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Acuity Brands Inc (NYSE:AYI)
Q4 2019 Earnings Call
Oct 2, 2019, 10:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good morning, and welcome to Acuity Brands Fiscal 2019 Fourth Quarter Financial Conference Call. After today's presentation, there will be a formal question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions] If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time.

Now, I would like to introduce Mr. Dan Smith, Senior Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary. Sir, you may begin.

Dan Smith -- Senior Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary

Thank you, and good morning. With me today to discuss our fiscal 2019 fourth quarter and full year results are Vern Nagel, our Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; and Karen Holcom, our Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. We are webcasting today's conference call at acuitybrands.com.

I would like to remind everyone that, during this call, we may make projections or forward-looking statements regarding future events or future financial performance of the company. Such statements involve risks and uncertainties such that actual results may differ materially. Please refer to our most recent 10-K and 10-Q SEC filings and today's press release, which identify important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those contained in our projections or forward-looking statements.

Now, let me turn this call over to Vern Nagel.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Dan. Good morning, everyone. We had a solid fourth quarter given market conditions and look forward to providing you with further analysis of our results in a moment. However, before I start, I would like to introduce to you Karen Holcom as our new Chief Financial Officer. Karen is a 21-year veteran at Acuity and knows our business and strategy exceedingly well. More importantly, she is focused on helping to execute our strategy to optimize value for our key stakeholders. Please join me in welcoming Karen to her new role.

Karen succeeds Ricky Reece as CFO who was recently promoted to President of Acuity. We will leverage Ricky's experience and knowledge of our business with his primary focus to drive our commercial growth plans. So, with those announcements complete, Karen and I would like to make a few comments, and then we'll be happy to answer your questions.

2019 was one of the most challenging years we've experienced at Acuity. The markets we serve were in a constant state of flux throughout much of the year. Inflationary pressures at the beginning of the year were exacerbated by a number of market shocks, including the addition of significant tariffs placed on Chinese made components and finished goods, uncertainty created by the threat of further trade actions and labor shortages in key markets. These issues and more created great economic uncertainty, tempering demand for lighting products in both the residential and non-residential construction markets.

Further, we and our many channel partners had to deal with multiple price increases due to rising costs and tariffs, which further whipsawed demand, creating great stress and uncertainty for our supply chain. Obviously, these issues pose many significant challenges for us to manage. Yet, we feel our performance was strong given this environment. We made the decision early on to focus on those opportunities that were within our control, optimizing where we could and reacting quickly with the best of our abilities to those market influences that were beyond our control, including tariffs and the continued threat of additional ones.

Our many actions to optimize our performance in this environment included multiple price increases, introduction of new products and solutions, and aggressive initiatives to drive companywide productivity. Part of this effort included eliminating or reducing our exposure to certain products whose profitability was most negatively impacted by the tariffs and sold primarily through the retail sales channel. While these actions resulted in lower net sales, they served to significantly enhance our adjusted profit margins and our free cash flow.

I know many of you have already seen our results, and Karen will provide more detail later in the call, but I would like to make a few comments on the key highlights. First, for the fourth quarter. Net sales for the quarter were $938 million, down almost 12% from the year ago period, certainly more than we originally anticipated. Reported operating profit was $103.3 million compared with $143.7 million in the year ago period. Reported diluted earnings per share was $2.42 compared with $2.70 in the year ago period.

There were adjustments in both quarters for certain special items as well as certain other add-backs necessary for our results to be comparable between periods, as Karen will explain later in the call.

In adding back these items, one can see adjusted operating profit for the fourth quarter of 2019 was $146.1 million, or 15.6% of net sales, compared with adjusted operating profit of $156 million in the year ago or 14.7% of net sales. Adjusted diluted earnings per share was $2.75, a quarterly record, up 3% from the year ago period.

Now, for the full year. Net sales in 2019 were $3.7 billion, essentially flat from 2018, despite the drop in net sales in the fourth quarter. Reported operating profit was $463 million compared to $461 million in the year ago period, while diluted earnings per share was $8.29 compared with $8.52 earned in the year ago period. Adjusted operating profit was $528 million compared with $534 million reported in the year ago period. Adjusted operating profit margin in 2019 was 14.4%, down 10 basis points from a year earlier. Adjusted diluted EPS was $9.57, a record, up 8% from 2018.

In addition, we generated a record $495 million in net cash provided by operating activities this year as we significantly reduced inventory levels primarily due to improved supply chain performance. Karen will provide more detail on this later in the call.

We closed the year with $461 million in cash on hand, even after repurchasing $82 million of the company's shares, spending $53 million for capital expenditures and funding $21 million in dividends this year, leaving us with plenty of capacity to execute our growth strategies.

Lastly, I'm pleased to report we estimate that our return on invested capital in 2019 was 800 basis points greater than our average weighted average cost of capital. We believe that our many return performance metrics are industry-leading. Your own calculations will highlight these positive returns.

Looking at some specific details for the quarter, net sales were down 11.6% when compared with the year ago period. Overall, net sales volume declined slightly more than 16%. Changes in price mix were favorable by approximately 5% compared with the prior year. This improvement was primarily due to implemented price increases and changes in channel mix, partially offset by changes in the mix of products sold. We estimate the realization from recent price increases contributed low single digits to our positive price mix performance this quarter. Other items influencing the change in net sales this quarter were not collectively or individually significant.

These next few points are very important in explaining the movement in our top-line. From a channel perspective, while we experienced declines in most channels, there were three key areas of significance. First, lower shipments to the retail channel accounted for more than half of the total decline in net sales this quarter compared with the year ago period. The largest portion of the decline in this channel was primarily due to the impact of load-ins in the year ago period for certain new customers, which did not repeat this year. The remaining portion of the decline in this channel was due in part to actions taken by the company to perform a comprehensive review of our product portfolio to eliminate or significantly reduce shipments of those products whose profitability was most negatively impacted by the additional tariffs. As we mentioned in previous earnings calls, we expected these efforts to result in lower net sales, primarily in the retail sales channel.

Second, net sales through our independent sales network and our direct sales network were off by approximately 4% this quarter. Our performance in these two channels was impacted by some pull forward of orders into the third quarter to avoid an increase in product prices due to additional tariffs, continued weak demand primarily for larger commercial projects and the completion of certain larger infrastructure projects in the year ago period, partially offset by implemented price increases, market share gains in certain lighting categories, including lighting controls and our contractor select portfolio, as well as growth of our building management solutions platform at Distech, which again performed exceptionally well this quarter. While shipments in the C&I market included within our independent sales network channel, we're down slightly. We believe that our performance was reflective of overall market conditions and not specific to Acuity.

Lastly, net sales in our corporate accounts channel were down 20% this quarter compared with the year ago period, primarily due to the completion of certain projects in the year ago period that did not repeat this quarter and, to a lesser degree, slower release for certain renovation projects.

As we have noted in previous earnings calls, while we expect net sales through this channel to be very lumpy based on the nature of the construction cycle that customers serve, primarily big box retailers, we continued to add to the total square footage covered by our connected lighting Atrius-based IoT solutions. I will speak more about the advancements in this channel later in the call.

With regard to the impact on net sales for changes in price mix, the overall net impact was significantly positive this quarter. While it is not possible to precisely determine the separate impact of changes in price and mix, we estimate the impact of price increases contributed low single digits to our positive price mix performance this quarter. This positive price capture was further enhanced by changes in channel mix, partially offset by the mix of products sold. The positive change in channel mix this quarter was mostly influenced by the decline in net sales of lower margin products sold through the retail channel, partially offset by product substitutions to lower priced alternatives, primarily for more basic lesser featured LED luminaries sold in certain channels, as well as a modest decline in shipments for larger commercial projects.

Our adjusted operating profit for the quarter was $146 million, down approximately $10 million compared with the year ago period, while adjusted operating profit margin for the quarter was 15.6%, up 90 basis points from the year ago period. This was the highest adjusted operating profit margin posted by the company in the last seven quarters and meaningful improvements on both a sequential and year-over-year basis.

Furthermore, there are some additional points for you to consider as you evaluate our financial performance in the quarter. First, our adjusted gross profit margin for the fourth quarter was 42.1%, an increase of 320 basis points compared with the year ago period, a huge improvement. Adjusted gross profit was $395 million, down approximately $18 million from the year ago period. The decline in adjusted gross profit was primarily due to lower net sales within the independent sales network and corporate accounts. The impact from the under-absorption of manufacturing operating costs as a consequence of our inventory reduction efforts this year compared with the year ago period and, to a much lesser degree, the drop in net sales through the retail sales channel. We estimate the negative impact on gross profit due to the under-absorption of manufacturing operating costs was approximately $10 million this quarter.

Further, if one were to compare the change in adjusted operating profit this quarter compared to the year ago period, excluding the impact of under-absorption of manufacturing operating costs in both periods, the decline in adjusted operating profit this year would have been only approximately $5 million and a decline in net sales of $123 million. The really important point here is that our efforts to prune our product portfolio and reduce our channel exposure to those products that do not meet our profit profile and to capture price as well as improve our supply chain performance, all had a positive impact on our adjusted profit margins this quarter while not unduly impacting our profitability.

Also, our adjusted SDA expenses were down approximately $9 million compared with the year ago period. Adjusted SDA expense as a percentage of net sales was 26.5% in the fourth quarter, an increase of 230 basis points from the year ago period, primarily due to the decline in net sales. The decline in SDA expense was primarily due to lower freight expense as a result of the drop in net sales and productivity improvements.

Our adjusted diluted EPS was a quarterly record of $2.75 compared with $2.68 reported in the year ago period, an increase of 3%. The increase was primarily due to the higher adjusted net income, which was benefited primarily by a lower effective tax rate this quarter as well as lower average shares outstanding.

Before I turn the call over to Karen, I would like to comment on a few important accomplishments this year. On the strategic and technology front, we continued to make significant strides setting the stage for what we believe will be solid growth in revenue and profitability over the long-term. In 2019, we introduced almost 100 new product families, expanding our industry-leading portfolio, partially offsetting the impact of our pruning efforts to reduce the sale of lower margin products sold primarily in the retail channel where price capture was a challenge.

Our new product introductions continue to be well received by the market, some winning various awards for innovation. We gained or maintained market share in many important product categories and sales channels. Tier 3 and 4 solutions grew approximately 15% this year and now make up approximately 20% of our total revenues. From a commercial perspective, 2019 brought continued success of our connected lighting Atrius-enabled solutions. Our products and services enjoy strong market acceptance in retail applications, now deployed in over 5,000 retail stores in North America, netting over 500 million square feet of sales floor space under our connected lighting sensory network.

We have several large retailers with our Atrius SaaS applications now deployed are in detailed evaluation. Initially we received feedback that our retail clients found that the energy and maintenance benefits of our Intelligent Luminaries to be a strong economic value proposition, while also seeing embedded future-proofed sensors as a nice to have. Currently, those early technology adaptors are now activating Atrius Services as part of their customer engagement, customer insight and associate productivity enhancement programs. Increasingly, we see data analytics and data science opportunities generated by our connected lighting Atrius platforms as critical areas of investment, allowing retailers and now others to garner valuable insights about their businesses from our services.

Additionally, we expanded our connected lighting Atrius-based solutions into other verticals as awareness by these customers of our meaningful points of differentiation and the broad capabilities of our IoT solutions increased significantly, particularly as they realize the opportunity to transform their spaces from expense items to strategic assets. Today we have nearly 10 million square feet of connected lighting Atrius-enabled space in passenger terminals at four of the top 10 airports in the United States, including Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas and Seattle, which handle approximately 125 million passengers per year with more projects on the way.

Net sales of our Contractor Select portfolio grew nicely in 2019, particularly in the C&I market, and now makes up approximately 10% of our net sales. Contractor Select is our fighter brand in response to those Chinese-based lighting companies, many of which we believe are clearly being subsidized in some form, that are influencing pricing for certain basic lesser featured fixtures sold in certain channels. Again, we are very pleased with the growth and profitability of this product portfolio and we will not yield this portion [Phonetic] of the market for many strategic reasons.

We made significant strides in expanding our industry-leading lighting control platform, nLight, as well as our building management system business, Distech, where both units grew double digits in 2019. We believe Acuity has the most comprehensive and feature-rich wired and wireless lighting control systems available and importantly are connected to our growing BMS solutions, providing customers with even greater functionality. Further, we initiated many actions this year to further streamline our operations to reduce costs and improve our productivity. We believe these initiatives will enhance our future operating and financial performance, as well as allow us to accelerate investments in areas with higher growth opportunities.

Also, as I noted in our previous earnings call, we initiated comprehensive reviews this year in two key areas of our company, compensation and environmental, social and governance or ESG. These reviews, which included feedback and insights from our shareholder base, resulted in important modifications and enhancements to both programs. Our ESG program is helping us to identify further opportunities to drive efficiencies, reduce costs, increase our positive impact on the environment and increase associate engagement and satisfaction.

And lastly, we continue our efforts to complement our solutions portfolio with strategic acquisitions and investments, including the acquisition of The Luminaires Group in mid-September. The Luminaires Group is a leading provider of specification grade luminaires for commercial, institutional, hospitality and municipal markets, all of which complements our architectural platform. We are pleased to welcome the 350 associates of The Luminaires Group to the Acuity family.

Our solid performance this year is a result of the dedication and resolve of our 12,000 associates, who are maniacally focused on serving, solving and supporting the needs of our key stakeholders.

I will talk more about our expectations for fiscal year 2020 later in the call. I would like to now turn the call over to Karen. Karen?

Karen J. Holcom -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Vern, and good morning, everyone. I'm happy to be on the call with you today. As Vern mentioned earlier, we had a few adjustments to the GAAP results in the fourth quarter and for the full year of fiscal 2019 and 2018, which we find useful to add back in order for the results to be comparable.

In our earnings release, we provided detailed reconciliation of non-GAAP measures for the fourth quarter and full year of fiscal 2019 and 2018. Adjusted results exclude the impact of amortization expense for acquired intangible assets, share-based payment expense, manufacturing inefficiencies and excess inventory adjustments directly related to the closure of the facility, acquisition-related items, special charges for streamlining activities, a gain on the sale of our former Spanish lighting business and an income tax benefit for discrete items associated with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. We believe adjusting for these items and providing these non-GAAP measures provide greater comparability and enhanced visibility into our results of operations. We think you will find this transparency very helpful in your analysis of our performance.

Recall that during the fourth quarter of fiscal 2018, we've reversed pre-tax special charges of $5 million at certain previously planned streamlining activities were no longer expected to occur, primarily because we were successful in selling our former Spanish lighting business for a gain during the quarter. During the fourth quarter of this fiscal year, we recorded net pre-tax special charges of $0.5 million related primarily to certain streamlining activities. Additionally, in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019, we incurred $1.3 million of expenses related to acquisition and investment activities.

The effective tax rate for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 was 20.2% compared with 21.1% in the year ago period. The decline in the current fiscal tax rate reflects a lower blended federal statutory tax rate and certain research and development cost tax credits, including claims for prior periods recognized during the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019.

Prior year's fourth quarter tax rate benefited from $3.4 million of discrete income tax benefits resulting from the TCJA. We currently estimate that our blended effective income tax rate before discrete items will approximate 23% for fiscal 2020. Shortly after the end of our fourth quarter on September 17th, 2019, we completed the acquisition of The Luminaires Group, headquartered in Montreal, Canada. The Luminaires Group, which is comprised of five distinct brands, is a leading provider of specification grade luminaires for commercial, institutional, hospitality and municipal markets.

TLG generates annual sales of approximately $100 million and employs over 350 associates located across five locations in the US and Canada. Management expects that the acquisition will be immediately accretive to fiscal 2020 adjusted earnings. We did not disclose the terms of the acquisition.

We generated a record $495 million of net cash flow provided by operating activities during fiscal 2019 compared with $352 million for the year ago period, an increase of $143 million. We reduced our inventory by $71 million during fiscal 2019 as a result of our efforts to improve inventory turns, which we have accomplished while also improving customer service.

At August 31st, 2019, we had a cash position of $461 million, an increase of $332 million since August 31st, 2018. The increase was due primarily to record net cash flow from operations, partially offset by cash used to repurchase common stock, invest in plant and equipment and pay dividends.

We repurchased 650,000 shares of the company's common stock for $82 million during fiscal 2019. We have approximately 4.6 million shares remaining under our current authorization. Our investment and capital expenditures was $53 million for fiscal 2019 or approximately 1.4% of net sales. We currently expect to invest approximately 1.7% of net sales in capital expenditures in fiscal year 2020.

Last year, we executed a new five-year unsecured revolving credit facility and term loan with a syndicate of banks that provides us with a total of $800 million of borrowing capacity, of which $796 million was available at August 31st, 2019. Our total debt outstanding was $357 million at August 31st, 2019, and our debt to capitalization at August 31st, 2019 was 16%.

Our $350 million senior unsecured notes mature in December 2019. We intend to refinance these borrowings using availability under our $400 million unsecured delayed draw five-year term loan facility.

Our record cash flow performance in fiscal 2019 has afforded us with significant financial strength and flexibility to support our growth opportunity, which may include additional acquisitions. We will continue to seek the best use of our strong cash generation to enhance shareholder value. Thank you.

And I will turn it back to Vernon.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Karen. It's probably the most important portion of this call, our outlook and our focus for 2020. While current market conditions in the overall lighting industry continue to be challenging, we are optimistic regarding our long-term future and that of our key markets. We believe our many actions to improve our market reach, enhance our customer solutions and capabilities and drive companywide productivity will help optimize our financial performance in the future, while affording us the opportunity to continue to invest in areas we believe have high profitable growth potential over the long-term.

That notwithstanding, we believe current market demand for lighting is sluggish. We believe the catalysts for these tepid conditions is primarily due to continued concerns over key economic issues, including global trade policies and the potential for future tariffs. We expect these market conditions to continue for the foreseeable future and until such time as there is more clarity and certainty regarding these key economic issues.

In addition, we believe there are a few other factors that will continue to influence the lighting market, including continued product substitution to lower priced alternatives for certain products sold through certain channels, labor shortages in certain markets, and continued cost increases, particularly for imported electrical components and finished goods, freight and wages. The recent pricing action should help to mitigate some of these factors.

Given this market environment, we can only focus on those areas within our control and react to the best of our abilities to those influences beyond our control. We believe the maniacal focus on a few key areas coupled with precise execution of our plans will afford us the best opportunity to produce favorable results for our key stakeholders. So, in 2020, our primary focus will be on two key areas, growth through market share gains and margin improvement.

Let's start with our growth initiatives. Our focus will be on the following: Number one, leverage our leading access to market with continued new products and solutions based on our tiered solution or tiered strategy approach. Similar to the last few years, we are again planning to introduce over 100 new product families in 2020, many with embedded controls technology as well as further leveraging our architectural brands with the acquisition of The Luminaires Group.

Number two, accelerate the expansion of our connected lighting Atrius IoT solutions platform both in retail, where we continue to have great success, and into new verticals including transportation, healthcare, warehousing and distribution and commercial office. To do so, we are adding additional resources and capabilities with the creation of our applied technology team to focus on these additional verticals and to build on the success we are having in the retail vertical. As I noted earlier, our initial efforts into these new verticals is encouraging.

Number three, accelerate our efforts to capture additional market share for discretionary renovation projects in multiple channels. The installed base continues to represent a huge opportunity for profitable growth. And number four, build on the success of our Contractor Select portfolio to drive further growth for certain basic lesser featured fixtures.

With regard to margin improvement initiatives, our focus in 2020 will be in the following key areas: Number one, capture profit and margin growth through the introduction of new products and solutions; Number two, continue to reduce our product costs through redesign efforts; Number three, finalize the consolidation and closure of two distribution locations by the end of the first quarter to reduce our cost base; Number four, drive further companywide productivity gains through our lean deployment processes; And lastly, manage our fixed operating costs by exploring opportunities to further leverage our supply chain footprint and our SDA investment.

These growth and margin improvement initiatives in 2020 are part of our long-term growth strategy to fulsomely leverage our market leadership position with technology-enabled solutions that are differentiated and valued by customers so we can gain further market share and to appropriately structure our business to the current opportunities to enhance our profitability and cash flow.

Further, we believe the sales of our lighting and BMS control solutions as well as our Atrius-based luminaires, all within our Tier 3 and 4 categories, will continue to expand. Though, and I would like to again emphasize, it will be lumpy at times because of the unpredictability and timing of customers' renovation and new construction schedules, as well as the volatility in demand caused by global trade and political issues.

The next point is very important. Well, as a matter of policy, we don't give earnings guidance. We feel it is important for all investors and analysts to understand that we believe our net sales could be down again this coming first quarter compared with the year ago period. The primary reason for this is that net sales last year were significantly benefited by the pull forward of orders from customers attempting to avoid implemented price increases due to inflationary pressures and the impact of tariffs enacted on certain components and finished goods manufactured in China and, to a lesser degree, the continued load in to a new customer in the retail sales channel, which resulted in a combined 11% growth in net sales in the year ago period.

At that time, we acknowledged it was impossible for us to quantify the precise impact of the pull forward of orders due to the then implemented price increases, because we do not expect either of these situations to repeat this quarter. It makes our ability to quantify the changes between the first quarter of 2020 to the year ago period a significant challenge. The situation is further exacerbated by continued pruning of our product portfolio, as noted earlier. Nonetheless, our best guess is that net sales could be down in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019 in the mid to high-single digit percent, partially offset by the addition of The Luminaires Group.

Additionally, as we noted earlier, we initiated a review in late 2019 of our product portfolio and services offered primarily through the retail channel with the objective of eliminating those items and activities that do not meet our financial objectives. These efforts have and should continue to impact our top-line growth rate and could be further exacerbated by future trade policy changes and potential additional tariffs.

Further, the execution of our integrated tiered solution strategy, including the expansion of our Tier 3 and Tier 4 holistic lighting, building management in our Atrius IoT platform and software solutions and our opportunities to participate in the interconnected world is an integral part of our overall growth -- long-term profitable growth strategy to meaningfully expand our addressable market by adding broad-based holistic solutions that will allow our customers to transform their connected intelligent buildings and campuses from cost centers to strategic assets.

As I noted earlier, we intend to make additional investments in this area in 2020, including potential acquisitions and minority investments to drive our market-leading advantage in these emerging growth markets.

Lastly, our goal is to outperform the growth rates of our key markets and channels. Within the retail sales channel, we expect to participate by servicing the needs of our customers in a mutually beneficial manner. In total, we expect to show positive growth in 2020.

While the turmoil in the current environment is not settling and impossible to predict when uncertainty gives way to clarity, we believe the lighting and lighting-related industry as well as the building management systems market have the potential to experience solid growth over the next decade because of continued opportunities for new construction and, more importantly, the conversion of the installed base, which is enormous in size to more efficient and effective solutions.

As the market leader in lighting solutions and a technology leader in building automation, along with our Atrius platform, we believe we are positioned well to fully participate and lead these exciting and growing industries. Thank you.

And with that, we will entertain any questions that you have.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Christopher Glynn with Oppenheimer. Your line is now open.

Christopher Glynn -- Oppenheimer -- Analyst

Thank you. Good morning. And Karen, welcome to the call. So, just curious about maybe a big picture on some of the structural channel shifts, Vern, in the context of the top-line pressure reported. Just curious from a couple perspectives about your base run rates in the channel mix evident in the fourth quarter versus go forward. Is there any way to kind of define what you in the Board are talking about the right-size of your run rates relative to the volumes, because clearly you're trimming some areas of portfolio. And in particular, is pruning still the right word or you're doing something a little beyond what that word suggests?

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

So, Chris, I think pruning is the right word. When these tariffs came through, they really created a great deal of turmoil within global supply chains. And so, many of us in the industry had to evaluate where we played and why we put forth price increases. To help offset that, we took other actions to mitigate component cost increases, to mitigate finished good price increases. But to the extent that we were able or unable to get full capture on pricing in some channels, we made the decision to review that portfolio and understand where we needed to play and why.

As I pointed out, our Contractor Select portfolio grew very, very nicely in Q4, and it's targeted directly at what we'll call a competition for that basic lesser featured end of the market, which is important market to us. But there are certain channels where we feel we did not realize the type of financial profile that we're after. So we began to, if you will, prune those products and assess which products we could mutually benefit both our customers as well as our shareholders in terms of profit margin.

So, when we think about our business going forward, the turmoil that has been created in two ways, the price increases have created pull forwards, almost still logical distortions of the market of people trying to avoid those price increases. So it's going to make it very difficult. It made it very difficult in 2019 to really understand period-over-period growth what was truly happening in the markets. And we think that 2020, at least for the first half, will be exacerbated by the same types of things. We also have a little bit of noise around the fact that we have a load-in of certain customers within the retail channel, so that there's just a lot of noise around this. This is why, again, we don't normally give guidance. We attempted to provide some guidance to the best of our ability by saying that we think that our top-line will be impacted by mid to upper single digit decline in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 2019.

I also said that we expect for the full year to show positive growth. So, we're trying to balance off market dynamics with our own ability to drive opportunistic share gain in the marketplace. I think that the profitability improvement that you saw in the fourth quarter is reflective of the actions that we have taken to both protect our business and to grow our business. So, you saw the margin improvement at the adjusted gross profit level of about 320 basis points. We were able to leverage that to about 90 basis points at the adjusted operating profit level.

So, I think you have some reasonable information and insights around margin profile, and I think there's some of the commentary that we made around first quarter as well as what we expect for the first year growth to also be helpful to you in modelling.

Christopher Glynn -- Oppenheimer -- Analyst

Yeah. Congrats on the gross margin and the free cash flow improvement noted as well. Just building up the last comments of the margin, you did build some momentum through the year on margins, but clearly most pronounced in the fourth quarter here. Seemingly a springboard as the components of it seemed to be from structural shift says you've evolved a few things during the year. So, is that a pretty clear setup for favorable tailwinds, full year margins, fiscal '20 comparing to the year just ended?

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

I think we expect that we will see favorable margin comparisons in 2020 to 2019, but we expect that to be for the full year. So, if I can encourage everyone to not obsess over each quarter, we expect that the full year will be favorable.

It's also very interesting to note, and I just wanted to point out again, that the unabsorption or the under-absorption of fixed manufacturing this quarter was almost $10 million. In the year ago period, the under-absorption was almost $5 million. So when we think about how we're structuring our business and how we're managing that, we did a great job this year in managing our inventory levels down, improving our service, and you saw that in our tremendous cash flow. Part of that tremendous cash flow was the collection of receivables for the low end of the year ago period. But we've done a great job managing our balance sheet, and I expect that we'll continue to see positive margin improvement in 2020 over 2019.

Christopher Glynn -- Oppenheimer -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Deepa Raghavan with Wells Fargo Securities. Your line is now open.

Deepa Raghavan -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Analyst

Hey. Good morning, Vernon. Karen, welcome. Just dovetailing on that margin improvement question, Vernon, can you talk about the drivers to the margin improvement in fiscal '20? I mean, you mentioned all these actions, which I guess it's pretty comprehensive, but can these actions lead you to say, I'm just throwing a number out there, 41% gross margin improvement for the full year irrespective of volume performance? I guess that's the big question for me. How do we think about your resiliency in a weak volume environment?

And on the flip side, how do I think about pricing? Because that was a big help to margins this time. If tariffs were to ease, I mean, will import competition pick back up and start to pressure margins again? So, yeah, two sides of the coin, sorry, if you will depreciate.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Channel mix was a significant driver to our improvement in margin. So, as we ramped up or as our sales through our independent sales network, primarily the C&I market, that became a larger percentage of the total sales in Q4 relative to the total percentage that retail or sales through the retail sales channel were. So that shift in channel mix had a meaningful improvement on the gross profit margin. I would like to point out, and I think it's really important if you were to look at again the change in our operating profit between periods, excluding the unabsorbed overhead, was a decline of $5 million on a drop of almost $123 million of sales. So, I think what the shareholders should take from Acuity is that we are managing our business and our portfolio well to both optimize our profit, but also to optimize our profitability and to return back that cash, if you will, in the form of great cash flow, because we have deleveraged some of our exposure into some of those markets.

From a growth perspective going forward, from a margin perspective, I'm not going to prognosticate or give guidance around that. What I will say is that we expect the mix of our business to continue to a degree as it is or as we reported in Q4, and that should have a favorable impact on gross profit margins. The notion of the volume and demand in the marketplace to your question is really important. We still expect that the first quarter or market conditions, which will impact our first quarter, to still be sluggish. Order rates, I think, in the near-term continue to be a challenge. I think there is a lot of economic uncertainty out there.

So we're looking to not only have issues that are not issues, but to have items that will impact our first quarter compared to the year ago period. Attempting to quantify that, we gave you some insights as to what we think the top-line is going to be, and we'll have to manage our SDA accordingly. But for the full year, we would expect there to see a positive improvement. I think a number of the forecasts that I see out there are calling for growth in 2020, but those same forecasters are saying that they expect the back half of calendar year 2019 to continue to be flat to maybe even slightly down.

I find it to be very interesting when I look at a number of indicators. As you might imagine, we collect all sorts of data, and that data has historically been -- has given us insight into the future. And just a couple that I would point out to everyone. When we look at, for example, the industrial market or the commercial office market, vacancy rates are at a significant low, and you see rising rents in both of these areas. Typically that would instigate investment in the area. I personally believe that there is a lot of money sitting on the sidelines waiting to get clarity around some of these economic issues that will begin to attack this. I mean, these rising rents when people look at that, given the interest rate environment, I think it's a very positive opportunity. So, I have a cautiously optimistic view of what the future holds, I just think that the shorter term is going to continue to have turmoil because of some of these economic uncertainties.

Deepa Raghavan -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Analyst

Got it. Thanks for the color. I think, a follow-up to the same question that we're talking about is, let's just say the tariff rate to ease a little bit here. When do you expect -- kind of both of these projects that we're talking about that are on the sidelines come back online pretty quickly? And I mean, generally, how do we think about -- election year are actually throwing in some uncertainty on top of it? I appreciate that. And that will be my last question for the call. Thank you.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. So thank you. So, our -- many sales forces continue to see an experience, if you will, record backlogs, which is that projects aren't releasing. And I think it is because of uncertainty around cost. Many of these projects are, they're years in the making, they're not one month. And so, therefore, when they decide that they're going to build a commercial office building, that's going to take two years from start to finish to come into place. They're trying to project their cost. So, the uncertainty of tariffs has a meaningful impact when they say go. I think as we get clarity around those things, you're going to see more of those projects come to fruition.

Architects and engineers, even though the Architectural Billing Index has softened up a little bit here, continue to be very busy. We don't hear of anyone laying people off. So, we still think that there's good activity out there.

To the extent that our price capture has really gone mostly to offset the tariff increase, so to the extent that tariffs start to abate for whatever reason, I think that you might see some of the pricing readjust. But in our perspective, it's been a -- it's been kind of a cost neutral. So, I wouldn't expect us to see any significant profit profile change because of that, other than we would expect to see volume growth, which is hugely beneficial for Acuity because we have very solid variable contribution margins on an incremental sales dollar of growth.

Operator

Our next question comes from Brian Lee with Goldman Sachs. Your line is now open.

Brian Lee -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Hey, guys. Good morning. Welcome, Karen. Thanks for taking the questions. First one, maybe just on -- on the volume growth, maybe drilling down a little bit, I know there's a lot of moving parts here heading into 2020, Vernon, but on new construction volumes, can you kind of give us a sense of where you think those are tracking at? I know in past quarters seem like you guys have been mentioning sort of down low single digits. So, if you could maybe update us as to how the trend in that particular vertical is looking right now?

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. So, again, we're not economists, but when we look at information, I think the US Census Bureau does it well. On an inflation adjusted basis, seasonally adjusted, the overall market for electrical lighting equipment, it's been down like eight of the last nine quarters. On an inflation adjusted basis, when we look at some of the other items, non-resi has kind of been on the decline here, whereas non-residential -- I'm sorry, I meant to say resi, has been down, non-residential has been flattish to slightly down. I think what's been propping up a lot of stuff has been public non-residential.

So, we continue to see an environment that is, again, I'll call it sluggish, with a lot of larger projects remaining on the sidelines in people's backlogs not being released. One positive thing that I think is important is the fact that when we look at the Dodge Momentum Index, while it was declining, starting in kind of middle 2018, it seems to have flattened out. So, I think that when we look at the overall market, we continue to see new construction on an inflation adjusted basis to be flat to slightly down for those folks in that portion of the industry that have non -- say, deflationary items, unlike the lighting industry, they're probably actually showing some growth.

Brian Lee -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Okay. Now that's fair enough. Helpful. And then, just second question here, and I'll pass it on. I know you've done this in past quarters as well, but clearly [Phonetic] some company specific issues for you guys are doing the compare here. But how would you say you compare to the industry growth rate during the quarter? And then, I know you traditionally don't give the guidance but you're giving guidance if you want, what are you expecting kind of the baseline to be for that quarter? And really the reason I ask is, there has been a few quarters here now where you've under-performed the market it would seem, so trying to gauge when you think in fiscal 2020, you sort of get back to the historical trend of being able to outgrow the market.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

So, if I look at the overall growth rate of the market, as I just commented, the market for the last, again, seven, eight quarters has been down anywhere from 1.5 to almost 4 points on an inflation adjusted basis. So Acuity's growth during each of those quarters or performance against that still has outperformed the overall growth rate of the market. I think we've had a couple of things here that are specific to Acuity. When we decided to again look at our portfolio and determine the profitability of those items relative to what our expectations are, yes, we did take some actions that were specific to Acuity around those products in certain channels.

But when I look at overall C&I, which is the non-residential portion of our world, sold through agents commercial and industrial, I would say that our performance there is still positive relative to the market. Some of the lumpiness that we've seen in our corporate accounts world has been more due to the timing of releases. As you know, Acuity was the vendor of choice to relight all of the target locations, and we've completed that. And we have expanded our customer base to now add many, many additional customers, not all of whom have moved as quickly or as large as Target. So we're having, if you will, some lumpiness, it's what I call it. But yet our expansion and the amount of footprint that we cover with our connected lighting Atrius-enabled solutions continues to grow at a formidable rate.

And now, we're expanding that capability into other verticals. So, when I look at Acuity's growth and I compare it to the market, I'm looking at various channels and I'm looking at various segments of the market. And where we have participated in the same way, we continue to believe that we are either maintaining or growing market share. When we look individually, for example, at our lighting controls solutions, we believe we are gaining significant market share. When we look at Contractor Select, it went from being really a very small portfolio less than 18 months ago to now almost 10% of our total revenues. And we like the profit margin capabilities off of that. That growth has come in the C&I channel primarily. So, I think we are well balanced, positioned well to continue to outperform the growth rates of the markets we serve, and to the extent that there is business out there that we feel is not mutually beneficial. We're not afraid to look for other channels to serve.

Brian Lee -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

All right. Thank you. Appreciate the color.

Operator

Our next question comes from Joseph Osha with JMP Securities. Your line is now open.

Joseph Osha -- JMP Securities. -- Analyst

Hello. Thanks and welcome, Karen. I have two questions. First, when we think about this free cash flow, which is formidable, and if we were to look forward 12 months and maybe sort of think about how that pie is segmented between additional acquisitions and buybacks, I'm wondering how you're thinking about that free cash flow deployment.

And secondly, not to harp on, I think the point everyone has been harping on, but it seems to me that you could have grown this business more and taken, call it, a 40% gross margin in the fall through to the operating line probably would have been better. At what point do those top-line growth begin to become more important than moving this gross margin higher than where it is now?

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. So, Karen, maybe you take the first question on cash flow, and then I'll answer the second.

Karen J. Holcom -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Sure. Historically we have spent about a third on acquisitions, a third on share purchases and a third on capex and dividends. So I think we're always looking for ways to optimize shareholder value, and certainly share repurchases and acquisitions and dividends and capex are part of that. So I think that's where you'll see the use of our cash flow over the next year.

Joseph Osha -- JMP Securities. -- Analyst

So no change really in terms of that?

Karen J. Holcom -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Correct, no change. Yep.

Joseph Osha -- JMP Securities. -- Analyst

Okay. Thank you.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

And I would say that we continue to be opportunistic. We have a very robust pipeline of acquisitions. We just completed the acquisition of The Luminaires Group. We continue to look at not only traditional lighting businesses to complement our portfolio, but also really interesting technologies to complement our connected lighting Atrius-enabled solutions. So I want to tell everyone, we are making really solid progress in implementing our strategy around Atrius in the connected lighting space. I wish that the SaaS revenues could start to meaningfully move the top-line that has a $3.7 billion business. It's still in its early stages, but it's really encouraging.

To your second question on top-line growth and letting the margins flow through, I really think it's important that when you do your analysis of Acuity's results that you consider again the $123 million change in year-over-year growth or decline in top-line and yet on an adjusted basis, excluding the unabsorbed overhead in both periods, it impacted our profitability by a drop of only $5 million. So, I think Acuity is really focused on growing its top-line to in fact grow its bottom line and improve our profitability.

But the news and the actions that we've taken to adjust our portfolio, I think, are really in the best interest of our shareholders in that free cash flow was really powerful, and it shows you the power of Acuity. So, we balance off how do we have profitable growth in the definition around that. And we define profitable growth at Acuity based on the returns. Our return on invested capital this year was 18%, 800 bps greater than our weighted average cost of capital.

We look at other things like cash flow return on investment. It was almost 35% this year. Our returns are robustly huge. Having said that, we are about [Phonetic] growth, and I think 2020 to get growth, it's going to be about market share gains in every channel that we focus on.

Joseph Osha -- JMP Securities. -- Analyst

Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from John Walsh with Credit Suisse. Your line is now open.

John Walsh -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Hi. Good morning.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

John Walsh -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Maybe following on that market share gains question, some of the levers there that are going to allow you to do that, obviously the DLC, very important for kind of incentive programs at utilities, I think they're coming out now or just talked about higher, more stringent qualifications to get those. And the terms they're using are controllability and quality of light, which should fit very well with your product portfolio. Is that something that can actually be meaningful? Is that a help to kind of the Tier 1 domestic OEMs versus the imports coming from overseas?

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

I think it's a huge impact or can have a huge impact. DLC is very important in terms of what they require. And so companies that are really focused on quality of light, who have invested significantly in understanding what controls me, it's not just saying, I can dim a light or turn a light on or off, it's really how does it work in space? And too often these lesser quality suppliers, people experience tremendous flicker. And so, the experience that one has in that space is not good. As DLC points, there are significant influence toward quality of light as well as competitive cost. I think it's going to benefit those manufacturers that have really invested in quality of life. So, yes, I do -- I think it will have an impact.

John Walsh -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

And then, maybe just another question around the free cash flow, and just thinking about the inventory dynamics. I mean, last year you missed kind of that 100% conversion that we typically use as a benchmark. This year, you kind of over-drove that. I mean, how should we think about the free cash flow conversion rate going forward? Is there still any kind of working capital goodness as we think about our next year free cash flow number?

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, it's a great question. So, our objective is to, as you point out, have free cash flow in excess of net income. This year, coming up may be a slight challenge, I think as Karen pointed out, we're expecting to spend between 1.7% and 1.8% on capex. That's slightly higher than our depreciation. So -- but just note that as a fact, I think from an operating working capital perspective, we're probably right now doing this from memory about 13% of sales, maybe even slightly higher than that. I think our total days -- our net days are about 56 or 57 days. We brought our payables down probably a little bit further than what we normally would expect. So, I would think that our total days will come down from an operating, working capital perspective. We're at about 56 or 57 days for inventory. We have areas to improve there. Our teams are doing a great job.

It really depends on what percentage of our business is coming from offshore into North America as we look to really drive the performance of our supply chain here in the North American market. We see opportunities to improve our inventory days. So, I think you should expect from Acuity a continuation of attempting to meet that goal of 100% conversion of net income to cash flow.

John Walsh -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Thank you.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from line of Tim Wojs with Baird. Your line is open.

Tim Wojs -- Baird -- Analyst

Hey, guys. Good morning.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Tim Wojs -- Baird -- Analyst

Two quick ones for me. I guess, first, on the under-absorption, Vern, would you expect that to continue into the first quarter, just given the revenue guidance? That's one. And then second, how should we think of just leverage of SD&A in fiscal '20? I think you did leverage SD&A a little bit in fiscal '19, if you expect modest growth in the top-line in 2020, should we expect SD&A to grow similarly or can it actually maybe be flat to down?

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

So, on the absorption issue, we would expect there to be probably some negative or under-absorption in Q1 versus the year ago period. I haven't done any analysis to know how much that will be. It really depends on the order rate and our ability. We know we can service your order, right. But how is that order rate going to manifest itself. Orders continue to be somewhat sluggish, so we do see some bright spots. And we hear encouraging words. Words don't mean much, orders mean everything. So, we'll focus on that. But yeah, I think you will see a bit of unobserved overhead, not to the significance of what was in Q4, where that number was $10 million in the year ago period of Q4, it was $5 million. I think you'll see a smaller number less than both of those, but I don't know that factually.

On your SDA question, so here's the challenge, as you might imagine. We're trying to manage SDA and all costs, not just SDA, but all costs, all of our spend in a way that allows us to be consistent with what the demand is in the current period, but also holding out knowing that we have an expectation that there'll be future improvements in demand. So, we're trying to balance off all of those things. As I mentioned, we have a couple of warehouses that we were able to shut down and consolidate, so we could reduce our cost. But we continue to look at all aspects of our business to drive further leverage. We prefer to get the leverage because we have top-line growth, but we will manage our fixed cost structure and our variable cost structure based on the environment that we find ourselves in.

Our headcount is down approximately 9% on a year-over-year basis. So, we've had to manage our business while experiencing these huge spikes, and then -- in orders because of people trying to avoid price increases and then boom. The volume or the business falls off. So it's been quite a challenge to manage, but our expectation is to further leverage our SDA. Our costs are up because of wage inflation. It's been a tight labor market out there. And so, we'll continue to experience those. We have made some investments in some areas, but we've also deinvested in some other areas. So, we will -- I think, Dan, we finished the quarter at about 26.5% SDA as a [Indecipherable].

Dan Smith -- Senior Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary

Yes. Correct.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

So 26.5%, but I think the bigger or the more important aspect of it is what will the spend dollars be. We could see a little bit of an increase. It just depends on what the drop off in volume is going to be in Q1, knowing that we have -- we're carrying a little bit more expense from Q4 into this coming Q1 compared to what occurred last year. So probably have a little bit of a challenge there in Q1, but I think for the full year, we will -- you will see leverage in our total fixed cost opportunities.

Tim Wojs -- Baird -- Analyst

Great. Thanks for the color.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

I would like to turn the call back over to Mr. Vernon Nagel for closing remarks.

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, everyone, for your time this morning. Again, we strongly believe we are focusing on the right objectives, deploying the proper strategies and driving the organization to succeed in critical areas that have the potential, over the longer term, to deliver strong returns to our key stakeholders. Our future is bright. Thank you for your support.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 69 minutes

Call participants:

Dan Smith -- Senior Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary

Vernon J. Nagel -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Karen J. Holcom -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Christopher Glynn -- Oppenheimer -- Analyst

Deepa Raghavan -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Analyst

Brian Lee -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Joseph Osha -- JMP Securities. -- Analyst

John Walsh -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Tim Wojs -- Baird -- Analyst

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