Companies that make and sell cars got encouraging news earlier
this month when it was reported that U.S. auto sales in September
posted their best showing in 4-1/2 years.
Sales for the month rose 13% from the prior year to nearly 1.2
million new vehicles, according to Autodata Corp. That was above
analyst estimates for an increase of less than 9%.
On an annualized basis, September's sales pace rose to 14.94
million vehicles, topping estimates for 14.5 million vehicles and
above the pace of 14.1 million vehicles registered in July. It
was the highest annualized rate since March 2008, when the U.S.
was in the early stages of a deep recession.
Among the companies that benefited wasAutoNation (
), the nation's largest automotive retailer.
AutoNation owns and operates 261 new-vehicle franchises, which
sell 32 brands across 15 states. In addition to selling new cars,
it sells used vehicles and parts, provides automotive repair and
maintenance services, and offers automotive finance and insurance
Sales Up 23%
The company reported September sales of 22,982 vehicles, up
23% from a year earlier. That performance was slightly above the
22% gain the company delivered for the third quarter as a
AutoNation and other dealers are benefiting on a number of
fronts, says analyst Rick Nelson of Stephens.
For one, the average age of cars in the U.S. is about 11
years, he says, which means there's heavy demand for replacement
vehicles. Many consumers who had delayed big-ticket purchases
during and immediately following the recession are finally
comfortable enough to buy cars again.
Buyers also have more access to cheap financing than they did
a few years ago, Nelson says.
"And there's a ton of new product out there with better fuel
efficiency and more technology, which helps drive growth," he
added. "In addition, used-car trade-in values are really good.
That's stimulating the recovery because people are getting good
equity in trading."
AutoNation delivered a strong performance across all
categories in September. Sales of domestic vehicles rose 10% from
the prior year to 6,870 units. Sales of imports gained 38% to
11,854, while sales of premium luxury cars increased 11% to
For the entire third quarter, AutoNation's domestic sales rose
12%, import sales climbed 35% and premium luxury sales rose
News of AutoNation's performance sent its stock price on a
sharp rise over the course of several sessions. Shares reached an
all-time high of 48.12 on Oct. 9.
The recent good news continues a strong run for AutoNation
that began in late 2009. The company has posted 11 straight
quarters of sales and earnings growth. During that period,
earnings have risen in double digits 10 times, while sales have
risen in double digits eight times.
AutoNation mainly competes against smaller independent
dealerships. It has a couple of advantages over those rivals,
"Because they are the largest retailer in the industry, they
have economies of scale. They can leverage systems across a chain
of stores," he said. "They are also the most sophisticated
company from a process and technology viewpoint, and that's a
Moreover, unlike dealerships that sell only one brand,
AutoNation sells cars from a variety of manufacturers, and across
Most of its revenue comes from the sale of new vehicles.
During the second quarter, new-vehicle sales rose 26% from the
prior year to $2.2 billion. That represented 56% of total
Used-car sales for the quarter gained 6.7% to $947 million, or
47% of the total. Remaining revenue mostly came from sales of
parts and service.
Overall Q2 revenue increased 17% from a year earlier to $3.9
billion, above Wall Street estimates for $3.71 billion.
Earnings climbed 35% to 66 cents a share, topping views of 59
"The company continued to see a strong new-vehicle selling
environment, driven by replacement demand, a healthy credit
environment and new product offerings," Clint Fendley, an analyst
at Davenport & Co., noted in a report following AutoNation's
Fendley also said AutoNation "benefited tremendously from
operating leverage," noting that the company's selling, general
and administrative expenses as a percentage of gross profit fell
180 basis points to 69.8%.
"That was much better than our expectation of 71.1%," Fendley
AutoNation is scheduled to report Q3 earnings Oct. 25.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect profit of 67 cents a
share, up 40% from the previous year. Full-year earnings are seen
rising 28% to $2.48 a share.
Available Locations Are Scarce
In terms of expansion, AutoNation might make the occasional
buyout of an existing franchise, but it's unlikely to open a lot
of new locations. That's partly because there aren't a lot of new
Auto dealership locations in the U.S. are strictly regulated
by state franchise laws as well as manufacturer agreements,
"In traditional retailing, aHome Depot (
) can open across the street from aLowe's (
) or aWal-Mart (
) can open across the street from aTarget (
), but in this industry dealerships are protected, so there's not
a lot of green field openings," he said. "This is an advantage
for AutoNation because it limits the amount of competition."
As a result, AutoNation uses a lot of its free cash to buy
back shares rather than spend it on expansion or
"It's a very low-risk strategy and an attractive business
model with a low fixed overhead," Nelson said.