Few companies have had a rougher ride than TrueCar, Inc. (NASDAQ:TRUE) has over the past 12 months:
Investors in TrueCar have endured a summer filled with multiple lawsuits, a disappointing second quarter, and termination of its partnership with AutoNation, the nation's largest auto retailer, which culminated in TrueCar CEO Scott Painter stepping down. There's no question the past few months have added doubt that TrueCar can indeed capitalize on its immense potential.
While today's gain of 11% doesn't have any apparent direct news driving it, it should remind investors that the game isn't over and TrueCar's business isn't broken. Here are a couple of recent events for investors to keep in mind, risks that continue to exist, and a look at where TrueCar can go from here.
What have you done for me lately?
A recent partnership between TrueCar and Sam's Club -- which I cover in depth here -- proves that the car-buying service company still has plenty of avenues for revenue growth. In September, Sam's Club, a warehouse division of Wal-Mart Stores, announced a new automotive buying program that provides guaranteed savings for its exclusive members -- a program powered by TrueCar. This initiative could generate incremental sales for TrueCar and offers Sam's Club another way to compete with its rival Costco, which offers a successful car-buying program for its members.
On a different note, the emergence of TrueCar has prompted some dealership groups to investigate Internet-based buying programs. AutoNation is actually developing such an online-oriented service, called AutoNation Express, which is currently available at roughly 90 of the company's 232 dealerships.
It's important to note that the reach of TrueCar -- a network of roughly 10,000 dealerships nationwide -- provides an immense amount of data that competitors can't soon copy, which in turn provides a pricing and information advantage. However, the fact that some dealership groups are attempting to clone TrueCar's service is worth watching.
The road ahead
Where does TrueCar see itself after a rocky year? As the tenure of Painter as CEO ended abruptly in August, TrueCar's executives realize the company faces familiar challenges.
"I think one of the things you're going to see from this management team going forward regardless of who may become our CEO, is a broader, deeper commitment to listening to our dealer partners," said Johnny Stephenson, TrueCar's chief risk officer, who has been involved with the company's legal battles with dealers and regulators, according to Automotive News.
This isn't a new problem, as TrueCar nearly collapsed in late 2011 after dealerships revolted when the company's low-price promise encouraged a price race to the bottom that destroyed dealership profits. In a business model where dealerships pay TrueCar for its sales lead service, it was a devastating revolt that required TrueCar to reevaluate its relationship with dealerships.
Now, as the ended partnership with AutoNation again brings TrueCar's dealership relationship problem to the forefront, TrueCar has increased its dealer support team by 60% over the past 12 months as its stock price trended lower. "Our job is to help dealers sell more cars, and we think we are not doing a good enough job of helping dealers close on the prospects we send to dealers every month and every quarter," Mike Timmons, TrueCar's Austin, Texas-based vice president for dealer development, told Automotive News.
As a long-term investment, TrueCar still offers investors a potentially incredible story. The company is working on programs for trade-in vehicles, and could venture into financing vehicles as well. That's just in the automotive industry, and the company could one day find itself dealing in other big-ticket-item markets, such as RVs, trailers, and boats, among others.
However, before investors get caught up in its future potential, we have to better understand the present.
That means investors have to wait for TrueCar to prove its business model is rock-solid, and profitable, with its dealerships. TrueCar has to lock down the necessary data from dealerships to ensure it is rightfully paid for each sales lead it provides that dealerships complete; it also has to do this while providing dealerships with cheaper leads than they can achieve through other marketing activities.
What it comes down to
It's important to remember that the presence of TrueCar doesn't generate incremental automotive sales. Rather, TrueCar needs to offer enough value for consumers to use its website and network of dealerships over competitors' to create a lucrative business model.
This is a fine line to walk, but if TrueCar can again find the balance in the years to come, investors will be well rewarded. In the meantime, TrueCar remains a high-risk, high-reward investment.