Logo of jester cap with thought bubble.

Image source: The Motley Fool.

Barrett Business Services Inc (NASDAQ:BBSI)
Q1 2021 Earnings Call
May 5, 2021, 5:00 p.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for participating in today's conference call to discuss BBSI's Financial Results for the First Quarter ended March 31, 2021.

Joining us today are BBSI's President and CEO, Mr. Gary Kramer, and the Company's CFO, Mr. Anthony Harris. Following their remarks, we'll open the call for your questions.

Before we go further, please take note of the company's safe harbor statement within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. The statement provides important cautions regarding forward-looking statements. The Company's remarks during today's conference call will include forward-looking statements. These statements, along with other information presented that does not reflect historical facts, are subject to a number of risks and uncertainties. Actual results may differ materially from those implied by these forward-looking statements.

Please refer to the Company's recent earnings release, and to the Company's quarter and annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for more information about the risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ. I would like to remind everyone that this call will be available for replay through June 5, 2021, starting at 8:00 PM Eastern Time tonight. A webcast replay will also be available via the link provided in today's press release, as well as available on the Company's website at www.bbsi.com.

Now I would like to turn the call over to the President and Chief Executive Officer of BBSI, Mr. Gary Kramer. Sir, please go ahead.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thank you, Hilary. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining the call.

We had a really good start to the year with our results exceeding most of our internal and external metrics. We saw a continuation of the positive the trends that we experienced in the back half of the fourth quarter, extend into 2021, and we expect these trends to further accelerate as we emerge from a COVID economy.

During the quarter our gross billings increased 2% over the prior year's quarter, and exceeded our expectations. It is important to note that this quarter had one less business day, and we are comparing against the prior year quarter, which experienced far less pandemic related disruptions. Our average worksite employees were down by 6% over the prior year quarter, and down 3% sequentially from Q4. We historically have a sequential decrease in Q1 from Q4 as some of our industry support the holiday season, and the volumes don't repeat into the new year. For example, Q1 of 2020 was down 3% and Q1 of 2019 was down 2% sequentially.

We are on plan for our worksite employee stack and net new client counts. Regarding the client counts, we saw continued softness of new client adds, which was offset by higher client retention. In previous earnings calls, we stated that our referral partners and business owners went into their bunkers at the onset of the pandemic. We continue to see a gradual recovery and in the first quarter we experienced our best quarter for client adds since the pandemic started, with gross adds of 293, and net adds of 146.

Our sales conversion levels continue to be consistent with pre-COVID metrics. We are seeing more deal flow and more successes, but we are still not at the pre-pandemic levels. We are optimistic regarding the remainder of the year. Our deal flow in April was better than any month since the pandemic occurred, and we are seeing more enthusiasm in the market as economies reopen.

Our gross margin as a percentage of gross billings, exceeded the prior year quarter, and benefited from continued favorable development on workers' compensation, as well as affirming of workers' compensation pricing.

Our branch footprint remains unchanged with 56 total branches, and the stratification is as follows. 20 mature branches with run rates in excess of $100 million, 21 emerging branches running between $30 million and $100 million, 15 branches we consider developing, with run rates of up to $30 million. Our business units totaled a 103, and decreased from the prior quarter, as we migrate into our revised structure of the 16 member business unit, which allows us to service more clients with less management employees, and increases our return on management payroll.

Next I'm going to provide some operational updates, and updates on other initiatives. In the quarter we demonstrated our value proposition by continuing to help small business owners navigate these challenging times, including by helping our clients process more than $30 million in employee retention credits.

We continued to invest during the pandemic, and we are seeing the fruits of our labor. We released the third major milestone for myBBSI in the quarter. This release completed the build of our portal, and included upgrade in electronic on-boarding, improved reporting, as well as other enhancements. Our clients are appreciative of the investment, and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive thus far.

We are packaging our new technology with our nationwide offering, and we continue to see larger opportunities. For example, in the quarter we on-boarded a client with a $35 million annual payroll with operations in multiple states. The client joined us for our core offerings, with an emphasis on our expertise in payroll and human resources, but without the technology investments we have made, it is unlikely that we would have on-boarded this client.

In addition, we previously mentioned that we formed a dedicated sales and marketing team that developed the longer-term plan that leverages our refreshed company website that launched in Q4. The new marketing plan better reflects the best of BBSI value proposition, and is designed with the intent to better tell our story, ultimately leading us to attract additional business.

We are now embarking on the next step of the plan, which is to increase the top of the funnel by focusing on lead generation via an omni-channel digital campaign, where we target both clients and new referral partners. This is launching in Q2. So it is early days, but we are optimistic that this will yield both, short and long-term results for the organization.

In summary, I am encouraged by our excellent client retention. We are in the people business, and people have never been more relevant to the business owner than they are today. Packaging our knowledge and expertise, along with our new technology platform, and the ability to transact nationally, strategically positions us better in the market with our referral partners. Our clients are more optimistic today than we have seen them since the pandemic began, and my optimism is elevated as well.

As we look toward the remainder of the year, I am encouraged by the results we achieved in Q1, and the increase in activity that we were seeing early in Q2. We are executing to our strategic initiatives, and we are realizing positive results and seeing future positive trends, which results it in our increased outlook for the remainder of the year.

Now I'm going to turn the call over to Anthony for his prepared remarks.

Anthony Harris -- Executive Vice Presidentm Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Gary, and hello everyone.

I am pleased to report that our Q1 results were stronger than expected, and showed positive year-over-year billings growth. PEO gross billings increased 2% over the prior year quarter to $1.47 billion. Staffing revenues declined 3% over the prior year to $24.6 million. PEO gross billings growth by region versus the prior year first quarter were as follows. Mountain States grew 26%, Northern California grew 7%, Pacific Northwest grew 5%, East Coast grew 4% and Southern California declined by 5%. As noted in previous quarters, Southern California continues to be the region most impacted by COVID-19 related declines in our clients' business volumes.

The overall increase in PEO gross billings for the company was attributable to higher average billings per WSE. The average number of WSEs in the quarter decreased 6% year-over-year, which was in line with our forecast given the comparable quarter last year was not materially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers' compensation expense continues to trend favorably and included in actuarially determined reductions of prior year estimated liabilities of $1.2 million in the first quarter. Our overall workers' compensation claims performance remains favorable and frequency continues to improve. In the quarter we saw trailing 12 month relative frequency of claims as a percentage of payroll decreased 3% compared to the first quarter of 2020 and decreased 20% compared to the first quarter of 2019. Consistent with 2020, we continue to expect that COVID-19 claims will not materially increase our overall workers' compensation expense.

We have discussed for several quarters that our pricing is faced increasing pressure from a competitive workers' compensation market, particularly in California. These cyclical market forces have continued to put pressure on the rates that we're able to charge our clients, but we've also communicated that we believe that workers' compensation pricing is at or near a low point. And we continue to expect that overall rates should continue to trend flat or increase in 2021. We are monitoring rates closely on renewal and for April 2021 renewals rates are generally either up or flat over the prior year.

Looking at operating expenses, SG&A in the quarter was $5 million higher than the prior year quarter, primarily due to one-time cost savings in the prior year, as well as planned increases in IT investments in the current year. Our investment portfolios earned $1.8 million in the first quarter compared to $3 million in the prior year. We expect the Q1 will be the low point for investment income in the year as our investment balances continue to increase over time and as rates rise from their historical lows. Our investments continue to be managed conservatively and have an average duration of 3.5 years, average quality of investment at AA and average book yield of 1.7%.

Turning to the balance sheet, we had $143 million of unrestricted cash investments on March 31st, compared to $170 million at December 31st. The decrease was primarily due to the timing of payroll tax payments and year-end employee profit sharing. We continue to be debt free at quarter end, except for the $4 million mortgage on our corporate headquarters. As part of our ongoing effort to optimize investment income and interest expense we reached an agreement in April with Chubb to replace the $63.7 million letter of credit with other collateral assets and cancel the letter of credit in its entirety. As part of this transaction Wells Fargo released $38.7 million of collateral held in support of the letter of credit and we transferred those funds, along with an additional $25 million to the Chubb trust accounts to satisfy the collateral obligations. These moves are expected to benefit investment income and provide interest expense savings going forward.

We remain committed to our capital allocation strategy and returned capital to shareholders in the form of $2.3 million in dividends and $3.4 million of repurchase stock in the quarter. At quarter end there is approximately $39 million remaining on the Board's approved $50 million share repurchase plan. Turning to the outlook for the year, given the stronger than expected results for the quarter and more favorable expectations going forward, we now expect gross billings to increase between 5% and 7% up from 2% to 5% previously and we expect average WSEs to increase between 2% and 4% up from 1% to 3% previously. We expect gross margin as a percentage of gross billings to remain between 2.9% and 3.1% and we expect our effective annual tax rate to remain between 21% and 23%.

I will now turn the call back to Gary for closing remarks.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks, Anthony. In conclusion, we had a really good start to the year as we executed our short and long-term strategies. We continue to always think of the client first and to advocate further success to the business owner. We've been working on the right things and I think we're in a great position to capitalize on a reopening economy. Now I'd like to turn the call over to the operator for questions. Thank you.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you, sir. At this time we will be conducting a question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions]. And our first question is from Chris Moore of CJS Securities. Please state your question.

Christopher Moore -- CJS Securities -- Analyst

Hey, good afternoon. Thanks for taking a few questions, guys.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Hey Chris.

Christopher Moore -- CJS Securities -- Analyst

Yeah, thanks. Historically BBSI had been able to recover from economic downturns with exceptional growth. This obviously has not been the typical economic downturn, but maybe you could just talk about the puts and takes that would get you to double-digit gross revenue growth in fiscal '22 and you know and kind of how the -- how workers' comp rates fit into that whole mix?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

So those are a lot of questions Chris. I'm going to take. I'm going to take a stab at these and of course correct me if I don't get them all.

Christopher Moore -- CJS Securities -- Analyst

Okay.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Regarding how we are going to come out of the recovery, this is a unique one because we were very fortunate that our clients weren't effected as much as the general economy. So if you look at, say the great recession and where our reps went in the great recession we actually held up better in this pandemic than we have historically, so we didn't pull back as much, which means we're not going to shoot up as much as we look at '21, but when we look at '21, we had real positive trends in Q1. We're seeing more deal flow in Q2 which gives us a good degree of confidence to move our guide from the 2.5. The original was 2.5 up to 5.7 and we're still not getting over our tips with the guide and we feel we're being conservative on that guide as well. So as we look at how the economy is going to come out of this, there is still some question marks as far as when states are going to fully reopen and what that's going to look like, but we feel like for the visibility we have now raising guide in the future ahead looks pretty strong for us.

Christopher Moore -- CJS Securities -- Analyst

Got it. That's helpful. And from workers' comp standpoint obviously, you guys talked about you know it's still a challenging environment. If I look at that, obviously it impacts margins, but it also impacts kind of how aggressively you go after new business, is that a fair way to look at it?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

We've been talking for multiple quarters now that the market is firming and we're seeing some positive trends in the market now, as far as when we look at our renewal book and looking at how we hold the rate. So we're getting to the position of where the markets firming where we're getting to flat the positive rate as far as when we have our clients renewed. So we feel like we have potentially turn the corner and we could have a little bit of a tailwind behind us. When it comes to our rate increases in the market.

Christopher Moore -- CJS Securities -- Analyst

Got it. And last one from me just, it's been a couple of quarters, at least since you've been the emphasizing that the safety incentives and just wondering kind of how that's impacting your perceived competitors when bidding?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

So when we moved off of the model of our safety incentives back in 2020 the idea there was, we were reducing the pay in to our clients. So we were reducing the rate, so they were getting a discount on the front end, which we think during a time of pandemic was a better sell in that environment. Right. So less cash upfront means better for the client. So, some clients like it, they are the few minority. The majority of the clients like the lower pay and as we go. So we haven't had a lot of push back or anything there. We think it's actually to the benefit of the client to be on that new structure.

Christopher Moore -- CJS Securities -- Analyst

Got it helpful. I'll jump back in line. Thanks guys.

Operator

Our next question is from Jeff Martin of Roth Capital Partners. Please state your question.

Jeff Martin -- Roth Capital Partners -- Analyst

Thanks, hi Kramer and Anthony. How are you doing?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Good day, Jeff.

Jeff Martin -- Roth Capital Partners -- Analyst

Congratulations on the large client win, the $35 million payroll clients. I was curious if you could give us a little background on how that came to fruition, as well as how many worksite employees are -- does that encompass and what does the pipeline look like for larger clients in general?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, just for the pipeline for larger clients in general, we're seeing more in the pipe now than we've seen over the past two years. We're able to support the larger clients with our payroll system, we're able to support the larger clients with multi-state operations in our national footprint. So, we are --- the words out, we're having good success. We've converted a lot of clients to the multi-state. So with success comes more success and we're seeing more leads come in on the larger clients.

For that client specific, it was a client of California. It's about 700 to 750 worksite employees that started payroll runs in the first quarter, and we feel real good about that client, and servicing in that client, and be able to handle the larger clients in that space.

Jeff Martin -- Roth Capital Partners -- Analyst

Great. And then with the increased guidance, I'm certain that it's not going to be a linear growth path from here. You've got some quarters that are easier comparisons to other. I was just hoping if you could kind of frame how we should think about gross billings growth as we proceed through second, third and fourth quarter?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Spot on Jeff. So our sequential growth will be more linear but year-over-year growth, Q2 is by far going to be the easiest compare rate. Last April, we saw significant declines. So we are expecting our year-over-year growth percentage in Q2 to be about double that of our year-over-year growth percentage in Q3. And then from there would taper off slightly more, but really that big jumps could be from Q2 to Q3.

Jeff Martin -- Roth Capital Partners -- Analyst

Okay. Okay. And then how should we think about the direct sales model? It's still too early to say what the impact of that could be? Do you have any idea of what kind of contribution to growth there could be for this year, and maybe next year?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

We -- Yeah, I wish we had more to say. We'll have more next quarter after we get a full quarter under our belt. But when we put together the plan and the strategy for this year, what we had did was we booked, we built in the expense for that, but we didn't -- we weren't optimistic, we weren't aggressive on loading in the revenue side. So if the revenue side comes in and it will just be call it crazy for us.

We're optimistic, we've partnered with good companies, we've partnered with good lead-gens, we've got good technology, we've built good content. We're going to be pulling the trigger here to let it out, and we've got the teams in place and ready to handle when they come back to us. So, we're ready to execute on it, and by next quarter, we'll be able to give, I'll say more definitive answers to how it's progressing.

Jeff Martin -- Roth Capital Partners -- Analyst

Yeah. Okay. Certainly sounds like you've got the growth engine ready to go here. Last question is on M&A. I know you're out looking. Any update there?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Same as last quarter. Right. We weren't -- it's a good stewards of the shareholders' capital. We worked hard to make the money, and we're going to be wise with how we spend it, and we're still kissing a lot of frogs and taking our time. We don' have a -- we don't have an itchy trigger finger here. We're going to make sure it's the right fit, with the right company, with the right people that will get us some geography that we're not in.

Jeff Martin -- Roth Capital Partners -- Analyst

Great. Good to talk to you guys. Thank you.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks, Jeff.

Operator

Our next question is from Bill Dezellem of Tieton Capital Management. Please state your question.

Bill Dezellem -- Tieton Capital Management -- Analyst

Thank you, all. I'll actually start by following on with that last question. Is it your sense that today the more fruitful strategy will be to simply bringing teams on, rather than buying entire businesses, and as you are out, I guess, using your phrase, kissing frogs, is that ultimately you're building a pipeline of opportunity for when there is retirements that take place, or other transitions that lead to an opportunity for acquisition, or you are thinking about it somewhat different than that?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, I'll say our growth plan hasn't changed. We are going to grow organically in our businesses. That's our expansion of our business units and growing our branches in the markets we're in, and then we're going to extend in the markets and grow organically that were not in. And then the third lever is we'll look at how building out a pipeline for M&A transactions where they make sense. But as we think of, first and foremost, we are an organic growth company, and that's the way we think.

Bill Dezellem -- Tieton Capital Management -- Analyst

And that's a nice segue to my next question, Gary, which you referenced in the press release, and in your remarks here today, that the overall performance is ahead of your plan. Why is that? What's leading to that success?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, Q1 was the -- was going to be our hardest compare for the year. So we internally we thought we were going to be down as far as gross billings, and we've exceeded that by being up by 2%. So when we look at the client base, our WSE stack is on plan, our client stack is on plan, our WSE -- our revs per WSE is up slightly. We're getting some tailwind from same customer WSE. So we're on plan and our clients are doing better than we expected as well. So when we look forward we're saying, all right, well, the machines rolling here and we've got good momentum and we don't think the momentum is going to slow. We think the momentum is only going to accelerate when the economy opens up more.

Bill Dezellem -- Tieton Capital Management -- Analyst

And on that note, are you -- two things; number one hearing your customers in California specifically talking about plans to bring on additional people once they go to the full reopening, which I think I have heard the governor, they're talking about it in June I believe. So, next month. And secondarily, can you talk more about Southern California, and how COVID is fitting into -- to it be any only region that's down?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

So Southern Cal, if we take the quarter and parse it by month, Southern Cal, our clients were negative in January, negative in February, and then in March, we saw our clients start to grow again. And then that's the positive trend for us, and then as we're looking at things in April, our April month isn't closed yet, we're still opened for our accounting, but when we look into April, April's trending positive as well.

So we feel like, just looking at payrolls and clients in Southern Cal, that it's made the turn from negative to positive as of March '21.

Bill Dezellem -- Tieton Capital Management -- Analyst

Congratulations. And then what about just bigger picture with California, and your clients there, relative to the governor's conversation about full reopening, do you feel like that will lead to a somewhat immediate step up in employees or WSEs or is it more nuance than that?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

We are looking at the crystal ball here. Logically, we would think that if there is an area that could snap back it would be Southern Cal for us, because that was pulled back the hardest. But until we see it in numbers or until we see it in payroll cycles, it's more of a hypothesis than in actuality.

Bill Dezellem -- Tieton Capital Management -- Analyst

Great. Thank you, again. Great quarter.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our next question is from Vincent Colicchio of Barrington Research. Please state your question.

Vincent A. Colicchio -- Barrington Research Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

Yeah, Gary, I apologize if you've already commented on this, I came on the call late. I'm curious if your traditional sales model, your referral model contributed in a positive manner in the quarter or not?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Oh, yeah, absolutely. We saw more deal flow in the first quarter than out of any quarters since the pandemic. And we had more and more leads, more prospects, more clients added in Q1 over any quarter since the pandemic started. So seeing positive trends there even more positive trends into April, but we're still not at pre-pandemic numbers yet. As far as deal flow in the economy.

Vincent A. Colicchio -- Barrington Research Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

And what portion of your teams have transitioned to the -- that you plan to transition to the model with 3 as is 3 HR professionals?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah. Good question. That's a hard one for us to answer because really those -- that model only applies to our larger branches that have more than one business unit per se. So that's not going to be the model for every branch. If you think of our developing branches and emerging they don't have the size and scale to get into that model yet, so for what we see now, it's about 12 business teams that are operating in that new model. And so far so good with the efficiencies that we've been able to pick up, working remotely and with our new payroll system.

Vincent A. Colicchio -- Barrington Research Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

And can you update us on what expansion territories you plan to do to this year?

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

So far, I would say that we have committed to Nashville and we have committed to Pittsburgh and then we're always looking for good talent so we let talent drive where that branch would be day after that.

Vincent A. Colicchio -- Barrington Research Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay, nice quarter, guys.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks.

Anthony Harris -- Executive Vice Presidentm Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

At this time, this concludes our question-and-answer session. I would now like to turn the call back over to Mr. Kramer for closing remarks.

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thank you everybody for taking the time to be on the call. We are super optimistic about the business and about the economy reopening and we think that we're in a great spot to capitalize on it, so we'll talk to you again in a quarter. Be safe until then. Thank you.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 30 minutes

Call participants:

Gary Kramer -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Anthony Harris -- Executive Vice Presidentm Chief Financial Officer

Christopher Moore -- CJS Securities -- Analyst

Jeff Martin -- Roth Capital Partners -- Analyst

Bill Dezellem -- Tieton Capital Management -- Analyst

Vincent A. Colicchio -- Barrington Research Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

More BBSI analysis

All earnings call transcripts

AlphaStreet Logo

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.