Q4 2017 CEO Commentary*
CEO Joseph Morone said, "Q4 2017 was another good quarter for Albany International. Although charges associated with the new tax law contributed to a sharp drop in net income, both businesses performed well in Q4, resulting in solid growth in total Company sales and Adjusted EBITDA, and strong cash flow. MC and AEC both reached the high-end of their projected outlooks for full-year 2017, and expect continued strong performance in 2018.
"Q4 sales in MC were once again stable compared to Q4 2016, as market trends of the previous eight quarters persisted. A roughly 10% decline in publication grades sales was offset by stable or incrementally growing sales in other grades. Publication grade sales declined to approximately 23% of total sales compared to 25% in Q4 2016. Prices were stable, although pricing pressure remained intense, particularly in Asia. New product performance was once again strong across the board, and we are greatly encouraged by advances in the new technology platform across multiple segments and product lines. The only anomaly in the quarter was a drop in gross margin due to higher than normal end-of-year underutilization of capacity. We expect gross margin to bounce back in 2018 to the full-year average of the past two years.
"For the full-year 2017, sales excluding currency, gross margin, operating income and Adjusted EBITDA were virtually identical to 2016, with gross margin at 47.5% and Adjusted EBITDA again at the high end of our expected range of $180 million to $195 million.
"After a decade of steady year-over-year sales declines due to the collapse of the publication grades, we view the stability of MC sales over the past two years as an indicator of an important, structural change. Although publication grade sales are likely to continue to erode at a 5% to 10% annual rate and to cause periodic volatility when large numbers of publication machines are shut down in a short period of time, the publication grades have become a small enough part of MC's sales mix that under normal economic conditions, incremental growth in the other grades should usually be sufficient to offset those declines. The last two years suggest it may now be appropriate to think of MC for the long-term as a stable business with some potential for small increases in sales volume during strong economic conditions, rather than as a gradually deteriorating business fighting a market in structural decline.
"We expect full-year 2018 to be comparable to full-year 2017, and thus for MC to again perform in the upper half of our expected range. While growing inflationary pressures and a weakening U.S. dollar could lead to some regression away from the very high end of our normal range for Adjusted EBITDA, a strong order backlog, healthy economic conditions around the world, and continued strong product performance should lead to another good year for MC in 2018.
"AEC also had a good quarter and full year. Sales grew by 12% compared to a strong Q4 2016, and 38% compared to full-year 2016. The year-over-year Q4 increase was driven primarily by growth in the 787 fuselage frames, F-35 airframe, and CH-53K programs in Salt Lake City along with the new program for engine parts in Boerne. LEAP, which accounted for 44% of sales, was flat compared to an especially strong Q4 2016. Compared to Q3 2017, LEAP grew by 30%, and compared to full-year 2016, LEAP grew by 40%.
"All of AEC's ramping programs made progress on quality and deliveries, and the two new plants in Querétaro Mexico are on schedule. The first of these two plants produced and shipped its first LEAP fan blades late in Q4. We continue to see upward pressure on demand for the LEAP program, while demand on all of AEC's other ramping programs is either stable or facing incremental upward pressure.
"AEC Q4 2017 operating income improved to slightly above break-even. As expected, Gross profit was hurt by ramp-up inefficiencies in Q4, but the negative impact was offset by a favorable net adjustment to estimated profitability of long-term contracts. As a result, Adjusted EBITDA as a percent of sales improved to 14% compared to 11% in Q3 2017, and 8% in Q4 2016. As discussed earlier in this release in the CFO commentary, future AEC profit margins will be affected by the change in revenue recognition standards that went into effect on January 1 of this year. But holding revenue recognition standards constant, the trend toward incrementally improving profit margins should continue through 2018 and 2019, as the rate of hiring, training and new equipment installation begins to slow and operating efficiencies advance.
"In new business development, we continue to make progress on three fronts: opportunities with our current customers on existing platforms, opportunities on new platforms, and longer-term opportunities still in development. We have made enough progress on each of these fronts to revise our estimate of revenue potential for 2020. In 2016, following the acquisition of our Salt Lake City operation, we stated that AEC had the potential to grow to $450 million in revenue by 2020. In mid-year 2017, we revised that potential upward to $450 million to $500 million. We now think $475 million to $550 million is a reasonable estimate. This assumes both existing contracts and contracts that we believe we are more likely than not to win. We continue to expect 18% to 20% EBITDA as a percent of sales by 2020 (again, holding revenue recognition standards constant).
"As for our outlook for 2018, we expect 20% to 30% growth in full-year sales, driven primarily by the ramp-ups in LEAP, 787 fuselage frames, and F-35 programs, and holding revenue recognition standards constant, continued steady, incremental improvement in Adjusted EBITDA as a percent of sales.
"In sum, this was another good quarter and year for Albany, with stable year-over-year performance on both top and bottom lines in MC, continued strong growth and incremental improvements in profitability in AEC, and an outlook for both businesses of continued strong performance in 2018."
*From the Q4 2017 Albany International earnings release issued February 5, 2017