News Column

Best Buy Shows Signs of Progress

March 2, 2013

Jackie Crosby, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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March 2--Amid months of boardroom drama, Best Buy Co. Inc.'s new leaders are continuing a turnaround effort that some analysts believe already is showing promise.

Though earnings declined in the fourth quarter, the battered Richfield-based retailer on Friday turned in one of its most encouraging financial performances in more than two years, particularly in U.S. stores where the company has focused most of its restructuring effort.

"We're beginning to see signs of stabilizing," said Peter Keith, a New York-based analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co. "This is the first quarter that we begin to have the fingerprints of the new management team. ... The initial signs point to a turnaround that's beginning to work."

Sales at U.S. stores open at least a year rose 0.9 percent during the crucial holiday period, but internationally they fell 6.6 percent, dragged down by stores in China and Canada.

Best Buy, the nation's largest consumer electronics company, outpaced analysts' expectations, even as it took a $409 million loss during the quarter. That included just over $1 billion in one-time charges, mostly related to issues in Canada and China.

Leaving out those charges, the company reported adjusted earnings of $1.64 per share, down from $2.18 a year earlier. Revenue rose slightly to $16.7 billion.

"It was a quarter that was driven, not given," CEO Hubert Joly told analysts.

The better-than-expected results came from stable sales of such bread-and-butter items as TVs, mobile phones and computers as well as appliances during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday period, which represents about a third of the company's annual sales.

Joly said his overhaul strategy, known as "Renew Blue," is starting to take root. He also credited a price-match guarantee online and in stores that was so successful Best Buy decided to make it permanent. Online sales were up 11 percent for the quarter, bolstering the decision.

"He's trying to break the perception out there that Best Buy is always priced higher than online competitors," Keith said. "If you look at big ticket items -- TVs, appliances, tablets, computers -- there's usually not a big price disparity between Best Buy and Amazon, for example. He's trying to change that perception and not risking gross margin significantly."

Carol Levenson, director of research at Gimme Credit, was less upbeat. "For now Best Buy had better concentrate on improving its results while still a public company," Levenson said in a research note. "Given its poor sales results, its latest 'transformation' scheme could be too little, too late."

Joly acknowledged that the coming year will be a "year of transition" and that more cuts are coming as Best Buy seeks to stabilize and increase profitability across global operations.

On Tuesday, Best Buy cut 400 jobs from its corporate headquarters staff, a move that will trim about $150 million out of a broader effort to slash expenses by $400 million. Additional cuts will come in the second quarter and beyond, Joly said, though not all will be payroll-related.

Shares finished the day at $17.16, up about 4.6 percent, reflecting Wall Street's continued patience with Joly, a former Carlson executive. Shares have risen about 40 percent year to date, after tanking 50 percent last year.

Joly took the helm of a slumping Best Buy in September after CEO Brian Dunn's resignation and founder Richard Schulze's subsequent departure from the board. Schulze then spent months exploring a buyout of the company or some other transaction that would give him greater influence.

In statements made Friday in public filings, Schulze said the Joly-led management team "deserves a chance to implement its own plan."

During a morning call to analysts, Joly offered a succinct, six-sentence statement reiterating that the company had received no qualified offer from Schulze by Thursday's midnight deadline.

"Despite the significant amount of time that management has spent on this process the organization has remained focused on our Renew Blue transformation, and we will continue to do so as we move forward for the benefit of all of our stakeholders."



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(c)2013 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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