Shares of multi-level marketer Herbalife (NYSE:HLF) have fallen nearly 30% since the company reported earnings earlier this month. By almost every measure, it was a poor quarter, with earnings, revenue, and guidance coming in short of expectations.
But Herbalife's management did its best to soothe investors on the company's subsequent earnings call. Below are five of the most important quotes from that call.
A play on global obesity?
Despite the challenges Herbalife faces, CEO Michael Johnson remains optimistic about the company's long-term future. Although Herbalife bears, particularly hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, have characterized the company as an illegal pyramid scheme, management continues to view the business as a play on several growing, global trends.
We operate in a business environment that offers huge long-term possibilities ... societies around the world continue to contend with the financial and human impact of climbing obesity rates, aging populations and the post-2008 economic reality. There is no doubt that Herbalife is part of that solution.
Explaining Herbalife's weak results
But even if Herbalife's future is as bright as management contends, the third quarter was indisputably poor. During the call, Johnson cited two factors to explain the weak results: an unfavorable Venezuelan currency exchange rate and a change Herbalife made to its membership policies.
Our performance was below expectations ... There is a confluence of factors, some external and some internal, that had an impact on our results. The main factors were Venezuela FX and the short-term effect of structural changes that we are making to our business.
The changes should benefit Herbalife in the long-run
The value of the Venezuelan bolivar has fallen precipitously against the U.S. dollar in recent months -- a factor completely outside of Herbalife's control. But the changes it has made to its membership policies are completely self-inflicted.
Herbalife has made it more difficult to qualify as a "sales leader" -- a mid-level ranking within the Herbalife compensation plan. It has also put buying limits on new members, restricting the amount of Herbalife product they can initially purchase. Although these changes are clearly having a negative effect on its business, Johnson argued that they will be beneficial to the company in the long-run.
One trend that we see clearly is that people who join the business in a more gradual, controlled way, who take the time to get to know the products and carefully build a customer base, are far more successful and therefore more likely to remain a member.
A new initiative for the U.S market
In the U.S., Herbalife's business has been weak -- in the third quarter, North American volume points (a measure of product sales) declined 4%. Other markets -- notably China -- have been carrying Herbalife's business.
But management believes it can turn the North American business around. During the call, Herbalife President Des Welsh announced that trial packs have come to the U.S.: for a modest fee, new Herbalife members will be able to purchase a small amount of product. Like its controversial nutrition clubs, Herbalife believes this initiative will help ignite growth.
Like nutrition clubs, which radically increased the addressable audience of customers that could buy our products, trial packs remove a barrier to consumer adoption that we believe will lead to incremental volume, as people experience the results of our products and move on to additional purchases.
Pay down debt and return cash to shareholders
But ultimately, investors may be focused more on Herbalife's balance sheet than anything else. In 2014, Herbalife's debt skyrocketed, as the company borrowed money to buy back shares. In total, Herbalife now has $1.1 billion of net debt. According to CFO John DeSimone, the company will use its free cash flow to pay down this debt, and return cash to shareholders.
We expect to generate free cash of approximately $470 million to $500 million next year ... Our priorities for the use of cash remain the same; first to repay our debt obligations, second to support growth of the business, and third to accelerate returns to shareholders when possible.