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China Distance Education Holdings Limited (NYSE:DL)
Q1 2020 Earnings Call
Mar 18, 2020, 8:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good evening and thank you for joining us for the China Distance Education Holdings Limited First Quarter Fiscal Year 2020 Earnings Conference Call. On today's call are Mr. Zhengdong Zhu, Chairman and CEO; and Mr. Mark Marostica, Co-CFO. [Operator Instructions]

Before we start, we remind listeners that this conference call contains forward-looking statements. These statements are made under the Safe Harbor provisions of the US Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. The outlook for the second quarter and full fiscal year 2020, oral statements from management on this call as well as the Company's strategic and operational plans, in particular, the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on our business, the solutions we adopt to address the outbreak and the revision of revenue guidance, the anticipated benefits of strategic growth initiatives, including the promotion of the Company's lifelong learning ecosystem as well as balancing growth and profitability, among other things, may contain forward-looking statements.

Forward-looking statements involve inherent risks and uncertainties. A number of factors could cause actual results to differ materially from those contained in any forward-looking statements. Further information regarding this and other risks is included in the Company's Annual Report on Form 20-F and in other documents of the Company, as filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Company does not undertake any obligation to update any forward-looking statements except as required under applicable law.

As a reminder, this conference call is being recorded. In addition, the presentation, we will be referring to during the course of the call can be downloaded from the Company's Investor Relations website. Further, a live and archived webcast of this conference call will also be available on the Company's IR website at ir.cdeledu.com.

I will now turn the call over to Mr. Zhu. Mr. Zhu, please go ahead.

Zhengdong Zhu -- Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer

[Foreign Speech] Thank you, everyone for joining our first quarter fiscal year 2020 earnings conference call. Our operating results were distributed earlier via Internet Newswire services and are also posted on our website where a slide presentation is available as well. [Foreign Speech] If you will now refer to the presentation, I will begin on slide 4 with an overview of our financial results.

[Foreign Speech] Total net revenue increased by 20.6% year-over-year, which was slightly above the low end of our guidance range. Our top line performance for the quarter was driven primarily by the robust revenue growth from online education services, which is up 37.9% compared with the same period of last year owing to continued strength from our industry-leading accounting vertical as well as strong revenue growth from our healthcare vertical.

[Foreign Speech] Cash receipts from online course registration in the first quarter were up 13.9% year-over-year, which was again driven by our accounting vertical, while our legal vertical also contributed to the cash receipts growth in the quarter. [Foreign Speech] Total enrollment for the quarter exceeded $1.3 million, up 2% year-over-year. Notably in the first quarter of fiscal 2020, we are pleased to see a significant acceleration in enrollment growth in our regular relatively shorter duration accounting exam preparation courses. Enrollment growth in this course category had been lagging for the past several quarters. We therefore redoubled our efforts to attract students to our platform, who prefer to study with us for a relatively shorter period of time compared with our longer duration courses.

[Foreign Speech] Aside from our solid first quarter performance, I'm pleased to announce our Board of Directors has approved a special cash dividend of $14.05 per ordinary share or $0.58 per ADS on outstanding shares distributed to shareholders as of record as of the close of trading on March 31st, 2020. We are proud of our strong cash generating ability and believe returning capital to shareholders through our dividend is an effective use of capital to maximize long-term shareholder value. [Foreign Speech] I will now provide updates on our key growth strategies.

[Foreign Speech] In our 20 year operating history, we have built a strong and self-reinforcing business model with a comprehensive lifelong learning ecosystem. And our accounting vertical, for example, we have built a comprehensive suite of services to address the needs of both students and enterprise clients. On the student front, we have established a full service portfolio that fulfills the diverse learning needs of our students. Our accounting ecosystem provides students professional certification exam preparation, continuing education services, practical accounting training, employment guidance services, job internship arrangement services as well as our leading collection of proprietary accounting books and reference materials. In addition, for our enterprise clients we offer tax advisory and consulting as well as accounting and related advisory services.

[Foreign Speech] The integration of our service offerings has enabled our accounting ecosystem to offer attractive value propositions to working professionals, college students and businesses. The welcome reception of our services across students and enterprises in the marketplace is evidenced by our sustained top line growth. Importantly, the achievements of our accounting vertical serve as a blueprint to replicate and propel growth in our engineering and construction, legal and other verticals. [Foreign Speech] To attract students to our comprehensive lifelong learning ecosystem, we have implemented a multi-pronged student acquisition strategy by engaging with influential e-commerce and social media platforms such as Tmall, JD.com, Weibo and WeChat in an effort to extend our outreach and broaden our student audience.

[Foreign Speech] At the same time, we have developed and launched a variety of learning modalities including prerecorded online, audio-video courseware, mobile learning, live streaming as well as our in-person instructor-led course offerings. We offer our students multiple learning modalities to appeal to the varying learning styles and preferences across our student base, so as to provide each student with the optimal learning approach to acquire knowledge and sharpen their professional skills with the goal of helping our students advance in their careers.

[Foreign Speech] Our live stream courses are well suited for students who desire a technology-based learning solution or prefer a live course setting and greater interaction with a lecturer. We currently offer live streaming of certain popular exam preparation courses which are attracting a growing audience of students. In the first quarter of fiscal 2020, enrollments in our live stream courses doubled year-over-year. In addition, we will hold live streaming events on social media platforms regularly to help elevate our brand, showcase our lecturers and further drive course enrollments.

[Foreign Speech] Turning to mobile, we have been consistently upgrading and enriching our mobile educational products and services to better resonate with our tech-savvy students, embedding new features and functions into our mobile apps to deliver a more engaging learning experience. As of December 31st, 2019, China Distance Education offered 69 mobile apps and recorded cumulative downloads of 63 million, up from 60.9 million as of September 30th, 2019. In the first quarter, daily traffic to our mobile website continued to increase with daily active users in our accounting, healthcare and engineering and construction verticals, increasing by 9.9%, 11% and 41% year-over-year respectively.

[Foreign Speech] Now I would like to share some updates regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. [Foreign Speech] First, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to medical professionals individuals on the front line who are fighting against the outbreak. Our thoughts are with those who have been impacted. During the epidemic, the ongoing health and safety of our employees remain paramount and we have enacted several precautionary measures across our operations including remote work and staggered work schedules. [Foreign Speech] Since the beginning of the year, the central and local governments have put in place a series of proactive measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 such as postponing the return to school and mandating online course delivery for schools across the country. CDEL as a leading provider of online professional education in China was selected as one of the key dedicated online education services providers by China's Ministry of Education to facilitate online class delivery in higher-education institutions across China during the epidemic.

Our participation in this program demonstrates our reputation as a leader in online education as well as our best-of-breed educational content and technological strength. [Foreign Speech] Beyond the cooperation with government agencies, CDEL took prompt action toward the end of January to support students in severely affected regions by offering free online courses covering popular professional examination categories to students in Hubei province, the epicenter of the epidemic. Outside of Hubei, CDEL began offering students certain online exam preparation courses at significant discounts. Online education is a safe and contactless instructional delivery method that offers easy access to educational content for all with Internet access. At this challenging time, we will utilize our extensive experience in online education to help students across China.

[Foreign Speech] This concludes my update on our business operations and strategy. I will now turn the call over to Mark, our Co-CFO to walk through key operating metrics and financials.

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Thank you. Before I discuss the details of our first quarter financial performance, I want to provide a few highlights regarding the improvement in our profitability. In the first quarter of fiscal 2020, we delivered non-GAAP gross profit growth of 51.4% year-over-year with a non-GAAP gross margin of 50.2%, up significantly from non-GAAP gross margin of 40% in the year-ago period. We recorded non-GAAP operating income of $2.6 million for the quarter, compared with an operating loss in the prior-year period. Please note that non-GAAP figures noted in our earnings release discussed on this call exclude share-based compensation expenses. We attribute the improvement in our operating profitability to healthy top line performance and effective execution of certain expense control measures, including strict headcount and office space control and leverage of our cost structure, which have been a key focus of the Company for the last several quarters.

Now, let me summarize some of our key operating metrics on slide 6 and 7. Enrollments in our online accounting test preparation courses were up 5.1% year-over-year in the first quarter, primarily due to increases in accounting professional qualification exam or APQE enrollments. In the first quarter of fiscal 2020, enrollments in our accounting continuing education courses, relatively flat compared with the year-ago period. Total online accounting test preparation ASPs increased by 11.5% year-over-year in the first quarter as ASPs increased significantly in our CPA test preparation courses mainly due to changes in product mix.

The ASPs for accounting continuing education courses increased by 3.6% year-over-year in the first quarter. Enrollments in our online healthcare test preparation courses in the first quarter of fiscal 2020 increased by 3.4% year-over-year. ASPs for our healthcare test preparation courses decreased by 5.8% year-over-year in the first quarter mainly due to changes in product mix. Enrollments in our online engineering and construction or E&C test preparation courses increased by 27.8% year-over-year in the first quarter, primarily due to strong enrollment growth in our first level constructor and cost valuator courses.

Enrollments in our E&C continuing education courses increased by 47.2% year-over-year in the first quarter, primarily due to seasonality. ASPs for our E&C test preparation courses in the first quarter increased by 9.1% year-over-year primarily due to changes in product mix. The ASPs for E&C continuing education courses decreased by 3.9% year-over-year in the first quarter.

Now let's look at some of our financial metrics. To be mindful of the length of our earnings call, I'll focus on key financial highlights and encourage listeners to refer to our earnings press release and financial filings for further details. Non-GAAP gross margin was 50.2% in the first quarter of fiscal 2020 compared to 40% in the first quarter of fiscal year '19 -- 2019. The year-over-year expansion in gross margin was primarily due to decreased salaries and related expenses as well as decreased rental and related expenses.

Non-GAAP selling expenses increased by 32.4% to $19.2 million in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020 from $14.5 million in the prior-year period, driven primarily by increases in advertising and promotional expenses, commissions to agents, salaries and related expenses and rental and related expenses. Non-GAAP general and administrative expenses decreased by 13.9% to $5 million in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020 from $5.9 million in the prior-year period. The decrease was mainly due to the lower provision for doubtful debts compared with the prior-year period.

Overall, non-GAAP operating income for the first quarter of fiscal year 2020 was $2.6 million compared with non-GAAP operating loss of $1.7 million in the prior-year period. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2020, we recorded a non-cash foreign currency exchange loss of $2.5 million mainly related to loans from our PRC subsidiaries to our offshore holding company, due to the appreciation of the renminbi against the US dollar from September 30th, 2019 to December 31st, 2019. We recorded a non-cash foreign currency exchange gain of $76,000 in the prior-year period.

Income tax benefit was $34,000 in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020 compared with income tax expenses of $1 million in the prior-year period, primarily due to the taxable loss in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. Non-GAAP net loss attributable to CDEL was $1.2 million in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020 compared with non-GAAP net income attributable to CDEL of $2.4 million in the prior-year period. That said, it is important to point out that we recorded a $6.9 million gain on the previously announced disposal of 60% equity interest in the Tax School Program in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019 and fair value change of the remaining 40% equity interest.

Now let's turn to slide 11 to review our cash flow. Net operating cash flow, excuse me, net operating cash inflow decreased by 15% -- 15.6% to $22.5 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2020 from $26.6 million in the prior-year period. The operating cash inflow was mainly attributable to net income before non-cash items generated in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. The decrease in accounts receivable and the increase in accrued expenses and other liabilities deferred revenue and refundable fees also contributed to the operating cash inflow.

The operating cash inflow was partially offset by the increase in inventories, prepayments and other current assets and the decrease of lease liability, income tax payable and deferred tax liabilities. Cash and cash equivalents, term deposits, restricted cash and short-term investments as of December 31st, 2019 increased by 13.5% to $145.9 million from $128.5 million as of September 30th, 2019, mainly due to the operating cash inflow generated in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. The sale proceeds of approximately $800,000 from the disposal of an investment also contributed to the increase in cash. The increase was partially offset by the repayment of offshore loans of $11 million and capital expenditures of approximately $900,000.

This completes my financial overview. Next I would like to provide color regarding the potential impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on our financial performance over the next few quarters. At the present time, we have not received notification from professional examination administration authorities regarding any changes or delays, the timing of key examinations. We provide exam preparation services for students registered for these examinations, most of which are typically scheduled in September or October of each year.

In the event of any delay in exam timing however, it is important to note that the corresponding cash receipts from online course registration, which we have -- which we -- would not be forsaken, instead, such cash receipts will be recognized ratably over a longer period in sync with the respective exam date or the exam in [Phonetic] question. As a result of our swift response to the COVID-19 outbreak, enrollments in our online exam preparation courses including discounted and free enrollments have increased dramatically since the end of January 2020 this development demonstrates our commitment to our students across China as well as our ability to scale our online learning platform and serve significantly larger student audience.

In the meantime, we expect that COVID-19 outbreak will have a near-term negative impact on both our cash receipts from online course registration and GAAP revenue as a result of our proactive measures to support our students across China. That said, we are encouraged by the appeal of our online learning solutions across our student base, particularly in the current environment and we remain very confident with respect to the long-term viability of our business model.

I will now return the call to Mr. Zhu for concluding remarks as well as financial guidance for both the second quarter and fiscal year 2020. Mr. Zhu, please.

Zhengdong Zhu -- Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Mark. [Foreign Speech] We achieved a positive start for fiscal 2020 delivering solid revenue growth and improved operating profit in the first quarter while posting healthy growth of cash receipts from online course registration. As we look further into 2020 and beyond, we will remain true to our core vision of cultivating online learning as a lifestyle with the commitment to serving as China's foremost lifelong comprehensive online education partner for working professionals and others in China to fulfill their educational needs.

[Foreign Speech] Since January, we've confronted an evolving situation in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and it's disruption to China's macro-economy. Containment measures including extended holidays, travel restrictions, delayed resumption of enterprise production and operating activities after Chinese New Year have put a suspension on the return to normal daily life for nearly all across China.

As the outbreak endures, macro uncertainties remain and we anticipate consumer spending generally will remain cautious. During this challenging period, CDEL will continue to be proactive in supporting the virus containment effort and leading by example in corporate social responsibility.

[Foreign Speech] As we approach the end of our second quarter of fiscal 2020 and look ahead to the beginning of the second half of our fiscal year, we've acknowledged that the situation remains fluid. Yet we are committed to being vigilant and steadfast in caring for our stakeholders. For our students, we intend to continue providing best of breed courseware and high quality value-added services.

We are required remote work for most of our employees while limiting the number of in-office employees and disinfecting the office areas to keep them safe. Overall, we are able to continue our operations in the current environment. And our business remains on solid footing. [Foreign Speech] Anticipating the day when we all look back on this time and reflect on the lessons learned, we expect this period will be viewed as a pivotal point of growth for online education and Chinese Education Industry. As a pioneer in online professional education, we believe in the long-term growth prospects of China's online education industry and are well prepared to serve a growing student demographic.

We are dedicated to consistently delivering knowledge to a broad student constituency, extending convenience flexibility and engagement to the learning experience. In the meanwhile, we will continue to integrate cutting-edge technologies into our educational solutions and diversify our course offerings to fulfill the needs of our students at different stages of their study and career development. With our 20 year track record and an unwavering commitment to education we have proven to be the premier partner of choice for students in their journey of lifelong learning.

[Foreign Speech] Turning to guidance, for the second quarter of fiscal year 2020, Company expects to generate total net revenue in the range of $41.9 million to $43.8 million, representing year-over-year growth of approximately 8% to 13%. [Foreign Speech] For the fiscal year 2020, the Company expects to generate total net revenues in the range of $239.4 million to $250 million, representing year-over-year growth of approximately 13% to 18%.

This concludes my prepared remarks. Thank you for your time. Operator, we're now happy to take questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you, sir. Ladies and gentlemen, we will now begin the question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions] We have the first question from the line of Greg Pendy. Please ask your question.

Greg Pendy -- Sidoti -- Analyst

Hey guys, thanks for taking my questions. My first question is just on the gross margins, I know that you've expanded, for several quarters right now, just trying to get a gauge, I think from your 10 asset looks like you did see a headcount reduction. And then also you had some dual rent last year, which I assume is, beyond so just trying to get a sense of what is the run rate on the cost structure going forward? Do you think the cost cuts are done and now the leverage is going to come mainly from revenue growth? Just trying to get a sense of how to think about gross margins in 2020. And also I think last call you kind of mentioned for the year, you are maybe guiding around 55%, is that still the case? Thanks.

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. Thank you, Greg for your question. First of all with gross margins as you saw in the first quarter, we saw considerable improvement based on leverage of not only salaries and related expenses, but also rents and related expenses. We expect to see gross margins continue to improve throughout the year on a year-over-year basis as we benefit from a very well hold cost structure in that regard. A couple of points too, you may want to recall, we dispose of our tax school in December of 2019 quarter and because of that disposal, we were able to reduce headcount accordingly and we've been enjoying a lower headcount basis as a result. And we intend to keep our headcount rather stable for the balance of the year.

Regarding rent, as you mentioned, we did have dual spaces last year both in Beijing and Hebeian headquarters and Anhui Qiao, our newest office location, we've migrated staff throughout last fiscal year to the new office location in Anhui Qiao, which comes with lower rental expenses. So we've been enjoying rental expense reduction in the current quarter, or quarter we just reported as well as the current quarter. And we'll anniversary that move in the third quarter which is our June quarter. So net-net, we do believe we will see continued gross margin expansion this year and the figure you mentioned around mid-50s is, I think a viable figure for us in terms of how the model will play out for the full fiscal year.

Greg Pendy -- Sidoti -- Analyst

Thanks. And just one more question. I think on the dividend, I think this is your eighth dividend as a public Company, special dividend, is this going to be the typical bridge loan structure, should we expect from the payout perspective on the -- from a balance sheet perspective, just to see the restricted cash go up and how it typically close up?

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Yes, Greg, exactly. In this case, we are able to take advantage of the bridge -- dividend bridge loan structure as we have several times in the past where we're able to avail ourselves of an offshore loan and then have matching funds onshore and they will be deemed restricted cash on the balance sheet. I do want to point out something that I did mentioned on the last call, regarding our debt situation and you may recall at that point on our last call, we talked about our goal over 2020 to reduce our debt exposure and pay down the various loans in place. You can see in the current or in the first quarter, we've paid down loans in total of approximately $11 million, leaving $27.7 million of borrowings on the balance sheet. We fully intend to extinguish that debt during 2020. So there is no change to our plans.

Having said that, you're correct in your assessment in terms of how we are funding the current dividend, which in total will be about $19.6 million. We value very much the opportunity to maximize shareholder value by returning cash to shareholders. We happen to be in a very healthy cash position with the cash generated in the past quarter as well. So nonetheless, that's where we sit on the dividend front.

Greg Pendy -- Sidoti -- Analyst

That's helpful. Thanks a lot.

Operator

Pardon me, sir. Can we move to the next question?

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Yes.

Operator

Thank you. We have the next question from the line of CC Lew [Phonetic]. Please ask your question.

CC Lew -- Analyst

Hi, there Mr. Zhu and Mark, so I basically have a more current epidemic related question. Well, we noticed that in face on the COVID-19 epidemic, you actually launched a series of marketing campaigns and advertisement, with extremely low prices that, probably to just attract your target audience and to funnel in. I just want to get a general sense of how does this -- I mean, may shadows underline to your first quarter performance, how the conversion etc? How does this campaign, whether we expect it to continue in the future?

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Yes, very good observation, certainly our response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been swift and a big part of that response was making our courses available at very attractive price points to our students. We talked on the call already about free courses for students in the epicenter of the epidemic Hubei province and then heavily discounted courses for students outside of Hubei as you pointed out. Having said that, we view this is an important feature of our corporate responsibility and our response to the outbreak in supporting our students across China. Certainly as of this point, we're still in the midst of the outbreak, the very pricing that you pointed toward is still in place and we have made no announcement as to any alterations to that, but we will certainly inform there is one step changes.

The effect of this has been certainly quite positive with regards to enrollments, we've seen enrollments sore in the period after the end of January when we launched the promotional pricing, if you will. And that has been I think evidenced by a very strong commitment on our part to our students plus students gravitating to our platform in this very challenging time. So I think it's a net positive for us. So that's how we see things playing out. The downside effect of course and we've talked about it already is the downwardly revised revenue guidance as a result of our actions on this Corporate Social Responsibility front. Does that answer your question?

CC Lew -- Analyst

Yes, partly. Thank you. And I'm just wondering if there is possibly, can be a kind of silver lining to the current situation that you may bring more enrollment that you will be able to up-sell in the future? And do you see if there is a possibility that you can convert those new enrollment?

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

I think at the present time a silver lining is a tough word to use. This is a serious time for all of us and we're focused on supporting our students, but we get beyond this and look back. I think that what we'll see during this period of time is this notion that online education will be elevated, certainly the spotlight is on online education right now and many students who otherwise would not choose to study online are looking at that as a viable alternative. And we think that going forward, this will be a pivotal point for the online education industry because of that, students will now seek this out as a very viable alternative to traditional instructor-led learning. So having said that, I do think that, we may be in a position where we're introducing our solutions to students who haven't used us in the past and who will appreciate the service levels and we'll look back and the potential students in the future for us.

CC Lew -- Analyst

Okay, thank you. So is that possible that we can just have some sense of what the enrollment number look like?

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Well to give you a sense in the period since the end of January through last week approximately, we've seen about 350,000 to 400,000 paid enrollments attracted to our discounted courses as you mentioned. Obviously a very high number when you consider that's only a very short period of time of about six weeks. On the free enrollment front in Hubei province, we're looking at over 2 million, well over 2 million enrollments.

CC Lew -- Analyst

2 million?

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

In access of 2 million on the three years' [Phonetic] time.

CC Lew -- Analyst

Thank you.

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Yeah.

CC Lew -- Analyst

All right. Thank you. That's all my questions.

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

As there are no further questions at this time, I would like to turn the call back to management for closing remarks.

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, operator. On behalf of the management team, we thank you for joining us today and we look forward to updating you on our progress. Stay safe everyone.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 47 minutes

Call participants:

Zhengdong Zhu -- Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer

Mark Marostica -- Co-Chief Financial Officer

Greg Pendy -- Sidoti -- Analyst

CC Lew -- Analyst

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