Carvana notches wins on Wall Street Online used-vehicle retailer sees a path to growth and profitability

Carvana, known for its vehicle vending machines, here and below, never has made a profit. But the Phoenix company has been expanding rapidly with a targeted strategy.

Carvana Co. might still be bleeding money, but that has not stopped Wall Street analysts from liking what they see from the online used-vehicle retailer.

Carvana this month reported a $38.4 million loss in the first three months of the year, more than double what it lost in the same period a year ago, even as revenue surged 118 percent. The company blamed its losses on expansion-related costs, saying the profits will come down the line as it grows and establishes itself across the U.S. The company has operated at a loss ever since its founding in 2012.

“The path to profitability is clear,” Carvana CEO Ernie Garcia said in an earnings call with investors and analysts this month. “The brand we have built is powerful, and our website and brand assets like the vending machine make a strong impression and tell a clear story to our customers.”

Wall Street is buying that line of thinking, even as it appears profits could be far off and retailers adjust to slowing sales and declining used-car values. Carvana shares, after plummeting by 40 percent since the company’s initial public offering April 28, have more than doubled since the earnings report. Shares closed at $19.54 on June 19 after closing at $9 per share on June 5.

David Lim, an analyst with Wells Fargo, wrote in a June 7 note that he is maintaining his “outperform” rating, the equivalent of a “buy” rating, citing Carvana’s guidance for the rest of the year. Carvana expects revenue of $193 million to $203 million in the second quarter, above the $184 million consensus Wall Street expectation.

“With guidance given, it is now up to management to deliver,” Lim wrote.

The Phoenix company has been expanding rapidly. The company operated in nine markets at the end of 2015. By the end of the first quarter of this year, it sold vehicles in 23 markets and has plans to operate in as many as 39 by the end of the year.

In an interview, Garcia said the company chooses which markets to expand into based in large part on where it already operates. For instance, it opened in two markets in Georgia — Macon and Augusta — not far from Atlanta, its first market.

Garcia said that strategy helps to keep expansion costs down. Most Carvana customers choose to have their vehicles delivered to them. Opening in nearby markets helps to expand the company’s footprint while allowing it to tap into existing vehicle sourcing and shipping.

“We can buy cars from sources we previously bought from and then ship them to customers in that market,” Garcia said. “We have our own trucks there and everything else. It’s relatively inexpensive to do that.”

“The brand we have built is powerful, and our website and brand assets like the vending machine make a strong impression and tell a clear story to our customers.”
Ernie Garcia, Carvana CEO

Garcia declined to divulge specifics, though he said Carvana aims to have a nationwide presence. As the company’s rate of expansion settles down and Carvana establishes itself, the hope is that profitability would follow.

“We have a cost structure that doesn’t look like anything in automotive retail,” Garcia said. “That structure is high fixed-cost based and a low variable cost. The primary driver to get us to profitability is scale. With most dealerships, their cost structures are sort of optimized to be stand-alone businesses, but they have very high variable costs. The cost structure just looks different.”

Expansion would include more of its vehicle “vending machines,” from which customers can opt to pick up their vehicles. Carvana operated four of those locations at the end of the first quarter, and while Garcia declined to divulge specifics, he said more should be on the way.

“It’s not like we can rely on FedEx or UPS,” Garcia said. “If we can build that experience and make customers want to come to us, it’s relatively inexpensive compared to a traditional dealership.”