Aaron's falls on concern over chairman's comments

NEW YORK (AP) -- Shares of furniture and appliance rental company Aaron's Inc. declined in midday trading Friday after founder and Chairman R. Charles Loudermilk Sr. tried to clarify a report that he is thinking about selling his stock and would support a sale of Aaron's at the right price.

Aaron's stock dropped 73 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $28.02 in midday trading. Over the past year, the shares have traded between $19.66 and $31.78.

During the company's conference call Friday, Loudermilk tried to clarify comments he made for a Bloomberg story. He said he doesn't control the Atlanta company now, but that it is his obligation to take any sizeable offers that come in to the company's board. He also said he would keep his shares in the company.

The comments put a damper on investor speculation about a sale and optimism surrounding Aaron's fourth-quarter results. The stock had been up more than 7 percent after the market opened.

While Aaron's reported late Thursday that its net income dipped 1 percent in the quarter, its revenue performance topped Wall Street expectations and a key revenue figure rose. The company also said it had more customers at year's end compared with a year ago.

Aaron's is likely benefiting from the uneasiness that consumers still feel about the economy. This is likely leading some shoppers to forgo making big-ticket purchases, opting to rent items instead.

Aaron's said that its earnings fell to $30.5 million, or 40 cents per share, for the quarter. That's down slightly from $30.8 million, or 38 cents per share, a year earlier.

Removing a charge of 3 cents per share for separation costs related to the vesting of restricted stock and options previously given to former CEO Robert Loudermilk, earnings were 43 cents per share. This met the forecast of analysts polled by FactSet.

Robert Loudermilk is Charles Loudermilk's son.

The per share discrepancy is because there were fewer shares outstanding in the current quarter.

For the three months ended Dec. 31, revenue rose 8 percent to $523.5 million from $484.4 million. The results beat the $521.2 million that Wall Street expected.

Revenue at stores open at least a year climbed 3.7 percent in the quarter. This metric is a key gauge of a retailer's health because it excludes results from stores recently opened or closed.

"We had good revenue and customer growth during the quarter, and believe the results were outstanding in these challenging economic times. Our market remains large, and the high-quality, affordable basic home furnishings we provide fulfills the desires and needs of our customers," interim President and CEO Ronald Allen said in a statement.

Aaron's full-year earnings declined 4 percent to $113.8 million, or $1.43 per share, from $118.4 million, or $1.44 per share, in the previous year.

Adjusted earnings were $1.75 per share.

Annual revenue increased 7 percent to $2.02 billion from $1.88 billion.

Aaron's said it had more than 1 million customers at year's end, up 11 percent from last year.

The Atlanta company is maintaining its forecast for 2012 earnings of $1.88 to $2.04 per share on revenue of approximately $2.15 billion.

Aaron's anticipates first-quarter earnings of 58 cents to 62 cents per share on revenue of about $570 million.

Analysts predict full-year earnings of $1.98 per share on revenue of $2.19 billion and first-quarter earnings of 61 cents per share on revenue of $567.9 million.

Aaron's has more than 1,945 company-run and franchised stores in 48 states and Canada.