Cabela’s management had an opportunity when it reported fourth-quarter earnings Thursday to talk about the future of the company — including a possible sale.
Instead, they kept their mouths shut.
The silence doesn’t mean that the process is dead. Quite the opposite, some hedge fund watchers say.
Staying mum, combined with other moves the company has made this year — including changing its bylaws to delay board seat nominations — points to a deal in the works, said Damien Park, managing partner of Hedge Fund Solutions in Philadelphia. Park advises companies and investors on shareholder activism.
“All the signs to me suggest that they are in discussions with somebody about potentially selling the business, and they’re not going to disrupt those discussions by commenting on them at this stage,” Park said.
If there weren’t ongoing discussions, the company would probably say so, Park said. “There’s no point in just stringing it along if there’s not something going on,” he said.
Cabela’s has been under pressure to make big changes since New York-based Elliott Management, an activist hedge fund, declared an 11 percent stake in the company in October. In December, Cabela’s said it would begin a strategic review, which often leads to a sale of a company or parts of it.
At the time, the company said it would not provide any updates on the review process or a timeline for the review. Executives have held to that statement since, saying nothing publicly until Thursday when Cabela’s reported earnings of $1.26 per diluted share, exceeding analyst expectations of $1.21 per share.
Chief Executive Tommy Millner said at the outset of a conference call with investors Thursday that management would not address the strategic review process.
“I hope you can appreciate that we will have no further comments related to the review unless further disclosure is appropriate or required,” Millner said.
All stock analysts on the call complied with the request to keep questions focused on quarterly earnings.
After Elliott got involved, Bloomberg News reported late last year that competitor Bass Pro Shops was interested in buying Cabela’s. Reuters also reported that Cabela’s had hired an investment bank and was shopping itself around to private-equity firms. Both outcomes could hurt Sidney, where Cabela’s employs about 2,000 of the town’s 6,800 residents.
Elliott didn’t comment for this story.
It’s likely that Elliott is getting more updates than the public, said Nick Gantchev, a finance professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who researches activist investing.
“In this particular case, it did start on a more friendly note” between Cabela’s and Elliott, than in the case of some other activist targets, Gantchev said.
“They might have agreed on a certain timeline, so as long as they see that the company is moving according to the plan and that process is going, they cannot really ask for more,” he said of Elliott. “They cannot speed it.”
Some analysts, however, were hoping for more information — even if only to rule out potential actions, like selling the company’s credit card business or real estate. Both are things Elliott suggested in its initial government filing as ways the company could “unlock” value for shareholders.
“I was hoping they’d narrow the broad range of options, but it looks like we’ll have to wait longer,” said Andrew Burns, senior research analyst who covers the company for D.A. Davidson Co. in Portland, Oregon.
Investors might have been hoping for more, too: Cabela’s stock fell nearly 4 percent on the day, closing at $42.30 a share on the New York Stock Exchange, on a day when the broader market was down only 0.25 percent.
Nathan Yates, a stock analyst with Forward View Consulting in Virginia, said he was expecting a few more vague comments on the strategic-review process, but wasn’t surprised management wasn’t willing to delve into the matter. Otherwise, the call was “very bland,” Yates said.
“There were a lot of empty words about the need to increase revenue and boost profits,” he said. “Of course Cabela’s wants to sell more goods and earn higher profits.”
The company also used the report as a way to tout its cost-cutting measures, which it announced in the third quarter.
“We’ve been disappointed with the revenue and profit performance of the stores we opened in 2015,” Millner said. As a result, the company has evaluated several ways to reduce operating costs of stores, including increasing floor space for merchandise, cutting costs on supplies that are not merchandise, selling parcels of land within store parking lots, reducing labor costs in stores and making changes to its information-technology structure.
“We’re finding that as we focus tighter, we distract the organization less, and I think everyone in the company is responding favorably to that,” Millner said.
The initiatives may all be preparation for a sale to a private equity firm, Yates said.
“The cost cutting is simply what a private-equity firm would do if it were to buy Cabela’s,” Yates said.
Even though the company beat Wall Street expectations for the fourth quarter, consolidated same-store sales were down 4.9 percent over the quarter a year ago, which management blamed mostly on disappointing apparel sales due to unseasonably warm weather.
Millner said the chain was testing out various mixes of Cabela’s branded apparel and national brands like Under Armour, Columbia and Carhartt.
The company also wasn’t counting on the gun and ammunition buying surge that began in December, following the San Bernardino mass shooting, to boost profits much. The last surge occurred in 2012 following the Sandy Hook shooting, and sales abruptly fell off in 2013 and into 2014.
“We’re not getting overly exuberant right now because those memories from 2013 and 2014 are still clear in our heads,” Millner said.
Net income increased 9.5 percent to $86.8 million, compared with $79.3 million in the same quarter a year ago. Total revenue increased 10.5 percent to $1.4 billion.
Following the earnings conference call with investors, Cabela’s announced another change to its executive leadership: The company said Thursday that Michael Copeland, executive vice president and chief operations officer, will move into a strategic advisory role over the next month.
Copeland joined Cabela’s in 2007 as vice president of retail operations and has served as COO since 2010. Earlier this month, Cabela’s split its president and CEO roles, maintaining Millner as CEO and promoting Scott Williams to president.