Toll Brothers may have chalked up another loss for the last quarter of its 2009 fiscal year--$111.4 million--thanks mostly to land valuation write-downs, and executives expect the company will deliver even fewer homes next year than this, but its conference call Thursday, Dec. 3 had barely a note of negativism.
Even if market conditions are improving at only a slow pace and there’s still what Toll calls “choppiness” in the numbers that could indicate trouble ahead, having $1.8 billion in cash squirreled away builds confidence that the storm will be weathered.
On the plus side, there will be fewer players in the luxury market niche in which Toll specializes given the loss of many private builders and the shift of larger public builders to the starter home market for volume, according to Toll.
“We believe we are well-positioned to gain market share as the housing market gradually recovers,” he said.
The Horsham, Pa.-builder of luxury homes even entertained a question about whether the company might have hoarded too much cash, which is money that some argue might be better used to pay off interest expenses and even further reducing the company’s debt below Toll's current unheard-of-in-the-industry 7.4% debt-to-equity level.
CEO Bob Toll said he's asked himself that question.
“Obviously I’m not sure (of the answer) or I would have done something,” Toll added. Later, he said that some money might be used to buy back equity in the future, but probably not to pay dividends.
The company reported earlier that its contract numbers were up nicely for the quarter that ended its fiscal year Sept. 30, up 42% in unit numbers, and 62% in dollars compared with the same quarter in 2008.
But things have been slower since Labor Day, said Toll, and he’s not sure whether it’s due to normal seasonal trends or more trouble ahead. He told analysts to ask him again at the end of February.
That’s also when the company, which has stopped laying off people for now, will decide if it needs to cut its head count further, he said.
Obviously Toll could use its extra cash to buy land, but it’s lost four out of five recent bids on parcels, and Toll said that with with land values depreciating, he’s cautious about over-paying. Or at least not “until our memory fades and we get greedy again," he added.
Teresa Burney is a senior editor at BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines.