Lithia Motors surged to the $10 billion annual revenue plateau in 2017, fueled by an 18 percent fourth-quarter revenue jump to $2.7 billion.
It was the 29th straight record quarter for the Medford-based auto retailer that shed dead weight in a crumbling economy a decade ago before roaring out of the Great Recession with renewed vigor.
Lithia on Wednesday morning reported total 2017 revenue grew 16.2 percent to just under $10.1 billion from nearly $8.7 billion in 2016. Fourth quarter net earnings swelled 74.2 percent to $89.4 million from $51.3 million a year earlier. For all 2017, the company's profit soared 24.4 percent to $245.2 million from $197.1 million. Per share earnings — closely tracked by analysts and investors — grew 75 percent to $3.56 from $2.03 for the fourth quarter and rose 26.3 percent for the year to $9.75 from $7.72.
Lithia President and CEO Bryan DeBoer reflected on the additional digit during a morning conference call with analysts.
"We are excited to have added an 11th digit to our annual revenues, as we exceeded $10 billion this year," DeBoer said. "We delivered double-digit growth in 2017, and our organization is poised to continue its upward growth trajectory regardless of market conditions."
While the pace of auto sales has slowed nationally, DeBoer suggested that bodes well for Lithia, creating more buying opportunities.
"We believe 2018 activity may exceed 2017 totals," he said, noting tax law changes created by Congress will create another $40 million in cash flow for the company and make acquisitions more attractive. With liquidity of nearly $500 million, Lithia is in position to aggressively add dealerships.
"The tax structure doesn't put us at a competitive disadvantage, where we used to be," DeBoer said. "We are actually able to pay about 15 percent more. We have the people, we have the model to be able to add at a more rapid rate."
Dealership group sellers appear more willing to move since the tax code changes, DeBoer said.
"They believe it's the right time to exit," he said. "They may have been on the market for quarters, or even years, at certain pricing, and there's not a lot of buyers out there. I think the biggest fundamental competitor we had over the last three years were (venture capitalist) firms. Now the VC firms have been in the business for four to seven years — typically their life cycle. They're now exiting, in some cases, which I believe is flooding some of the market and creating a greater supply."
That, in turn, has reduced competition for under-performing dealerships.
"We believe the market is pretty ripe, and our pipeline is full and will be more full," he said.
The company now operates 171 dealerships.
In January, Lithia Motors completed a $10 million deal in the Buffalo, New York, area, acquiring Ray Laks' Honda franchise for $6.5 million in Orchard Park and Ray Laks' Acura franchise for $3.5 million. The dealerships produce an estimated annual revenue of $140 million.
Texas markets, which produce about 12 percent of the company's revenue, saw 5 percent growth.
"It was really nice to see Texas have some positive momentum, especially since we weren't in the storm-affected areas of Texas," DeBoer said.
Online marketing continues to grow, he said, with same-store web traffic expanding by 15 percent during 2017 and another 20 percent in January alone.
New vehicle sales at Lithia's acquisitions averaged 30 percent below manufacturers' expectations and 50 percent below Lithia's existing lineup, Executive Vice President Chris Holzshu said.
Reviewing performance of "moderately seasoned" stores during the second half of 2017, Holzshu said dealerships acquired in the past tend to see revenue leveling off between the second and third years, partly because of flat demand for news cars nationally.
"The doubling of profit is occurring on schedule," he said. "But tripling and quadrupling is requiring growth in leadership, better utilization of technology, and inspiring teams to achieve the expected results."
Lithia's attentiveness to used car sales continued to feather the corporate nest.
The company sold an average of 67 used vehicles monthly in the fourth quarter, one more than a year earlier, with a system-wide goal of 85 units per month.
DeBoer noted new acquisitions average 38 used vehicle sales each month, while 35 long-standing franchises average nearly 100 units monthly. Lithia Ford Lincoln, led by General Manager Jim Sterk in Boise, Idaho, sells more than 200 used vehicles monthly, and two other Lithia dealerships in New Jersey and California are knocking on the 200-vehicle plateau, as well.
Lithia's Volkswagen of Salem sold 500 new cars last year, while turning over 1,780 used vehicles, something that bolsters the bottom line and positions the company for further acquisitions.
"When you are able to turn your used cars," DeBoer said, "you can be more competitive in what you value your used cars at, plus it generates a lot of reconditioning and service, and so many other wonderful things."
Lithia also declared a 27-cents per share dividend, payable March 23 to shareholders of record on March 9.
— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.