owned stores was up 9.2% in constant currency terms. In Europe, the 103 stores were up 18.2%, again in constant currency. The number was 5.9% in Australasia with 166 stores. EBITDA for all retail stores improved from 10.2% to 10.9%. As you would expect, EBITDA margins for stores open two years or longer was even stronger, growing from 11.8% to 14.6%.
In talking about Billabong’s motivations for retail, they note how they’ve seen an increase in house brands by retailers in recent years, and how that ends up “…eroding the amount of space that’s available for premium brands…” and usually not working for the retailer. Though they don’t come right out and name it, I think they were thinking about PacSun, where their sales last year were down 40%.
There is also a general concern about the overall wholesale base. In Australia, they estimate their account base has declined 5% in the last 12 to 15 months. In addition, they have “quite a few” on credit hold and “may not continue selling to those accounts.”
In Europe, the decline has been between two and three percent of accounts. They had around 1,400 accounts in the US a couple of years ago, and it’s now fallen to an estimated 1,200. “What is clear is that, in real terms, there is not a lot of people opening new board sports space. So it’s not like currently there is any real new business coming online into the industry.”
They further note the tendency of many accounts to buy not based on what they think they can sell and best merchandise, but on the quality of the deal they can get, and expect further fallout in the retail space because of reduced consumer spending and tight credit.
With few new outlets for their products, a decline in the number of accounts and concern about the financial viability of some existing ones, and a retail base that’s cautious in their purchasing and more interesting in a deal than in merchandising high end product, you can see why Billabong is focusing on their own retail. They believe, and have said before, that they can better merchandise and sell their product in their own stores.
They are also interested in being more market responsive and creating new product in short time lines outside of the normal product cycle. They can do this with their own stores. An independent retailer, however, is often not prepared to buy sight unseen when Billabong asks them how much of a new product they want for delivery in four weeks. Maybe they should be if they believe in the brand.
In the short term, retail acquisitions have an interesting impact, and this is partly why Billabong refers to fiscal 2011 as a “transition year.” When Billabong sold product, for example, to West 49, they booked the sale when the product shipped. But the moment they own West 49, that sale doesn’t happen until the retail customer buys the product in the store. Revenue recognition, then, is delayed during the transition period.
Conference Call Questions
You haven’t read this far without figuring out that Billabong has some challenges to deal with, and the analysts on the conference call picked up on that. Here was a question that the JP Morgan analyst asked:
“You’ve highlighted higher sourcing cost, and that actually looks like a more enduring problem rather than sort of like a temporary sort of blip. You have a consumer that is seeking value and you’ve got channel base that’s sort of declining, well it has declined, and you’ve got mixed shift to lower margin regions like Brazil. I mean haven’t you got a lot of factors there that are actually negatively impacting your EBITDA margins in the US?”
CFO Craig White’s answer was, in part, that it depended on your time frame but he agreed there were other issues as well. “I mean we’re talking about 2010/11 as a transition year and implicit in the [mid-term] guidance we’re providing … of EPS growth in excess of 10% is a whole mix of things happening including overall gradual macroeconomic recovery; growing share of Billabong brands in retail which will improve existing margins in retail, be it West 49 or other stores; you know there is a whole range of things in there.”
But the analyst doesn’t seem quite satisfied with the answer: “I mean how can you give medium term 10% year on year growth guidance with a lot of confidence because in my mind it seems extraordinarily difficult to do that?”
I’ve summarized the exchange here.  The entire transcript, and all the reports I’ve referenced are on Billabong’s corporate web site if you want to dig in a little.
Billabong decided, when the recession started, that they would not be as promotional as other brands because they wanted to preserve brand equity. I thought that was a good decision. The question is how you make that work in a continuing weak economy under the circumstances the analyst outlined. At least part of the answer is by expanding your retail presence where you can better merchandise your brands, drop in new product quickly outside of the traditional product cycle, and get the margin and volume you are, to some extent, losing in your traditional retail channels. That’s what I might have told the analyst in CFO White’s place. Of course, I’ve had a couple of days to think about it and who knows what I would have said at the time.
There were also questions about whether or not the Billabong brand was losing market share, about whether more global styles and reduced range sizes reduced entry barriers for competitors, and on the company’s ability to manage all the owned and licensed brands. For a conference call, this was a lot of fun!
In difficult operating environments (this one qualifies) managers of public companies are often in no win situations. They can be cautious- and raise concerns that they aren’t acting aggressively enough in an obviously rapidly changing environment. Or they can act aggressively- and have people concerned they’re moving too quickly in too many new directions.
I’ve argued that the biggest risk of all is to not take a risk when things are changing and I think I’ll stand by that. Billabong does seem to be relying to some extent on a continuing US economic recovery and I’m not sure they should be. All the risks the analysts pointed out are very real ones. But business is a risk.
You minimize those risks by having an experienced management team, building agreement on goals and objectives among the team members, and by not sitting on your ass when you become aware that things are changing- for better or worse. I’m sure that one or more of the actions Billabong is taking won’t work out. That’s life. But in light of fast fashion, a declining wholesale base, a difficult economy, and the retail opportunity they have with the brands they’ve assembled, their strategy seems largely correct to me.    



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