VF Corp. remains poised for acquisitions despite going several years without one and ending 2014 with a nearly $400 million write-off on Seven For All Mankind and other contemporary businesses purchased during the last decade.
As a firm always on the prowl for its next purchase, VF has come up frequently as a possible buyer for companies ranging from Lululemon Athletica Inc. to Puma, but it hasn’t pulled the trigger on an acquisition since completing the largest in its history, the $2.3 billion purchase of The Timberland Co., in 2011.
Eric Wiseman, chairman, president and chief executive officer of the Greensboro, N.C.-based apparel giant, told WWD Friday that the absence of a transaction wasn’t from a lack of either interest or effort.
“I wish we could have gotten something done last year,” he said, “and I certainly hope we can get something done this year.”
He noted that VF initiates its contact with prospective targets. “We’re not reacting to telephone calls that we get,” he said. “We call businesses that we’d like to acquire. That has been our strategy.”
Often, the first response is a “no,” but frequently one that serves to start a relationship that “builds over time, and sometimes the answer changes over time,” Wiseman said. The first contacts with Timberland, which elicited an initial negative response, “go back two decades” and involved not only his immediate predecessor as ceo, Mackey McDonald, but McDonald’s predecessor, Larry Pugh, as well.
As for where a deal might occur, the strength of the dollar increases the odds that it could be an overseas company. Much of the conversation on the company’s conference call Friday about the recent swings in currency translation concerned their potential negative impact on VF’s revenues and earnings this year. Having generated 38 percent of its revenues in markets outside the U.S. last year, the firm’s global reach exposes it to more headwinds than most U.S. conglomerates. But Wiseman readily acknowledged that the rapidly changing currency picture had made a European, Asian or other acquisition more attractive.
“International is looking more and more attractive to us because of the strength of the U.S. dollar,” he said, “and we’re continuing to have discussions with people. We just don’t have anything we can talk about today.”
VF has more than ample resources to pull off its next deal. While long-term debt last year was essentially unchanged at $1.42 billion, cash and cash equivalents grew 25.2 percent to $971.9 million.
The group saw its fourth-quarter profits drop as it wrote off $396 million for impairment of the brands in its contemporary coalition — Seven For All Mankind, Splendid and Ella Moss — as its Outdoor & Action Sports coalition, the largest of the five into which the company is organized, logged the largest improvements in sales and operating profits for the quarter.
In the three months ended Jan. 3, VF’s net income declined 66.8 percent to $122.1 million, or 28 cents, from profits of $367.7 million, or 82 cents, in the year-ago quarter. Excluding the noncash, pretax charge, adjusted earnings per share for the quarter were 98 cents, matching analysts’ consensus estimates and helping to lift the stock $4.26, or 6 percent, to $75.26 despite the lower reported earnings.
Quarterly revenues were up 8.8 percent to $3.58 billion from $3.29 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013 and rose 11 percent on a constant currency basis. Gross margin rose to 49 percent from 48.2 percent a year ago.
While the contemporary coalition saw revenues drop 0.9 percent to $39.2 million and operating profits tumble 79.7 percent to $1.8 million, Outdoor & Action Sports’ top line rose 12.8 percent to $2.16 billion, and operating income rose the most of the five coalitions, advancing 20.7 percent to $432.3 million.
Over the course of the year, Vans joined The North Face to become the second $2 billion brand in VF’s portfolio. The group acquired Vans for $396 million in 2004 after picking up The North Face, nearing bankruptcy, for $25.4 million in 2000.
“When we bought The North Face, its sales were about $200 million. In the last year, North Face sold about $100 million of its new Thermoball jacket at wholesale,” Wiseman pointed out, addressing both the brand’s focus on innovation and its power in the marketplace.
In contrast, VF paid an estimated $775 million to buy Seven For All Mankind in 2007 and $208 million for the two-thirds of Ella Moss and Splendid it didn’t already own in 2009.
But Wiseman remains committed to the value of the contemporary acquisitions. “We sell jeans in the mass, midtier, department store, specialty and premium department store channels,” he said. “People shop in those places and we need to be there. A piece of VF needs to be aimed at contemporary and that was the role of Seven. Premium denim and contemporary in general have been through a challenging time, but they’ll be back.”
For 2015, VF projected an 8 percent increase in currency-neutral sales, 3 percent on a reported basis, with EPS rising 12 percent, 4 percent on a reported basis and gross margin growing 40 basis points to 49.2 percent.
For the 12 months, net income, including the impairment charge, dropped 13.4 percent to $1.05 billion, or $2.38 a diluted share, while revenues expanded 7.6 percent to $12.15 billion.