Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct an error concerning stock-option compensation and to clarify salary information. The Fool regrets the errors.
In response to shareholder criticism, Applebee's (Nasdaq: APPB) is trying to give investors the change they've so vocally demanded. It's not necessarily trying very hard, though.
For starters, the company announced plans to close 24 restaurants. It owns 528 of its Applebee's restaurants; including franchises, the total number of locations rises to 1,940. Though closing the 24 restaurants will require short-term charges and expenses, the company said that the move will increase future earnings, cash flow, and return on invested capital.
Fewer stores aren't the entirety of Applebee's efforts to "optimize its asset base," according to the company. It's also selling one of its two corporate aircraft, as well as its current corporate headquarters in Kansas. The company has also forbidden its executives from using its remaining plane for personal purposes, barring the exception of medical emergencies and other hardships. (That's mighty big of them; I'd assume that many shareholders would want corporate jets to be used only for business purposes to begin with.)
The struggling restaurant chain has been exploring strategic alternatives for a while now. Several months ago, activist shareholder Breeden Partners recommended changes, offered harsh words about the company's performance, and nominated four directors to the company's board. Breeden has since rejected Applebee's offer for two seats on the board; not surprisingly, Applebee's has advised its shareholders to vote against Breeden's nominees.
Despite its dense legalese, shareholders should treat themselves to a thorough read of Applebee's preliminary proxy statement. Current CEO David Goebel and CFO Steven Lumpkin received base salary raises and no bonuses following 2005's performance, and the company's new "chief people officer" made more than his predecessor. I wouldn't blame shareholders for being irritated that these executives got raises, given Applebee's sluggish performance in 2005. In a separate release, Goebel and Lumpkin didn't receive raises following Applebee's performance in 2006. That's interesting to know, as investors usually have to wait a year to learn that information. Note that the board promoted Goebel to CEO in September 2006 and Lumpkin added a strategy role to his title for 2007.
The company did say that it has redefined compensation to boost long-term goals and competitive pay compared with industry peers. Those rivals are a rather divergent set, including companies I couldn't comfortably compare to Applebee's, such as Panera (Nasdaq: PNRA), Wendy's (NYSE: WEN), and Sonic (Nasdaq: SONC). More easily comparable companies included Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday (NYSE: RI), and Darden (NYSE: DRI). Applebee's went on to reveal further comparisons to some companies outside the restaurant industry, albeit with equivalent revenues.
I don't find Applebee's an appealing stock right now. The company may argue that executives have new incentives to take a "long-term approach." But shouldn't they have adopted such an outlook from the get-go? For many shareholders, closing a few dozen restaurants and scaling back airplane perks may seem like too little, too late.
Dig in to further Foolishness:
- Revisit Applebee's most recent quarter.
- Investors had high hopes for Applebee's, given word of a possible sale or restructuring.
- Breeden Partners agitated for a taste of change at Applebee's.
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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.