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  • Writer's pictureGreystone Capital

Can’t get comfortable with Duluth Holdings (DLTH)

Duluth Holdings is a clothing retailer. The brand has a long and storied history dating back to Duluth, Minnesota in 1989, when the business was founded by two brothers who wanted to invent a better way for workers to carry tools.

The company IPO’d in 2015 w/ an initial store base of six, as well as an online and catalog presence that consumers love…mostly for the funny and creative ad campaigns. I’m sure you’ve seen some on YouTube or TV.

dlth cartoon

Source: ‘Buck Naked Underwear Ad’

Fast forward to today, and Duluth is a small cap retail company with nearly $600mm in sales, an online business, catalog, and 50 stores. The brand takes a unique approach to product design and advertising, aiming to identify, and then solve a problem for their customers.

The share price has been hammered recently, which put the business on my radar, as the retailer is growing their top line north of 25% per year, with EBITDA growth not far behind. Given the growth profile, strength of the brand, and solid management team, I wanted to take a quick look at what the market dislikes.

Brief Company Background (from the S-1)

Duluth Trading was founded in 1989 when two brothers in the home construction industry were tired of dragging tools from job to job using discarded five-gallon drywall compound buckets. The two brothers were never satisfied with the status quo and believed “there’s gotta be a better way.” So they invented the Bucket Boss®—a ruggedly durable canvas tool organizer that fits around a drywall bucket and transformed the way construction workers organized their tools. Capitalizing on their initial success, these brothers launched a catalog that later became known as Duluth Trading Company. Under the initial philosophy of “Job Tough, Job Smart,” this catalog was dedicated to improving and expanding on existing methods of tool storage, organization and transport. In December 2000, GEMPLER’S Inc., an agricultural and horticultural supply catalog business founded and owned by Stephen L. Schlecht, acquired Duluth Trading and brought the two mail order companies together. Both catalogs had customers who worked outside and embraced the spirit of hands-on, self-reliant Americans. In February 2003, the GEMPLER’S catalog business was sold to W.W. Grainger (NYSE:GWW) and proceeds from that sale have been used to fund the growth of Duluth Trading. With that transaction, GEMPLER’S, Inc. changed its corporate name to Duluth Holdings Inc.

Post-IPO

Starting in 2017, DLTH embarked on a massive growth spending campaign in order to build out their brick and mortar store base, with capex increasing from $7mm in 2016 to nearly $30mm in 2017. The result was taking the store count from less than 20 to the 50 retail locations they have today. Sales have grown from $231mm in 2015 to $568mm at the end of 2019. EBITDA has double during that same time span, growing from $25mm to $50mm, while total store square footage has nearly 10x’d.

Online or ‘direct’ sales make up 60% of the company’s revenues, while brick and mortar makes up the other 40%. Management’s long-term goal is to flip those percentages, and build out the store base to 100 over the next five years, spending around $200mm to do so, while chasing the magic number of $1 billion in revenues.

DLTH long term goal

The valuation isn’t extremely compelling at around 12x EBITDA (including operating leases), but for a business making large growth investments that seem to be paying off, maybe the multiple is a bit low. Duluth has grown the top line at a 25% CAGR over the past five years, with EBITDA growing at a shade below 20%.

DLTH valuation

*Side note: I included operating leases in the calculation for EV, as the company’s leases make up a significant portion of their debt load through 2023. Not including the leases would decrease the EBITDA multiple to 10.8x, but would be misleading IMO.

DLTH leases

Moving forward, what I can’t get quite comfortable with (and likely why the share price is at a 52 week low)  is whether the pursuit of top line growth is hurting the business, or if it makes strategic sense to continue down the path of growing the brick and mortar store base?

Over the past three years, while revenues and the store count have grown, the company’s balance sheet has deteriorated significantly, debt loads have increased, EBITDA margins have decreased by nearly 300 basis points, and free cash flow (EBITDA – capex in this case) has turned negative.

(Of note, this is not a great way to calculate free cash flow. Given large inventory/working capital needs as well as interest on an increasing debt balance, an owner earnings approach is probably more appropriate. I’m just being lazy). 

DLTH financials

So in an environment where most traditional retailers are aiming to curb growth spend and eliminate their brick and mortar footprints, why does Duluth appear to be doing the opposite, especially in the face of what most would view as declining margins and operating metrics?

In management’s eyes, its simple. The brick and mortar shopper is a better customer.

Not only do retail customer’s spend more, with sales per customer 25% higher than online shoppers, but Duluth has the in-person opportunity to market across channels and convince the consumer to explore different categories – i.e. ‘I came in for some cargo pants, but my wife likes this vest etc.’

retail customer stats

Browsing through customer reviews, its clear that people love the in-store experience, with many women’s reviews consisting of ‘my husband hates to shop, but even he likes to go here!’ Doing some DD at my local King of Prussia store, I can confirm, the stores are great.

In addition, DLTH has figured out that markets with brick and mortar stores experience total sales (online and retail) nearly 3x higher than markets without stores. I’d chalk this up to foot traffic driving in store visits, followed by customers going home and choosing what they like from the website. Duluth has found that 80% of their apparel purchase decisions are made inside the stores.

total sales stats

But the most interesting aspect behind the logic of building out retail stores is that direct sales growth (online) increases the most 18-24 months AFTER a new store is built. In fact, markets with stores open in 2015 and older have the highest sales growth rates.

direct sales growth

So the right way to run this business, it seems, would be to use cheap debt, and work as hard as possible to build out the store base, in order to capture the favorable economics of markets with retail stores. Even if it means depressing free cash flow in the near term.

This is exactly what management is doing.

From the Q4 2017 conference call:

Over the past several years a question that we’re frequently asked is, why open stores when so many retailers are actively reducing their footprint in brick and mortar. Our answer is that the omni-channel model one where all the channels are interacting effectively achieve three things.

First, we continue to increase brand awareness in established store markets to levels beyond those markets without stores. We break down barriers for trial to potential new customers and we continue to see that approximately half of the customers that shop in a store in its first year are new to the Duluth brand. We continue to acquire new customers via our retail stores long after the store’s first anniversary and we retain existing omni-channel customers at a higher level than in direct alone.

Second, having a retail presence in a market can more than double that market size beyond the direct channel alone. This has been proven in all of the markets where we have established stores and after a store is established in a market, the direct segment reignite and grows faster than in markets without stores.

In 2017 direct growth in these store markets was more than double that of the growth rate in non-store market. Third, the customers that we acquire through our retail stores are strong profitable customers. They mirror our customers in direct income, education level and types of products that they gravitate toward. That said retail customers differ in that they shop more often they are more likely to cross over channels to purchase, they spend more on an annualized basis and they buy more across genders and categories.

The business plan seems to be fully funded, with a $130mm credit facility available, bearing interest at 6.25%, with $80mm available, and an additional $50mm able to drawn, both maturing after 2023.

In addition, the management team views future borrowings at low cost to be strategic over the next three to five years, and not as a way to saddle the balance sheet with unnecessary debt or hamper flexibility:

More from the Q4 2017 call:

Jonathan Komp

Okay. And then, last one for me, I just wanted to follow up on the discussion about securing additional financing capacity and just wanted to understand the rationale. First, off I guess the comfort on securing that. And then, just the rationale of moving forward with given all the other investments versus temporarily pulling back on the pace of store expansion or something like that.

Dave Loretta

Yes. Certainly a high level of confidence that the banking markets are receptive to our story and our business and that’s pretty clear. Given our balance sheet composition today, we have more than ample capacity to absorb some leverage to help over the next couple of years with the capital investments. And at this stage even that 5 year capital plan that I articulated wouldn’t require longer range permanent debt to be on the balance sheet at the end of the five year period it’s really to kind of bridge over the next three to five years. So that’s the sort of facility that we’re looking at and we really have high level of confidence that we’ll have a facility in place.

Other notes throughout the calls include management talking about long-term thinking, a lack of emphasis placed on short term earnings, and a huge focus on improving the customer experience. Always nice to hear. Management also has a history of innovation, flexibility and constant improvement, so I’d trust them to pivot or change the strategy of the business if necessary after receiving feedback from the market.

Unit Economics for New Stores

Duluth doesn’t provide a ton of information on unit economics for new stores, and I haven’t taken the time to dig in. I could use the percentage of revenues attributed to the retail business and the number of stores to come up with some averages for sales per square foot, average sales per store and margins etc., but stores differ in sizes, and some markets perform better than others, so those numbers would be misleading.

In the company’s investor presentation, they outline the following:

  1. $450 net sales per selling square foot in year 1

  2. Average 4-wall margin in the mid-20% range

  3. Average payback is less than 2 years

Persisting favorable unit economics should keep the growth plan on track and provide solid feedback on the strategy over time.

Management Team

Without going too deep, I’m a big fan of President and CEO Stephanie Pugliese. She has a long history in the outdoor retail space, starting at Ann Taylor and Land’s End, and has now been with Duluth for over 10 years. She started in product development – Duluth’s bread and butter – so has a nice mix of MBA thinking, retail experience, and product design knowledge. She owns 2.6% of the business, and works alongside [founder] Chairman Stephen Schlecht, who owns another 28%. These two are incredibly passionate about the brand, and embody the slogan ‘sell what you love’. They both have small town, blue-collar backgrounds, can relate to their customer base, and will almost never be seen wearing suits and ties.

Future Valuation

As stated above, management’s long term goal is to reach $1B in revenues, with low-double digit EBITDA margins. Were they to reach this feat in 2024, at 10% EBITDA margins, DLTH would be generating $100mm in EBITDA. Not bad for a business with an EV of $568mm today. In addition, and this is the tough part, reaching a steady state capex number after the next 40-50 store build-out is key to measuring how much cash the business is going to be generating.

As a rough calculation, depreciation was around $13mm for a 46 store base in 2018. Assuming that number doubles with a doubling of the store count, and depreciation can be used as a proxy for  maintenance capex, we are looking at around $25-30mm in capex at 100 stores.

$100mm in EBITDA – $30mm in capex leaves us with $70mm in unlevered free cash flow. Against an enterprise value of $568, that’s a UFCF multiple of 8x.

Future valuation

*Assumes DLTH taps into $100mm of the credit facilities, and issues a 25% increase in the share count by 2023.

This is simple back of the napkin stuff, and I’m only taking into account small future changes in capital structure and share issuances. There still remains normal business struggles, recessions, competition and the like. But without giving too much credit to the uptick in the direct business as a result of new store openings, the future valuation seems at the very least, interesting. With debt paid down and somewhat of a steady state capex reached in a few years, there could be meaningful cash flow generation, some of which should be returned to shareholders.

I really like the brand, the management team, their approach to marketing and capital allocation, but I think a lot of things have to go right for this to work out well. It doesn’t hurt that the shares are at a 52-week low, and this seems to be a business that either excites the market or depresses it  (who doesn’t love a good growth story?), so there is probably an opportunity at these prices. The valuation is not great, but not demanding either. However, I don’t love the retail space, and I don’t think I’m interested in owning this business through the cycle.

No position.

Miscellaneous

  1. Confirmation of the company’s strong brand and appeal to their customer’s became more evident when reading the 2015 S-1. This may have changed through today, but back then, 87% of DLTH customer’s listed themselves as working in a trade outside the building, and their average customer is a long standing homeowner with a household income of over $75,000. Maybe this insulates them a bit from recessionary/economic risk, as the necessary pair of cargo pants or work boots isn’t likely to be cut out of the budget when times get tough? In addition, a 76% NPS and hundreds of thousands of online product reviews – 90% of which are 4 or 5 star ratings – indicate a love of the products

  2. Stated in the S-1:

  3. We have established a strong track record of growth and profitability as demonstrated by our net sales and operating income compound annual growth rates, or CAGRs, between calendar 2009 and fiscal 2014 of 28% and 51%, respectively. We believe that the foregoing attributes have enabled us to deliver strong financial results, as evidenced by:

  4. net sales have increased year-over-year for 22 consecutive quarters through August 2, 2015 (this takes us back to 2009)

  5. Some notes on competition:


For privately held REI, the move plays well with its co-op business model, which last year saw it return $204 million, more than four times its net income, to its members and give $77 million to employees through profit sharing and retirement. In total, the company said it gave back more than 70% of its profits to the outdoor community, including funding more than 430 nonprofits. As part of its annual report released to its members, the company said its 2018 sales rose 6% to a record $2.78 billion. Comparable sales rose 4.8%, and online sales climbed by a “high-teens” percentage to about 30% of total sales, Artz said. REI has 154 stores in 35 states, and also does equipment/gear sales and rentals

  1. Mature retailers including Nike, Under Armour, Lululemon, trade at 24-27x EBITDA with a much smaller growth profile

  2. Tough to find valuation and margin figures for private brands such as REI ($3B revenues), Patagonia ($750mm revenues), LL Bean ($2B revenues), Carhartt ($600mm revenues) etc.

Risk Factors

  1. Top of the cycle – not sure I want to own it through an economic downturn/recession

  2. Limited downside protection – balance sheet may worsen in the short term

  3. Retail space and competition – I’m not a big fan of the space in general

  4. Sales/discounts – driving new customers to the stores/brand requires discounting to get them in the door. The impact on gross margins may be significant

  5. Inventory risk – Duluth carries a lot of inventory, large working capital needs

  6. Dilution/cash burn – the share count will likely increase

  7. Additional debt loads – as mentioned above

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