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The (Nearly) Impossible-to-Replicate … AutoZone?

Auto parts retailer AZO has had unusual success with buybacks

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At the end of the latest reported quarter, auto parts retailer AutoZone (NYSE:AZO) had 38.95 million shares outstanding. This number means little on its own, but when you consider than since 1998 the company has been meticulously repurchasing stock every year — and in the process has managed to retire 128.8 million shares — eyebrows naturally rise.

“Here comes AutoZone with yet another buyback,” I thought as the news wire for the latest board authorization to repurchase $750 million worth of stock passed on my computer screen.

I had known about AutoZone’s regular buybacks for some time, but I had not considered the cumulative numbers of shares retired. When I looked at the number, I was surprised to see that management had retired 70% of shares outstanding since this rather interesting financial experiment began nearly 14 years ago.

Any company’s share price should feel the disappearance of more than two-thirds of the float, even if business stays flat. In this case, AutoZone grew notably as the number of shares shrank dramatically. Management did a lot to break into new commercial markets, which resulted in an acceleration of sales growth. Over the past 10 years, sales show a compounded annual rate of growth (CAGR) of 5.3%, a five-year CAGR of 6.3% and a three-year CAGR of 7.3%.

Because the share count shrank consistently as the company grew, earnings per share growth was much higher than any other measure of profit growth. This is why EPS show a 10-year CAGR of 23%, while EBIT has a 10-year CAGR of 6.3%.

“So why doesn’t everyone do what AZO does?”

I got the question when discussing AZO’s above-mentioned strategy. When looking at other companies in the same industry, one discovers that AZO has the highest year-over-year revenue growth (8.6%) and the highest gross (51.22%) and operating margins (18.67%). Yet the shares — at 17.66 trailing and 14 times forward earnings — are not valued above the industry average. It does not appear that anyone else in the industry has the cash flow to try such share shrinkage as aggressively.

If no one in the auto parts industry can pull it off, surely the money manager that helped engineer this financial maneuver — Eddie Lampert of ESL Investments (general partner of RBS Partners LP) — has found some other retailers that can replicate this. Perusing RBS Partners’ latest 13F-HR filing shows his latest concentrated positions.

One thing that jumps out immediately from the filing is how much Lampert has cut his bet; the AZO position has “only” 2.98 million shares remaining, while as far back as 2008 the same fund had 22 million shares, which is normal under the circumstances. There are other huge positions in retail stocks, and some of them are trying to pull off the same trick: increase profitability while shrinking shares outstanding.

Earlier this month, Big Lots (NYSE:BIG) — a 1.65 million RBS Partners position — reported record fiscal 2011 total sales of $5.2 billion, as well as a fifth consecutive year of record EPS. This resembles the AZO situation because the company invested $359 million to repurchase 11 million shares (approximately 15% of outstanding shares as of the beginning of fiscal 2011). Big Lots has only about a third of AZO’s operating margin (6.64%), but the company has no net debt and the ability to keep doing a similar share shrinkage with a current float of 62.62 million shares.

With a P/E of 15, the shares of America’s largest closeout retailer appear not that expensive, and it will be interesting to see how the ongoing share shrinkage plays out in this case.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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