When Tile Shop Holdings (NASDAQ:TTS) reported earnings last October, the company shocked most of us with the surprise announcement that founder Robert Rucker would retire as CEO at the end of 2014. Considering the flooring retailer's tumultuous year to that point, it should be no surprise the stock has been up and down since.
On Jan. 1 2015, Tile Shop's Chief Operating Officer Chris Homeister replaced Rucker as the company's CEO, despite only being with Tile Shop since October 2013.
With the fourth-quarter earnings report just around the corner, what should investors expect? Let's take a look.
New customer growth not likely to impress
Since it's the slowest time of year for Tile Shop, much of the economic data we have seen covering the fourth quarter has been relatively muted. Through the first three quarters of 2014, sales grew by 12.9%, but that was completely due to new store openings. Meanwhile, same-store sales -- which only considers sales from stores that have been open for more than one year -- declined by 0.5%.
Due to the poor traffic and sales growth, the company projected fourth quarter same-store sales to range from up 1%, to down 1%, and for new sales growth to be driven by store openings. Meanwhile, earnings per share are expected to come in at $0.24, a large decline from 2013.
Combine these weak projections and the fact that the end of the year is not traditionally a strong quarter for home remodeling projects, and it's hard to think Tile Shop's fourth-quarter sales will impress Wall Street.
Look for new store opening activity, fiscal discipline
While some analysts see weakness in Tile Shop's business and a lack of durable competitive advantages, it's important to remember that the industry is also in a malaise right now. Existing home sales -- a reasonably good macroeconomic metric for Tile Shop's business -- were poor again in 2014, though they started to slightly rebound in the second half of the year:
But even that rebound is still below historical levels. Until existing home sales ramp back up, Tile Shop is likely to continue operating in a challenging environment.
Another relatively positive trend is low unemployment, which is now below 6% and at the lowest levels since before the recession. Lower unemployment levels tends to accompany greater home sales and better housing-industry performance.
While neither of these two trends ensure better results, housing and housing-related businesses such as Tile Shop are cyclical in nature. Once the cycle turns, business can get very good, very quickly.
For the time being, expect Tile Shop to continue opening new stores as it expands into new geographies. The company generates enough cash flow that management should -- as long as expansion is handled deliberately and carefully -- fund this effort without taking on more debt.
There's work to do
It's not clear what kind of impact Homeister will have as CEO, and losing a founder as the guiding hand of a company is rarely a happy time. However, the past couple years under Rucker have been filled with scandal and distraction -- and that's not even talking about the poor business environment.
Rucker's exit as CEO could turn out to be a great thing, but he still retains major influence over the company for the time being. Rucker remains a major shareholder, serves on the board of directors, and will have an active role with the company until July as an "advisor."
The bottom line is that Homeister has his work cut out for him. For investors, it's going to take some time -- far beyond what the fourth quarter tells us -- to find out if he's the right guy to lead Tile Shop into its next big growth phase. The big question for me: Will Rucker really let him run the show? That is something only time will tell.