a.k.a. Brands Holding Corp. (NYSE:AKA) Q4 2022 Earnings Call Transcript March 9, 2023
Operator: Greetings. Welcome to a.k.a. Brands Holding Corp.'s Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2022 Conference Call. At this time, I'll now turn the conference over to Emily Schwartz with Head of Communications. Emily, you may now begin.
Emily Schwartz: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining a.k.a. Brands fourth quarter and full year 2022 conference call to discuss the results released this afternoon, which can be found on our website at ir.aka-brands.com. With me on the call today are Ciaran Long, Interim Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Before we get started, I'd like to remind you of the company's safe harbor language. Management may make forward-looking statements, which refer to expectations, projections and other characterizations of future events, including guidance and underlying assumptions. Forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed. For a further discussion of risks related to our business, please see our filings with the SEC.
Please note, we assume no obligation to update any such forward-looking statements. This call will contain non-GAAP financial measures such as adjusted EBITDA and adjusted EBITDA margin. Reconciliations of these non-GAAP measures to the most comparable GAAP measures are included in the earnings release furnished to the SEC and available on our website. The call will also contain certain numbers presented on a pro forma basis, which includes the impact of Culture Kings as if we had owned it for all periods and comparable periods described. With that, I'll turn the call over to Ciaran.
Ciaran Joseph Long: Thanks, Emily. Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining our call today. As you saw in today's press release, unfortunately, Jill is dealing with some unforeseen medical issues and it's taking time to work through that. I will be taking on Jill's responsibilities as acting CEO on an interim basis, but Jill will continue to stay as involved in the business as her health allows for and she will remain on the board. She will not be on today's call, but she prepared remarks that I will read on her behalf, and then I will continue with my commentary on the financials before taking your questions. The following are her remarks. Before we discuss our fourth quarter and full year results, I want to commend our teams for their unwavering dedication this year and for stepping up to every challenge that came our way.
Despite the external pressures, we are steadfast in our vision to be the leaders in next-generation fashion for the next-generation consumer. And we remain laser-focused on growing our brands profitably. Our brands, teams and flexible business models give me confidence that we have tremendous runway ahead and will deliver on our long-term goals. For the full year, net sales grew 9% to $612 million were flat on a pro forma basis, which, as a reminder, as soon as we own Culture Kings for all periods in 2021. On a constant currency basis, net sales increased 13%. The U.S., which is now our largest market, leather growth at 16% and Australia grew 4%. Importantly, despite the challenges in the macro environment, we continue to generate profit and delivered $32 million of adjusted EBITDA for the year.
Our brands continue to gain market share and grow awareness around the world. In 2022, we grew our customer base to $3.8 million, and we expect that number to grow this year as we expand our brands, particularly Culture Kings in the U.S. And we grew our social media followers by nearly 1.5 million this year across the portfolio, further improving the demand and relevancy of our brands. Turning now to the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter was softer than we anticipated as we faced a highly promotional backdrop and made strategic decisions on marketing and inventory newness that impacted both our top-line and bottom-line. Sales decreased 18% year-over-year to $149 million or were down 13% on a constant currency basis. And we delivered adjusted EBITDA of $6 million.
The U.S. declined by 11% on top of a very strong 74% growth in the fourth quarter last year on a pro forma basis, and Australia declined 12% on a constant currency basis. I want to give you some color on the factors that impacted our business in the fourth quarter. A key anchor of our strategy is balancing growth and profitability across our brands. We're proud to run a profitable and durable business, and we're committed to building great brands for the long term. We entered the fourth quarter knowing it was going to be promotional due to the inventory across the fashion sector. But as we went through the holiday season, particularly in the second half of the quarter, the promotions and discounts were abundant and much more intense than we anticipated.
As part of our efforts to balance growth and profitability, we made the strategic decision not to compete in our peers promotional levels, and we held our discounts and promotions relatively flat to last year. Furthermore, because of the heightened promotional environment, we also saw that the returns on marketing investments were lower than previous levels and incremental marketing spend was hitting diminishing returns and was not profitable. In an effort to maximize profitability, we held our marketing spend at the same 10% of net sales on a rate basis, which also impacted our top-line. And lastly, as we aggressively tightened our inventory in the back half of the year, we entered the peak holiday selling period with fewer new sales in our women's brands, which impacted both the top and bottom lines.
While our marketing decisions and lower levels of newness had short-term impacts in the quarter, we believe that they protect the integrity and durability of our brands and business model for the long term. I'm pleased to report that we have already taken steps to course correct. Given that we have flexibility in our operating model, as we've seen changes in the promotional environment, we've adjusted our marketing spend. And the fashion newness is back at our brands as we head into spring. I'm confident that with our levels of newness normalizing, we will also register a meaningful sequential improvement in our gross margin. Despite the challenging macro environment, I'm proud of the progress we made during the quarter, strengthening the foundation of the business.
The Culture Kings flagship store that opened in November is exceeding our expectations, and we're pleased with the halo effect the store is having in online sales. We also continue to make sequential improvements on our inventory, which is down $17 million over the last 6 months, and we had another quarter of positive cash flow in the fourth quarter. Subsequent to quarter end, we also paid down $6 million of our revolver. While we can't control the macro environment, we can control how we drive the business forward. To that extent, I'm excited to talk about the new initiatives across our portfolio that will drive growth, but more importantly, accelerate brand awareness for the long term. As we look to the future of fashion, we believe that core to building durable next-generation brands is showing up everywhere our customers are, whether that's direct-to-consumer, through wholesale partners, digital, mobile or in stores.
Our brands have already mastered building authentic relationships directly with customers and providing great experiences, and we believe they would excel in other channels, too. To that end, in 2023, we're piloting select wholesale partnerships, and we're also testing a Princess Polly store in Southern California in the back half of the year. We have an exciting year ahead filled with new tests and initiatives while simultaneously strengthening our balance sheet to fuel profitable growth for the long term. So let me share some highlights from our brand initiatives. Starting with our women's brands, using robust data and analytics in combination with comprehensive survey work, it's clear that Princess Polly customers are creating more ways to experience the brand.
As mentioned, we're very excited that Princess Polly is piloting a store in Southern California this year, and we'll share more information on the store in the coming months. I'm also excited to announce that Princess Polly signed a wholesale agreement with PacSun to carry select best-selling styles online and in 15 stores. PacSun is a strong strategic fit for Princess Polly's first wholesale engagement because they are also a top 10 brand according to Piper Sandler's "Taking Stock With Teens" survey. They have a large footprint in prime locations nationwide, providing convenience for our existing customers to physically experience the quality of the Princess Polly brand in stores, as well as the opportunities to acquire new customers and promote brand awareness.
The partnership launched today and a broader rollout will follow this summer. While we're looking forward to the new initiatives for Princess Polly, the brand is also laser-focused on the core strategy. On the merchandising front, Princess Polly's core product has been about closed for going out and hanging out, but the brand is uniquely positioned to offer a full range of merchandise from formal dresses to vintage tees. To that end, they're expanding their formal wear offering for this year's prom season. And similar to Culture Kings, Princess Polly is also leveraging the print shop we acquired in 2021 to quickly print graphic tees. They're dropping 10 to 15 new stores per month, which is a mix of Princess Polly's branded merchandise and licensed properties.
They recently launched a Betty Boop license collection that exceeds expectations, and we're excited for an upcoming partnership with the NCAA . Leaders in next-generation marketing, Princess Polly has mastered organically appearing on their customer screens and feeds, no matter the channel. They continue to lean heavily into TikTok, growing their follower base nearly 40% in 2022. And it's now a top-performing channel based on ROI. They've also fine-tuned and improved our TikTok influencer strategic partnerships with recent successful collaborations with influencer Alix Earle, who garnered over 4 million views in our campaigns and micro-influencer who brought nearly 1,000 new customers to the brand. We're also excited that Princess Polly is bringing back its in-person events with the launch of their spring break activation in Miami next week.
Touring around popular hotspots in a branded Jeep, the Princess Polly team will be giving a merge gathering viral-worthy social media content and engaging with our customers. We're also hosting an exclusive party from influencers, college ambassadors and their top-tier loyalty members to promote the brand and increase customer engagement. As I noted earlier, we view wholesale as a brand-building activity and a seeds of growth for the back half of 2023, but mostly for '24 and beyond. In addition to piloting our wholesale strategy for Princess Polly with PacSun, we're in active discussions with other wholesale partners within the U.S. and internationally for all of our brands. We're also exploring marketplace opportunities and Petal & Pup launched on target marketplace last month and is gaining traction.
We'll be selective on choosing wholesale and marketplace partners to ensure a strong strategic fit and partners that would enhance our brands' awareness. Turning now to our streetwear brands. As I mentioned earlier, we're bullish on Culture Kings expansion in the U.S., and I'm more confident than ever after seeing the initial success of the stores in Vegas. The store is exceeding expectations in revenue, traffic and brand building activities. Equally as exciting is the impact the stores having on online sales since it opened in early November. We've seen great traction with in-store events, drawing artists such as ASAP Ferg and athletes such as Kirk Cousins and Marlon Humphrey from the NFL. And celebrities such as Ludacris and Cascade have all shopped the Vegas store.
They have robust marketing calendar and events lined up this year, both in the U.S. and Australia. This past weekend, Culture King had an official partnership with Rolling Loud, a big hip hop festival in L.A., where they had a branded stage and a basketball court and a merchandising collab . They also partnered with professional boxer Caleb Plant, who hosted a live stream boxing session in the Vegas store this week and released an exclusive collaboration with Minimal and Snoop Dogg DJs at the Melbourne Culture Kings store this past weekend. As a reminder, unlike our women's brands, Culture Kings carries a mix of in-house design fashion brands and third-party Atlantic, footwear and fan gear power brands. We've always seen strong demand for the exclusive in-house design product in the U.S., which is now accelerated even further after the store opening.
We're thrilled that 7 of the top 10 brands by sales in Vegas are in-house exclusive brands, including Minimal, which is now a top 10 brand on the Culture Kings website and in the Vegas store. In addition to the success of the in-house brands, we're excited that the store has unlocked new partnerships with third-party brands like New Balance and Crocs and more that will be available online and in stores in the coming months. I want to share that Simon and Tahnee Beard have stepped down from their day-to-day operating roles as co-CEOs of Culture Kings to spend time with their family and pursue entrepreneurial ventures. Simon and Tahnee have built an incredible brand over the last decade and have set the brand up for tremendous global success.
They will transition to advisers to the company and Simon remains an active member of the AKA Board of Directors. I want to express my gratitude to Simon and Tahnee for their partnership through this transition and more importantly, their unwavering commitment to building the brand into the global success it is today. Adrian Gribbin, Culture King's CFO, has been promoted to Chief Operating Officer; and Jon Yuska remains President of the U.S. We have confidence in this leadership team as they are industry veterans with 10-year backgrounds in global streetwear and retail. I also want to share that subsequent to quarter end, we sold Rebdolls back to the Founder, Grisel Paula. The brand saw tremendous growth under our ownership, and we believe it is -- we believe in its long-term success, but we've determined that the brands of Rebdolls size does not experience the full potential of the AKA platform.
I want to thank Grisel for her partnership over the past 3 years, and we're excited to remain a minority shareholder in the brand. To conclude, I want to give you my perspective on 2023 and beyond. We anticipate that the macro environment will remain dynamic and pressured in the coming year. But as you've heard today, we're evolving our model and our strategies to build high-quality, durable fashion brands for the long term. We're testing new ways to expand awareness and grow our customer base across the portfolio. We're aligned and nimble and will move even faster to accelerate these brands while continuing to deliver profit. We're viewing 2023 as a year to test and learn new channels and innovations was simultaneously strengthening our balance sheet.
When I think about the long term, I'm confident that we have significant opportunity to deliver both growth and profit as Gen Z and Millennials continue to gain spending power. Our brands are young and at the beginning of their life cycles with tremendous global runway ahead of them. We'll continue to manage our business prudently and I'm looking forward to an exciting year. Now let me turn to my comments on the financials. Our fourth quarter results were softer than we anticipated, largely due to the macro environment and our strategic decision to pull back on marketing spend as we balance profitability during the holiday season that became even more promotional than we anticipated in the second half of the quarter. We also made the decision not to compete at the same promotional and discount levels as our peers and held our promotions roughly flat to last year to protect the long-term integrity of our brands.
And lastly, we aggressively brought down inventory in the back half of the year, particularly in our women's brands, which we believe impacted newness, our top line results and our margins. The combination of these factors resulted in 4 quarter sales that came in below expectations. The lower implant sales, combined with a lower gross margin deleveraged at the middle of the P&L. That said, we continue to make progress on strengthening our balance sheet in the fourth quarter. We delivered another quarter of positive operating cash flow. We registered sequential improvements on inventory hitting our quarter-end gold with continued improvements ahead in 2023. We continued reducing our outbound shipping and fulfillment costs, which laid the foundation for greater cost efficiencies this year.
And as I mentioned, we remain disciplined on the promotional front, limiting the breadth and depth of our discounts, protecting our brands. Additionally, subsequent to quarter end, we paid down $6 million of our revolver. Despite the challenging environment, I'm confident that we are well positioned for the upcoming year as we look to improve our operating model and exit 2023 with growing brands and a much stronger balance sheet. Before I go through the results in more detail, let me spend a few minutes on the non-cash impairment charge related to our acquisition of Culture Kings that you saw in our filing. The $173.8 million charge relates to an updated valuation of the Culture Kings business since acquisition, which is a result of the adverse economic trends in the fourth quarter, including inflation and interest rates as well as pressured consumer demand.
This charge does not impact our cash position, debt covenants or future operations. As mentioned, we are pleased with the performance of the Culture Kings store and the halo effect in online sales, and it gives us confidence in the future of the brand in the U.S. Now for a detailed discussion on our results. For the fourth quarter, net sales declined 18% to $149 million compared to $182 million last year. On a constant currency basis, net sales were down 13% or $24 million. Active customers on a trailing 12-month basis was up 3%. Total fourth quarter orders were down 14% to last year at $1.9 million from lower marketing spend and the average order value of $77 was down 8% on a reported basis and flat in constant currency due to a lower mix of full price items.
Now I'll provide a few highlights from our 3 regions. In the U.S., fourth quarter net sales decreased to $71 million, down 11% from the fourth quarter last year, driven by macro factors, including softness in demand trends, the highly promotional macro environment, fewer new styles in our women's brands as we look through -- move through inventory in the back half and our decision to pull back on marketing. Australia net sales decreased 21% to $61 million or were down 12% on a constant currency basis. Australia net sales were impacted by similar macroeconomic environment trends in the U.S., including softer demand and inflationary pressures as well as an exaggerated shift of customers returning to stores post pandemic. Notably, in the fourth quarter, Culture Kings stores continued to be the fastest-growing area of the business in Australia.
Turning to Rest of the World. Net sales of $18 million decreased 33% from the fourth quarter in the prior year. Similar to the third quarter, given the significant depreciation of the U.S. dollar, we made a strategic decision to shift marketing dollars from the U.K. and Europe to our main regions that have higher returns. Additionally, our pricing model for markets outside of the U.S. and Australia is tied to the U.S. dollar. So when the dollar strengthens, our products become more expensive for customers in international regions. Moving to profitability. Reported gross margins in the fourth quarter was 52.8% versus 54.6% in the same period last year or a decline of 180 basis points. When adjusted for the impact of the $3.7 million Culture Kings inventory step-up in the fourth quarter last year, gross margins would have declined 360 basis points, largely the result of a lower mix of full price items.
Additionally, we continue to experience elevated freight rates as we work through older inventory. Selling expenses were $39 million compared to $45.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2021. Selling expenses were 26.2% of net sales compared to 24.9% of net sales in the fourth quarter of 2021. The increase was primarily due to fixed cost deleveraging in our distribution centers given the lower volume of sales, partially offset by improvements we've made on outbound shipping and labor productivity. Importantly, we continue to make progress, and this was the second quarter of sequential rate improvement in selling expenses. Marketing expenses were $15.4 million compared to $21.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2021, a 28% reduction. On a rate basis, marketing expenses were 10.3% of net sales compared to 11.8% of net sales in the fourth quarter of 2021.
The lower marketing expenses as a percent of sales was due to our strategic decision to pull back on spend as we balance both sales and profitability. As I mentioned, as we went through the quarter, we determined the return on incremental marketing spend was lower than prior levels, given the heightened levels of promotion during the holiday season. As we go through Q1, we are seeing some reduction in promotional intensity, and we're increasing our marketing spend with the expectation that we'll be around 12% of net sales from marketing expense in Q1. General and administrative expenses were $26.1 million compared to $27.3 million in the fourth quarter of 2021. On a rate basis, G&A expense were 17.5% of net sales compared to 14.9% of net sales in the fourth quarter of 2021.
The increase in G&A expenses as a percent of net sales was primarily due to lower sales in the fourth quarter of 2022. Adjusted EBITDA was $6.1 million or 4.1% of net sales compared to $16.1 million or 8.8% of net sales in the fourth quarter of 2021. Net loss as adjusted was $3.4 million or $0.03 per share in the fourth quarter of 2022 compared to a net income of $4.3 million or $0.03 per share in the same period last year. Turning to the balance sheet. We ended the quarter with $46 million in cash and cash equivalents and $144 million in debt. At the end of the quarter, we had total liquidity of approximately $56 million. Inventory at the end of the quarter was $127 million compared to $116 million at the end of the fourth quarter of 2021.
While we were up in inventory dollars year-over-year, inventory units are down 2% compared to last year. The increase in inventory year-over-year was primarily associated with Culture Kings new fulfillment center, the U.S. store opening and higher air freight expense. Compared to the end of the third quarter, inventory decreased $10.4 million or 8% and is down 5% on a unit basis. And inventory is down $17 million since the second quarter of 2022. Overall, we are pleased with the sequential improvement in inventory in the back half of 2022, and we feel confident in the composition, newness and quality of our inventory and expect to see continued sequential decline in inventory dollars and units in fiscal 2023 on a constant currency basis. Touching on cash flow.
In the fourth quarter, we generated $11.1 million of operating cash flow, marking the second quarter of positive cash flow generation in fiscal 2022. In the back half of 2022, we generated $23 million of operating cash flow. Turning to our outlook. As we look to 2023 and beyond, we want to continue to build these brands to meet their long-term potential, which is why we're testing the omnichannel initiatives that I laid out. While we're doing that, we're also going to strengthen our balance sheet so we can build optionality and reinvest in the business. We are anticipating another year of macroeconomic pressure on both the consumer side as well as the expense side, and we'll continue to manage the business prudently. Overall, for the year, we expect to deliver between USD570 million to USD600 million in net sales.
We're anticipating the first half of the year to be more challenging from a comp perspective due to our strong performance in the first half of last year when the consumer was excited to go back to festivals and traveling, and we anticipate comps easing in the back half. Importantly, with an improved level of units in our inventory mix and if we see better performance in marketing channels, we have the potential to increase our marketing spend to drive top line sales and EBITDA dollars as the year progresses. Our new omni-channel initiatives, including the Princess Polly store and wholesale represents small initial tests that will not be -- have a material impact on our financial performance in 2023 and are baked into our guidance. Our focus on testing new channels of distribution in 2023 will set the stage for future expansion of our market reach and growth over time.
For the year, we expect to see year-over-year improvements in gross margin rate of about 100 basis points as we get past the elevated air freight rates that we saw in 2022. In selling expenses, we expect the overall rate for the year to be in line with the overall rate we experienced in 2022. We'll see higher rates in the first half of the year due to lower sales volume compared to last year. In G&A, we anticipate limited dollar growth spend year-over-year while ensuring we are driving efficiencies across the business and supporting future growth opportunities. All of these factors taken together, we anticipate delivering USD35 million to USD37 million of EBITDA for the year. We expect tax rate of 30% and weighted average shares outstanding of approximately $130 million.
I also want to call out the improvements that we're expecting in free cash flows and levers we have in this area. Firstly, we expect capital expenditures to be in the range of USD8 million to USD10 million this year, significantly down from last year's $20 million. Secondly, we expect to see continued improvements on inventory turns and lower inventory dollars as we go through this year. These 2 areas, combined with improving EBITDA will allow us to reduce our debt, improve our leverage and strengthen our balance sheet. As mentioned, subsequent to quarter end, we paid off $6 million of debt, and we expect to continue to pay down our debt as we go through 2023. Looking at the first quarter, we're anticipating net sales of USD113 million to USD116 million and EBITDA of USD1.5 million to USD1.8 million.
While we continue to manage our business through the current macro challenges, we remain confident in the long-term growth and success of our brands and business model. Now, we'll open it up for questions.
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