How sustainable is the business plan?

We are always trying to understand how sustainable any given business plan is.
  • Despite the maturity of the QSR category, capital spending as a percent of sales has been ticking up for three quick service restaurant companies. Given the overall macro environment for the industry, I do not believe that this is the right time to be accelerating growth. I watched this happen with the casual dining sector and we know how that played out - supply outpacing demand........
  • In this post, we are looking at CKR, JBX and SONC, specifically, and through calendar 2007, the trends don't look too alarming with both EBIT margins and capital spending as a percent of sales increasing steadily since 2004. The problem lies in the fact that EBIT margins (for JBX and SONC) are somewhat stable despite softening top-line results. For CKR, they need to reevaluate the whole business plan...
  • With stable margins, management can now justify the increased spending, because the returns appear to warrant such investment. However, as sales trends continue to weaken as a result of a tough environment (and increased value options) combined with our belief that higher commodity prices are not going away anytime soon, we expect to see increased pressure on EBIT margins - erasing the apparent returns of accelerating capital spending.

MCD/SBUX - I love the SBUX-MCD debate!

I love the SBUX-MCD debate, because we have come full circle. In 2003, the investment community was under the assumption that SBUX (and other upstarts at the time) had made the McDonald's brand irrelevant. The consensus was wrong then.... and the consensus thinks McDonald's is going to alter the Starbucks business model. ....the consensus will likely be wrong again. It's a good thing we have Deutsche Bank to help build the consensus.

The Market value of MCD would not be in excess of $60 billion if they did not know how to compete effectively. Collectively, Burger King, Wendy's, Carl's Jr. and Taco Bell are all good, strong brands in the QSR segment because they have had to compete against McDonald's. The fact that McDonald's is moving into the specialty coffee space is good for SBUX. It will force them to be a better competitor. SBUX is in a strong position today because make most of the specialty coffee competition is irrelevant. McDonald's 14,000 store distribution system is powerful network and should not be dismissed.

Recently, DB recently published a 27 page report on MCD entering the specialty coffee business and the potential impact on SBUX. This research note was so one sided (and biased it appears to be a complete suck-up to MCD) and appears to have been written in a vacuum, as there was no information about the growth in the specialty coffee category and there was no mention of the impact on other competitors. It's almost as if Dunkin Donuts is irrelevant to the debate. I guess they don't want to get Bain angry.....

Anyone with excel, word and some level of creativity can publish the McDonald's company line to justify a couple of ratings. While senior management at MCD is risking a lot on the beverage platform, I can't believe that a note this one-sided is a good thing, or even reality. Of the 27 pages in the DB report, not even one page was allocated to the risks nor addressed where his potential assumptions could be aggressive. Since I don't want to open excel right now, I'm going to let words put things into perspective. But..... Not my words. Words from McDonald's owner/operators who actually have to execute the business plan. The following are direct quotes from people much closer to the reality of the SBUX-MCD debate than any of us will be......

I think it will be a hard sell for the company once real numbers are offered for coffee after the initial rollout starts. With Jan Fields hitting the road this winter; the full court press has started..
Specialty coffee could be done for 1/3 the cost. The sales don't justify remodeling the whole store. Good item... just way too expensive to put in. And I have had it for several months and do better than average with my sales of it..
This coffee thing is a train wreck. I have never seen anything so expensive and unproven crammed down our throats with so little resistance. There isn't a Starbucks within 100 miles of my stores and the company contribution is a joke. I just don't understand this one!.
The coffee programs still a crap shoot. We need a -Newman-deal.-type plan to make it worthwhile. The Corporation is getting too greedy
Coffee is a concern to me. Upper management has its head in the sand one more time. They should start to worry about owner/operators a little more instead of Wall Street. Without owner/operators upper management loses their golden parachutes. A big joke once again. Everything always comes and goes in cycles. I believe we are entering our negative cycle one more time.
McDonald's has enjoyed great sales run for the past few years. All good things must come to an end and this is ready to happen. The company needs to look at how hard they have pushed most operators and move to plan .B. quickly. The specialty-beverage rollout (CBI) comes at a time when McDonald's operators are under increasing pressure from both rising food and labor costs. Add to that the requirements for more labor to run a store, operators are in trouble. If McDonald's wanted to help operators and operations, it would move now to find ways to cut labor in the stores. The rollout of CBI could not come at a worse time for most operators. Operators have no more money to invest in the business. Many are living day-to-day. This also comes at a time when banks are under heavy pressure from bad loans in the housing market. Things could come apart for
McDonald's. Operators have no cash and nowhere to get a loan. Add to that the increase of the federal minimum to $5.85 an hour and [my state's] (and other states) increase to $6.90 and above in .08. Operators are under unreal pressure and something has to give. The system will lose some operators and things get worse. In addition, the operators can not hit the menu board to recover some of their costs. The increase of prices forces customers to trade down to the Dollar Menu -- a big loss leader for operators - thus making the problem much worse. The cost of both chicken and dairy are up this year. Chicken is now more than beef? The cost per case for delivery is moving up very fast leaving no profit on the bottom line for operators. Add the profit-margin pressure operators are feeling from the Dollar Menu and many operators will be out of business. As commodity prices raise, margins thin and the Dollar Menu eats away profits, operators and McDonald's will have a very poor year. Operator margins are under pressure. There is no room for a mistake or capital investment. The overall outlook is not bright for McDonald's. This is not a doom-and-gloom prediction but what is really happening to most McDonald's operators. As the economy slows so will McDonald's
The Dollar Menu must change with the times. The new coffee items do not look like a home run for individual stores but looks real good for McDonald's. My regional manager warned me not to take on more debt because he/she doesn't think the specialty coffee program will work and it will not pay for itself. Of course he/she will force me to do it anyway but he/she doesn't think it will work. I'm sure he'd/she'd get fired if I used his/her name...
Price of gas is hurting the restaurants on travel routes to vacation areas. Increased costs of doing business in the east; utilities, taxes, labor and backdoor costs don't seem to factor into the cost of paying for CBB. Most of the sales and profits of CBB come from iced coffee sales and sweet tea, which we are already doing without spending construction costs. Not much profit on specialty coffee yet that is where the costs of CBB are. If you take out financing to pay for CBB you will have trouble paying it off with the profits from specialty coffee (lattes, cappuccinos, espresso). So factoring in the increased costs, and poor profit on specialty coffee it has a negative effect on cash flow. I am sure though when McDonald's presents the figures for CBB they will include the products were selling without CBB to make the picture of cash flow seem like a brilliant move. Corporate careers will be made on this move. Why can't we just advance their careers and leave us alone!
They are trying to scare us into CBB with chatter about Starbucks. We can coexist beside Starbucks just fine. We sell burgers, they sell coffee. Leave it alone...
Let's keep iced coffee and forget the specialty drinks...

RRGB - The Trends are ??

Things don't look too promising. RRGB will now be the poster child for how difficult the operating environment is. In 1Q08, RRGB's traffic declined 0.4% despite incremental advertising (and up against easiest comp from 1Q07 of down 3.6%). The company attributed the sales weakness mostly to CA, AZ and NV, which they said did not decelerate until 1Q (represents 28% of co-owned stores). If you exclude these three states, traffic would have been up 1.7%.

The company said food/beverage costs, coupled with fuel surcharges are impacting them more than they initially guided so they are need to raise prices again (up 2.7% in late June.) Despite a Q1 miss, management raised their guidance but mainly to reflect acquisition of 15 restaurants from franchisees.

The biggest concern going forward is the trend in labor costs. Labor costs were down again (down 40 bps in Q1 vs. down 60 bps in 4Q) so they are cutting costs somewhere. The company is calling it labor productivity (of course, not at the expense of guest experience!)

As seen in the chart below, RRGB is accelerating capital in a very difficult operating environment and not bringing the cash home to shareholders.

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Salt in the Wound

My Research Edge colleague on the ground in China just fed me an interesting tid-bit regarding the lingering impact of the quake on Chinese footwear production. Recall that the initial read from our sources in China was that production was not directly impacted, but that raw material delivery flow was in jeopardy.

A new challenge is brewing, however, with more far-reaching implications. Consider the following.

1) Most factories have a static number of workers in any given month to fill roughly 50-60% of maximum capacity. Then they fill the remainder with migrant workers when seasonal demand kicks in.

2) Peak production takes place in the summer in order to ship in July/August and sell at retail in August/September. That means that we're just hitting the most important part of the demand cycle for such labor. (You probably see where this is going...).

3) Due to the quake, many migrant workers are not reporting to factory-duty as employers expected (a recent comment by a factory owner employing 40,000 people confirmed this). Pouring salt in the wound, such workers already on the job are walking away in order to care of family members who are homeless. As a frame of reference, the latest figures for homeless in China are hovering around 12 million -- that's the equivalent of nearly half of Canada.

4) Yes, everyone talks about the 'China cost pressures' theme. But I'm willing to bet that 2H COGS pressures for the footwear space spike up again. Someone is going to have to fund this. It's probably not you and me. And it's probably not the big brands (though they'll feel some pain). My sense is that retail margins take it on the chin. Check out my 'Supply Chain Math Does Not Lie' post from last week to see why I think that the margin squeeze will hit retail.

5) Lastly, the migrant worker shortage just months after the biggest blizzard in Chinese history is serving as something of a one-two punch. The industry trend had been to push production into the central part of the country to side-step cost inflation. But the blizzard exposed a weak transportation infrastructure, and the migrant worker challenge is likely to be an issue for all of 2008.

I've used this statistic a dozen times, but it's an important one. 85% of our footwear consumption comes from China. By my math, a $60 shoe at retail will see between $2-3 per pair of higher costs. That translates to 3-5% price increase at retail just to cover the higher costs. Don't hold your breath there. It hasn't happened in well over a decade.

Keep an "Eye" on this one folks...

COLM: 2H Margin Pop?

Columbia Sportswear cut headcount today according to SportsOneSource (I've found them to be fairly accurate on nuggets like this). While I don't make it a practice of commenting on news stories like this, I have to point out a few important themes.

1) Based on my sources, the report appears true, and seems to be above and beyond any cost reduction efforts the company noted on its recent conference call.

2) This is literally days after K-Swiss instituted layoffs in its salesforce.

3) Kind of ironic that US companies are laying off, while workers in Vietnam are striking because recent 14% wage hikes are not enough! So the people making the product are refusing to work, and the people designing and selling the product are being fired. That's matching up supply and demand the hard way. How can this be a positive trend??

4) SG&A trends for COLM have been trending up in recent quarters due to investments in new brand initiatives (see Exhibit below, courtest of FactSet). That's a solid move - especially given the fact that sales have been struggling to find a bottom. COLM is 2 quarters away from much easier year-year margin compares. With cost cuts hitting in full in the 3rd quarter, could this thing be setting itself up for a margin pop in 2H even without a rebound in sales? At 5x EBITDA and 12x EPS this probably matters...

Vietnam Strike = Bad Bad News

Here's a major call out for you. 5,000 workers at a Vietnam footwear manufacturing plant went on strike shortly AFTER getting a 14% wage increase (by 100,000 dong to 800,000) -- noting that it is not enough to offset inflationary pressures. With consumer prices in Vietnam up 21% versus last year, I can see the logic. Is it any coincidence that this happened simultaneously with a 325bp overnight hike in rates in Vietnam? Not a chance.

Vietnam might seem like a rounding error relative to China, but it is not. It's the number 3 producer of athletic footwear, and is a perennial top 10 apparel maker. Though share is only 5% compared to China's 85% in footwear and 40% in Apparel, Vietnam serves as an important buffer for the industry when Chinese prices go up. (Recall that the same dynamic holds true for India, and as I noted last week, price trends are decoupling from what we've seen historically vis/vis China).

The bottom line is that growth is slowing in Asia, at the same time costs are headed higher. This plays into our key theme in Apparel and Footwear that an 8-year margin bubble is bursting. The US retail industry has only seen the beginning of the pain that is to come...

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