chicken_little_funny-t2Last week, PetSmart announced first quarter earnings. The company reported slowing growth and negative same store sales.  I believe it was the first negative comp quarter in 16 years for PetSmart. Management took full year comp store guidance down to zero, from 2%. The stock fell approximately 8% on the news, taking the year-to-date loss to -22%. Naturally, this has led some to question whether the sky is falling for PetSmart, the pet industry, or b0th.  To begin to answer these questions, we first need to uncouple them.

To assess the performance of PetSmart, separate and distinct from the industry, the best place to start seems to be in the context of broader retail.  Anyone who was surprised by softness in PetSmart’s numbers has probably not been keeping their pulse on the four wall retail environment. In January, 20 retailers pre-announced earnings shortfalls. This was the highest number post recession and on par with the levels the industry experienced in third and fourth quarter 2008. Howard Schultz blamed it on the Internet, others cited weather, consumer confidence, and wage stagnation. Notably, both Wal Mart (-0.4%) and Target (-2.5%) produced negative comps for the 1Q2014. We cataloged 1Q2014 revenue growth, EPS growth and performance versus guidance of some of the major big box retailers here — 1Q Retail EPS Performance. Notably, PetSmart was the only company within this comp group to exceed guidance on earnings. What this speaks to is the fact that PetSmart has a very good handle on the cost side of their business. While they experienced slight margin compression, unlike its peers PetSmart does not appear to be chasing the middle market consumer through a promotional discounting strategy. This underscores PetSmart’s relative market position in the industry as well as the ongoing attractiveness of the pet category.

When we shift our analytical purview to the broader industry, the cause and effect relationship is more apparent. While total consumer spending on pet products and services continues on a positive growth trajectory, total growth has been slowing, driven by a falling comps for pet products (see graph below).  What this demonstrates is that the industry is maturing and that drivers are changing.  As the pet food upgrade cycle has tapered products sales growth has slowed.  However, as a wellness focus has ascended, services revenue growth has accelerated.  Given that services is a much smaller part of PetSmart’s mix, it was bound to experience the malaise of the industry’s product sales growth trajectory.  PetSmart’s first quarter revenue growth was more or less inline with the growth in industry product sales.  Additionally, keep in mind that total pet industry sales, as measured by consumer expenditures by category, grew 12.6% between 2011 and 2013; at some point the “law of large numbers” catches up to everyone.Slide1A second lens we like to use to assess pet industry performance is the rate of adoptions.  An increase in ownership and multi-pet householders means an increase in expenditures.  However, as evidenced by the chart below, the growth rate for companion animal adoptions, as measured by shelters monitored by Pethealth, Inc., slowed markedly in 1Q2014, especially for dogs.  That said, a similar contraction was evident in 2011, a year of strong industry growth (4.7% according to the American Pet Products Association).  As such, we think it is too early to call it a year for the industry, but in combination with slowing pet products sales it is cause for some consternation.Slide2In looking at the total body of available data there is reason to be concerned about the pace of pet industry growth but not the overall health of the industry.  Slower growth has been anticipated and therefore should not come as a surprise. The industry has been defying skeptics for sometime, but all good things experience a tapering.  Further, it is too early to call the year from any analytical perspective.  The pet industry remains very attractive long term and while online players, adjacent market competitors, and emerging brands have eroded the leadership of both major retailers and product manufacturers, the threat to their overall industry position remains low.  Generally speaking, physical retail has experience a much more significant contraction, driven by share shift to mobile and online, recently even after you factor out the weather.  In that context one can view PetSmart’s performance in a relatively positive light.

I think I can say with authority, when it comes to all things pet there may be clouds in the sky, but it is not currently falling.

/bryan

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down but not outEarlier this week, PetSmart’s public equity was downgraded by Deutsche Bank equity research analyst Mike Baker. Baker put a “Sell” rating on the stock, reducing his 12-month price target price from $73 to $65, or approximately 11%. In formulating his rationale, Baker cites two main drivers.  First, he views recent traffic erosion at the best in class pet retailer as being a longer term trend as opposed to a short term aberration.  Baker anticipates that slowing sales in super premium pet food coupled with limited food price inflation is going to make 2014 comps hard to deliver.  He views premium food as a key traffic driver for PetSmart. Second, Baker believes that the long term threat of ecommerce in the pet space is real.  He states that once consumers begin to recognize that free shipping is available on most pet food orders that adoption rates will increase.  Baker cites a Pethealth, Inc. survey wherein 89% of pet owners would purchase pet food online if shipping were free.

Notably, Baker’s has been negative on the stock for some time.  He’s had a “Hold” rating on the stock since February 2011 when Petsmart’s public equity was trading at $42, versus the $72 it was trading at prior to Baker’s downgrade.  As such, he missed a 71% movement in the stock over that time period.  While the arguments above are not new (maybe you actually read them here over a year ago), they are real.  However, as I have come to believe there is more to the story, and PetSmart may have more mechanisms available to combat these trends or find other growth avenues than one might expect.  Further, Baker’s call comes at a time where there is a lot of noise in the market, and therefore the significance of his observations from a timing perspective may, in fact be, overblown.  I explore each of these concepts below:

  • Holiday retail was weak all over.  First and foremost fourth quarter was tough for premises based retailers.  Fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, weather problems across the country, and political problems in Washington all conspired to make things tough on four wall retailers.  November store comps across all retailers missed guidance and online took share as a result of time compression and weather impediments.  While we are readily aware that ecommerce is growing faster than traditional retail, there is a lot of noise in the numbers; once that noise dies down we expect PetSmart to do just fine versus guidance.  Baker did not mention the bathwater when he threw out the baby.
  • Premium food rotation is slowing but growth levers in the category remain.  We were ahead of the curve in calling a category slowdown, but our experience has been that the slow of erosion has not been as steep as anticipated.  The category, which at one time was likely growing 25%, is estimated to grow at between 15% – 18% in 2014, a decent clip.  History has demonstrated that major pet specialty retailers still have levers to pull to combat this trend. PetSmart is pursing private/exclusive label concepts in the category, expansion of space dedicated to felines, and alternative form factors/niche brands as a means to combat slowing growth.  The fact they are undertaking a large consumables reset tells me they saw this coming. Further, with a rising stock market and falling unemployment what is not to say that retailers won’t seek price increases absent commodity inflation?  Nothing really. 
  • Other drivers of traffic and earnings remain.  PetSmart has done a great job over the past cycle driving traffic organically.  They have not become overly aggressive with promotions and they are not buying business by offering emerging products companies sweetheart deals or subsidizing ecommerce.  Their exclusive brands are a strong driver of customer visits and will likely be extended in both new and current categories.  Further, as they ramp up their smaller format stores it will enable them to grow faster in secondary geographies.  Couple this with slightly more aggressive promotions offset by continued share repurchases, more consumers coming into the fold as adoptions increase with the economic recovery, and innovation in the services segment and PetSmart finds itself fairly well positioned to meet expectations.  
  • Ecommerce threat is real but the competitive tension goes both ways. As you are likely to be aware, we ascribed to the theory that ecommerce is skimming customers from major pet specialty retailers. However, it is also clear that they don’t yet view the battle as worth fighting…yet.  While PetSmart has made some tangible moves to better position itself online, it has multiple tricks in its bag that independent ecommerce retailers can’t match.  For every store, PetSmart has a warehouse.  They can offer in store pick-up and returns.  They can bundle products and services.  They can get aggressive with pricing.  Until they rollout their full artillery on this front it’s hard to conclude that they can’t win back that which has been lost to date.

Net net, PetSmart is facing a number of headwinds impacting growth.  Some of their challenges are industry realities and some are self created.  However, we think the timing of these observations is being discounted.  PetSmart has major resets underway to combat these very concerns and multiple levers to pull if, as, and when needed.  The glory days may be gone but we have learned the hard way to bet heavily against the concept.  

/bryan

willieWillie Nelson once said, the early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.  In this case, I’m not sure which mouse I was.  Just days after I published my fall pet report a number of news worthy items came into focus that would have merited a mention in my industry report.  However, several of the items provide direct validation of the trends I have been discussing here over the past year.

Of greatest significance was the headlines coming out of PetSmart’s Analyst Day presentation.  Just prior to their Analyst Day presentation on October 17th, management announced that they expected third quarter same-store-sales (“SSS”) comps to come in below the anticipated range. Management believes 3Q13 SSS will come in at 2.0% – 2.5% versus prior guidance of 3.0% – 4.0%. PetSmart has not seen comps this slow since 2009. Notwithstanding the company’s issues with driving traffic, management is sticking by its full year EPS guidance.

Notably, as part of their presentation, PetSmart finally addressed its web strategy in some detail.  CEO David Lenhardt noted that how to remain relevant to consumers across channels was one of his biggest concerns and that the company would be investing more of its marketing budget and CRM resources online. He went on to detail several new ecommerce initiatives include in-store inventory look-up online, improved mobile experience online, in-store pick-up, and opening of a new West Coast distribution center which will reduce shipping times. Lenhardt continues to believe that PetSmart’s position as a destination retailer and its services platform will continue to enable it to compete effectively against other online players.

Over the past year, I have been highlighting the risk of the internet to PetSmart.  I’ve not been alone in ringing this bell.  While I believe PetSmart is uniquely situated to perform well online long term, my concern has been that they have not had a coherent strategy. In light of recent financial performance, including 3Q13 guidance, I have to believe that other online players are succeeding at eroding some of the premium customer base of PetSmart’s and Petco, especially among a younger demographic.  The company’s willingness to detail their plan, after years of side stepping the question, tells me there is some truth to this theorem. While online will result in erosion of hardgoods share, because of the wide availability of these products online, the concern will not reach its apex unless and until pet specialty sees consumables share erosion to online.

Second, the long running narrative linking imported pet jerky story product to numerous pet deaths finally hit the headlines. News about pet death related to foreign jerky products have appeared in nearly every major online publication during the past week. My historical conversations with domestic manufacturers has been that regulatory bodies are not doing enough to protect consumers from imported product and instead have been myopically focused at cracking down on domestic producers.  While it is terrible that so many pets had to fall ill before we got to this point, it now seems we have arrive at the moment where the paradigm shifts. When the dust settles the winners will be consumers and branded treat companies with domestic sourcing and production pedigrees.

Third, Whole Foods announced that they are launching a house brand of premium value oriented pet products. Whole Paws will consist of 24 SKUs addressing both dogs and cats cutting across multiple categories ranging from grain-free food and treats to cat litter.  The attempts of traditional grocery to cut into pet specialty sales are, like the jerky story, old hat for those that follow the industry closely, but the within the natural segment pet remains an under monetized opportunity. Grocery continues to leak share to both mass and pet specialty, due to price and assortment respectively.  However, natural has a real market opportunity in my opinion because it can provide grocery consumers more of a one-stop-shop.  While space limitations will ultimately cap the potential of the natural channel within pet, this product line launch is a clear demonstration that store managers are starting to understand the potential of pets within their channel.  Natural could become a nice bed for incubation of emerging brands with a wellness oriented theme much the way it was in natural beverage, healthy snacks, and gluten free foods.

Finally, the relative pull of the pet industry on owners was again affirmed to me when I became aware that pet owners will purchase nearly $330 million of costumes for their pet this year. This amounts to approximate 22 million consumers spending, on average $15 annually.  What consumer pressures on pet?

/bryan

 

k2The rise of PetSmart has been well chronicled on my blog and in my bi-annual pet industry report.  A well established track record of margin expansion, earnings beats and EPS growth has made the company a darling within the pet industry, the specialty retail community, and one of the most widely praised stocks of the post recession era (full disclosure: I do not own the stock, nor am I providing any stock advice herein).  Since November 2008, the stock has increased over 400% (versus 68% for the S&P 500).  PetSmart’s return on invested capital (ROIC) for this same period placed them in the 96th percentile of all publicly traded equities.  For every dollar management invested, it made over $0.30/annually during this period.

Those that follow the stock, as equity analysts, industry observers, and retail investors, have become conditioned to expect an endless stream of  good news and gawk at the stocks progression up-and-to-the-right.  When there were bumps in the road (e.g., 4Q2011) we found external factors to blame (i.e., commodity prices, weather, Europe, etc.).  That notwithstanding, PetSmart management seemed to have the Midas touch. So it came as a shock to many when Nomura Securities analyst Aram Rubinson downgraded PetSmart’s equity early last week, cutting his target price from $72/share to $55/share.  Rubinson had been sitting on a “neutral” rating, but now he was ready to tell his clients to reduce their holdings.   Prior to joining Nomura from hedge fund High Road Capital, Rubinson was a senior research analyst at Banc of America Securities, where he was the #1 ranked Hardlines Retailing analyst, according to Institutional Investor.

Rubinson’s downgrade sent PetSmart’s equity price tumbling 8.9%, 12% off its 52-week high.  The crux of Rubinson’s recommendation was as follows — Amazon.  His thesis was, largely, that Amazon would take share and put pressure on the company’s margin as PetSmart becomes forced to subsidize shipping in order to compete in a category that is migrating online.  This a bell I first rung, politely in 2008, with more fervor in 2011 and I practically pounded the table in November 2012.  My point is that while Aram has a large platform for broadcasting his opinion on PetSmart’s market opportunity, this was not new news.

Notably, Deutsche Bank raised their target price on PetSmart’s stock to $71 on November 15th after the company delivered another strong quarter. As part of their commentary they made is clear that margin and multiple compression was not of concern because.  Shortly thereafter, Barclays Capital upgraded the stock from equal weight to over weight.  Nine analysts have rated the stock with a buy rating, two have given an overweight rating, fourteen have issued a hold rating, and one has given a sell rating to the stock. PetSmart currently has an average rating of overweight and an average target price of $74.00.

Given that the Amazon issue has been on the table now for some time, why did the stock really take a turn south?

First, the stock was ripe for profit taking.  Again, the business has been on tear and the stock has followed.  At it’s peak, PetSmart traded at 19.0x foward year EPS and 9.0x forward year EBITDA, both significant premiums to the market (44% on a price-earnings basis).  This is the first substantive pullback since July 2010, but the drivers at that time were macro — Greece, double dip, etc.  PetSmart would report a strong quarter and raise full year estimates in August 2010.   So when the company announced a reshuffling of the management deck chairs (see below), traders used Rubinson’s downgrade as a reason to take profits that they could hide behind.

Second, the forthcoming management transition was poorly communicated and contains risk.   As part of a what we learned was a “planned management succession”, CEO Bob Moran is becoming Chairman while COO David Lenhardt gets the CEO job.  Further, Joseph O’Leary, Executive Vice President of Merchandising, Marketing, Supply Chain and Strategic Planning (that’s a long title), gets the nod as President and COO.  This comes on the back of CFO Chip Molloy’s previously announced departure in November 2012; he retires in March 2013.   Net net, this larger wave of changes caught the analyst community by surprise.  Moran had made no mention of near term retirement (he is 62 years old), and while this is largely an in-house promo parade, that program has not always been met with positive ends — see Coca-Cola Company circa 1997, Goizueta, Ivester, and Daft, which launched the iconic beverage company into a lost decade of stock appreciation.  Further, anytime a public company CFO departs it gives investors pause.  Molloy is only 50 years old.

Finally, Amazon, but not Rubinson’s Amazon.  Yes, Amazon is taking share in pets, faster than anyone would have anticipated but the fate of PetSmart does not hinge on being competitive in the delivery price of pet food.  The market has shown very little interest in pet food home delivery no matter what the perceived convenience or savings.  Tens of millions of dollars have been buried waiting for this market to arrive. Rather, the threat of Amazon and its online brethren to PetSmart is two fold.  First, online players are developing capabilities that will enable them to serve as a one-stop-shop for pets — food, consumables, products, medications (Rx and OTC).   On a value and convenience basis this will attract a tangible set of customers, especially as the e-commerce generation (those born after 1970) amasses further purchasing power.  Second, PetSmart has structural issues as it relates to its online efforts.  The company currently outsources its online efforts to GSI Commerce, an eBay corporation.  While this is fine for a general catalog online, to compete against Amazon, wag.com, Pet360 and others you need in house controls and capabilities.  PetSmart’s contract has years to run and it would take tens of millions of dollars to put in place the infrastructure necessary to control its own destiny online.  This makes the investment banker in me believe PetSmart will make a catch-up acquisition within the next two years.  Until then, management will continue to downplay the competitive threat while working tirelessly behind the scenes to limit the damage.

PetSmart remains a great company with a robust outlook.  However, there are cracks in the facade; cracks that it did not take an equity analyst to reval.  The company has tangible problems, but it has overcome challenges time and again.  While the recent equity price correction seems justified, it’s too early to say the company has peaked.

/bryan

“For the times they are a-changin'” – Bob Dylan

The pet industry produced another solid year of growth according to the American Pet Products Association.   Total industry revenue increased 5.3%, to $51.0 billion in 2011 driven by growth in all major segments of the industry.   Sales benefited  from pet population growth, which returned after a two year absence, and price inflation in all categories.  Discretionary services produced the strongest growth rate at 7.9%.

During the past five years the industry has grown 20%, a remarkable rate under any conditions, but especially in light of the economic contraction experienced in 2009 – 2010.   Expansion was fueled by the “Humanization of Pets” movement.  The trend toward treating pets as family members shifted spend into higher priced categories such as premium food, driving growth in the absence of population expansion.  While this theme remains relevant, its influence has tapered as the product rotation it stimulated nears completion.  As evidence, premium food market share is flat over the past two years.  In contrast, private label pet food and supermarket channel share, both associated with value, have grown.   While a value focus will continue due to the domestic economic climate, it will not drive industry volume but rather shift mix.  Instead, I believe an accelerating focus on pet wellness and population growth will fuel the industry in 2012, albeit at lower growth rates than seen in the past few years.

While the concept of “wellness” and the pet population is not new per se,  I see it coming together in a new and integrated way, which I call “Total Pet Health”.  Previously wellness was about giving your pet “better” food, augmenting their nutrition with consumables that provided perceived benefits, and then taking your pet to the veterinarian and listening to their advice about dental health and weight management.   Today the concept of wellness is about empowering yourself to make the most informed decisions about your pets long term well being using all available resources, rather than relying on pseudo experts.  It is about making product decisions based on actual results, not marketing claims.  It is about selecting the best product for the need at the time rather than blindly associating with a brand.  Its about having a relationship with your veterinarian around preventative care and using insurance to control total cost of care.

To adapt to these changes in owner behavior, I expect to see pet brands morphing from product or service providers into wellness brands.   As an example, in July 2011, VCA Antech, the nations leading owner and operator of animal hospitals, acquired Vetstreet (d/b/a Vetinsight.com) a provider of client communications, pet education, and home delivery of pet medications and supplies.  Against a backdrop of strained relationships between pet owners and veterinarians driven by veterinary services price inflation, VCA took measurable steps to empower pet owners.  Vetstreet’s information solutions enable pet owners to educate themselves about pet health conditions, learn what tangible steps they can take to remedy those conditions at home, and understand what to expect if they do take their companion to the clinic in order to avoid unnecessary service or charges.  Through this transaction, VCA transitioned itself from being a perceived source of the problem to being a wellness solutions provider.

A summary of my Total Pet Health theme is below:

From a pet industry transaction standpoint, I expect slower growth will result in further consolidation.  While the pet industry saw substantive consolidation in 2011, it also saw renewal as growth remained robust.  Private placement volume within the industry accelerated in 2H2011.  However, in a slower growth environment it will be harder for emerging companies to gain scale.  Further, interest from institutional equity sources in highly competitive pet categories will logically recede absent lower valuations.  If capital is lacking innovation will also be limited.  To the positive, truly innovative companies should enjoy premium valuations – see United Pet Group’s acquisition of FURminator as a prime example of this reality.  These conditions point to transaction volume being oriented around consolidating segments – distribution, hardgoods, retail, and veterinary services – in the near term.

Despite a fundamental bias towards consolidation, I expect pet industry transaction volume to be modest in 2012 absent a major transaction on the consumables side.  When Procter & Gamble acquired Natura Pet Products in 2010 it sent shock waves through the industry, especially in light of the fact that P&G was rumored to be exiting of the pet sector.   While the industry has seen active M&A and capital markets since that time, it appears wanton for another marquee transaction to provide it stimulus and buzz.  The recent United Pet Group/FURminator transaction caught the attention of the product side of the industry, but consumables have been lacking a bellwether since Nestle Purina acquired Waggin’ Train in 2010.  Given the prospects for an industry growth taper, as well as downstream tax motivations, it seems plausible Blue Buffalo Company or Natural Balance Pet Foods, the two largest independent pet food companies, could trade in 2012.  If they do, expect a flurry of activity in their wake.

As always, my full report is available by request.

/bryan

They say there are two certainties in life, death and taxes.  That’s not entirely accurate since death comes at the end of life, but that is probably just quibbling.  Taxes are a certainty however, whether of not you choose to pay them.  If the 2012 presidential campaign has illuminated anything definitive to date, it is that not all income streams are equal from a tax standpoint; those who make the majority of their income through buying and selling investments (the Mitt Romney’s and Warren Buffet’s of the world) have much lower effective tax rates because their income is treated as capital gains instead of ordinary income — 15% versus 35% at the highest level.  Some form of equity is looming on the horizon.

In 1993, the Clinton Administration sought to tackle a $300 billion federal deficit through government spending cuts and increasing personal income taxes on top earners.  This resulted in a budget surplus in 1998, which grew to $230 billion by 2000. The surplus was a central discussion point in the 2000 presidential campaign.  George W. Bush suggested America was “owed a refund” and campaigned under a promise to lower taxes on the wealthy if elected.  The net result was the 2001 Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act and 2003 Growth Tax Relied Reconciliation Act, collectively referred to as the “Bush Tax Cuts”.

The Bush Tax Cuts lowered ordinary income tax rates 3%-5%, phased out the estate tax, reduced the marriage penalty, lowered rates on income from dividends and capital gains, and increased exemptions.   Critics argue over the long term impact of these changes, but two things are hard to dispute: a) the Bush Tax Cuts resulted in U.S. government losing billions of dollars of revenue over a 10 year period and b) keeping the cuts in place have become a central political platform for the Republican party.   While I am no political handicapper, the combination of a swelling U.S. deficit (and therefore the need for more revenue streams), the growing income gap between the wealthy and the middle class (as evidenced by the “Occupy” movement), and the clear improbability of the GOP winning both the White House and the Senate, mean the Bush Tax cuts are all but dead on the stroke of midnight December 31, 2012.

The implications of Cinderella leaving the ball are meaningful, as evidenced by the table below:

Estimated Changes Upon Expiration of Current Tax Program
2012 2013E % Increase
Ordinary Income 35% 43.4% 24%
Long-Term Capital Gains 15% 23.8% 59%
Qualified Dividends 15% 43.4% 189%
Estate and Gift 35% 55% 57%
Source: Moss Adams LLP Year-End Tax Planning Guide, November 2011

The question many are asking is whether these changes may light a fire under M&A for family owned businesses in 2012.   After all, if you own a business worth $100 million and  you sell in 2012 versus 2013 you save yourself at least 8.8%, but possibly much more if the”Buffet Rule” is enacted into law, which would put a minimum tax rate of 30% on all income streams if you make over $1 million annually.

History would tell us that taxes alone are not sufficient enough to push people towards transactions they would otherwise defer.  However, history has not seen this level of increase in the capital gains rate since the 1967 – 1972 period when rates increased 11.5%, but over a period of five years.  Here we are talking about 8.8% over night.  Further, the market has never enjoyed the levels of liquidity currently in the marketplace, from both strategic acquirors and private equity firms.  Excess liquidity tends to correlate with rising purchase prices.  Throw in a pinch of uncertainty regarding Europe over the next 24 months and you might have a convergence of circumstance strong enough to call some to action.

Despite the stars aligning only a subset of the market should be interested in this reality, and that would be companies on the larger end of the spectrum.  Yes, as enterprise value increases the impact of the capital gains rate changes increases, but more importantly so do transaction market multiples.  According to GF Data Resources, the spread between the multiples garnered by businesses worth greater than $50 million is a fully 2.0x in a leveraged buyout versus those with lower enterprise values.  The data shows that the “size premium”, so to speak, increased a full 1.0x in 2011.  Absent attractive purchase prices, people tend to sit on the sideline no matter how their tax bill changes from one year to the next.

Net net, I think 2012 will be a strong year for M&A because of the total market dynamics, but I don’t think taxes alone are going to stimulate a plethora of activity that would not otherwise be there on other merits.

/bryan

In order to experience some modicum of success as a writer, you need to provide compelling content that people want to read.   In our media blitzed society this generally requires one to take a provocative position on some issue.  While I certainly try to challenge my readers to think more broadly on a range of topics related the pet industry, there are only a few storylines where my rabble-rousing has enjoyed a high level of consistency;  the topic of Petco is one of them.

Again, let me state I have nothing against the company per se.  In fact, Petco, and its better looking twin sister Petsmart, provide a necessary and valuable service to both companion animal owners and the industry at large.   That said, they suffer from a fundamental structural challenge, namely their access to cheap high quality labor is limited, which undermines their ability to effectively service customers on a consistent basis.

The other area where I say the “dog has fleas” with respect to Petco is when comparing it to Petsmart.   I wrote about it here.   The basic premise was while the industry had grown nicely since Petco was taken private for a second time, the financial disclosures related to its recent debt refinancing implied that Petsmart had put Petco in its rear view mirror.  I then left it at that.

Unbeknownst to me, San Diego Reader columnist Don Bauder decided to pick up my ball and walk it over to Petco headquarters (also located in San Diego).   He put my musings to Petco Chief Financial Officer Mike Foss here, in an article questioning the benefits of buyouts.

Notably, in Bauder’s article, Foss asserted that “By virtually every single metric — sales, profit, cash — we’re better off than in 2006.”  Given the size of the debt refinancing it is easy to see how profits and cash are up, because interest costs are down and debt is up, albeit not enough to offset the decrease in the effective interest rate as, according to Foss, Petco’s refinancing is saving it $18 million in annual interest expense.   It’s not hard to believe that sales are up either given that the market has grown consistently over the past five years and the pet majors have maintained the lions share of the retail industry’s sales.  What is more notable to me, however, is that Foss said nothing about operating cash flow or same-store-sales, the two most important metrics to measure the health of a retail property.

Net net, while Foss may dispute my assertion, he certainly did little to refute it.   Further, if my analysis was really that wide of the mark, he wouldn’t even have taken the time to put his spin on the situation.

/bryan