Categories Earnings Call Transcripts, Other Industries

Autonation Inc (AN) Q1 2021 Earnings Call Transcript

AN Earnings Call - Final Transcript

Autonation Inc  (NYSE: AN) Q1 2021 earnings call dated Apr. 20, 2021.

Corporate Participants:

Robert Quartaro — Vice President of Investor Relations

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Analysts:

Rajat Gupta — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Bret Jordan — Jefferies — Analyst

Stephanie Benjamin — Truist — Analyst

Richard Nelson — Stephens — Analyst

John Murphy — Bank of America — Analyst

Adam Jonas — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

David Whiston — Morningstar — Analyst

Presentation:

Operator

Good morning, my name is Denise, and I’ll be your conference operator today. At this time, I’d like to welcome everyone to the AutoNation First Quarter 2021 Earnings Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] Thank you.

I would now like to turn the call over to Rob Quartaro, Vice President, Investor Relations. You may begin your conference.

Robert Quartaro — Vice President of Investor Relations

Thank you. Good morning and welcome to AutoNation’s first quarter 2021 conference call and webcast. Please ensure that your lines are muted until the operator announce it’s your turn to ask a question. Leading our call today will be Mike Jackson, our Chief Executive Officer; and Joe Lower, our Chief Financial Officer. Following their remarks, we will open up the call for questions. I will be available by phone following the call to address any additional questions that you may have.

Before we begin, let me read our brief statement regarding forward-looking comments. Certain statements and information on this call, including any statements regarding our anticipated financial results and objectives constitute forward-looking statements within the meaning of the Federal Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995.

Such forward-looking statements involve known and unknown risks that may cause our actual results or performance to differ materially from such forward-looking statements. Additional discussions of factors that could cause our actual results to differ materially are contained in our press release issued earlier today and in our SEC filings, including our most recent Annual Report on Form 10-K and subsequent quarterly reports on form 10-Q and current reports on form 8-K.

And now I’ll turn the call over to AutoNation’s Chief Executive Officer, Mike Jackson.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Good morning and thank you for joining us. Today, we reported all-time record quarter results with adjusted EPS from continuing operations of in $2.79, an increase of 207% compared to last year. These outstanding results were driven by strong performance in new, used and customer financial services and disciplined expense management. Demand continues to exceed supply for new vehicles, and we expect this to continue through 2021 in part due to the production disruption. More importantly, low interest rates and consumer preference for vehicle ownership versus ridesharing and public transportation are supporting demand.

We expect our shipments from the manufacturers to double in the second quarter compared to the prior year. AutoNation same-store new vehicle units were up 22% year-over-year and up 12% compared to 2019. We remain focused on our pre-owned vehicle procurement strategy, nearly 90% of our pre-owned vehicles retailed in the first quarter were self- sourced, meaning, we acquired to trade-in, lease returns, switch, We’ll Buy Your Car or service loaners and avoided auctions. Acquiring vehicles at the right price, speed to the front line, a fair one price environment and leading digital capabilities are winning formula for our customers, which shows in our results.

AutoNation same-store pre-owned units were up 28% year-over-year and 20% compared to 2019. We continue to leverage our digital capabilities to drive cost reductions and increase efficiency. Sounds like customer 360 which has over 10 million active customer records enable us to provide truly comprehensive and personal experience for our customers. Which leads to higher close rates and increased vehicle sales. These efforts allowed us to deliver adjusted SG&A as a percent of gross profit, a 62.7% in the first quarter of 2021 which represents a 1,120 basis point improvement compared to the first quarter of 2020.

Our target is to operate at or below 65% SG&A as a percent of gross profit for ’21. We are committed to our business growth strategy through investment in our existing franchise business. Expansion of AutoNation USA and future acquisitions. We are on track to open five new AutoNation USA stores in 2021 and 12 additional new stores in 2022. Our target is to have over 130 AutoNation USA stores in operation from coast to coast by the end of 2026. Today, we announced that we signed an agreement to acquire 11 stores and one collision center for Peacock Automotive Group in Hilton Head and Columbia, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia representing approximately $380 million in annual revenue.

The brands acquired are Porsche, Jag [Phonetic] Land Rover, Audi, Subaru, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Volkswagen and Hyundai. This acquisition will increase AutoNation’s footprint from coast to coast to over 325 locations and it’s set to close in the summer. We have set the target to sell 1 million combined new and pre-owned vehicles annually.

AutoNation remains committed to delivering value to our shareholders, which includes opportunistic share repurchase. During the quarter we bought back 3.8 million shares or 5% of our shares outstanding.

I will now turn the call over to Joe Lower, our Chief Financial Officer.

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Mike and good morning, everyone. Today we reported adjusted net income from continuing operations of $234 million or $2.79 per share versus $82 million or $0.91 per share during the first quarter of 2020. This represents an all-time high quarterly EPS and a 207% increase year-over-year. During the quarter, we sold our remaining stake in Vroom for a gain of approximately $6 million after tax or $0.07 per share, which was excluded from our adjusted results.

Turning to operations. Our first quarter same-store revenue increased $1.3 billion or 27% compared to the prior year due to strong growth in new, used and customer financial services. While prior-year comparisons are impacted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see strong consumer demand exceeds supply for new vehicles. Given this backdrop, we remain focused on optimizing our business in the current environment. For the quarter, same-store total variable gross profit increased 52% year-over-year driven by an increase in total combined units of 25% and an increase in total variable PVR of $767 or 21%. Our customer care business continues to gradually improve with same-store customer care gross profit increasing 1% year-over-year. Taking together, our same-store total gross profit increased 27% compared to the prior year.

Moving to costs. First quarter SG&A as a percentage of gross profit was 62.7%, as Mike stated a 1,120 basis point improvement compared to the year-ago period. This strong performance was driven by a combination of strict cost discipline, leverage of our digital capabilities and healthy vehicle margins. As measured against gross profit, overhead decreased 590 basis points, compensation decreased 320 basis points and advertising decreased 210 basis points. Based on current business conditions, we project SG&A as a percentage of gross profit to be at or below 65% for the full year 2021.

Floorplan interest expense decreased to $9 million in the first quarter of 2021 due to lower interest rates and lower average floorplan balances. This combined with lower non-vehicle interest expense, a lower effective tax rate and fewer shares outstanding generated record adjusted EPS. Regarding our balance sheet and liquidity, we have ample capacity to continue investing in our business, including our AutoNation USA expansion as well as opportunistic share repurchases and acquisitions.

Our cash balance at quarter end was $350 million which combined with our additional borrowing capacity resulted in total liquidity of approximately $2.1 billion. Our covenant leverage ratio of debt to EBITDA declined to 1.3 times at the end of the first quarter down from 1.8 times at the end of the fourth quarter. Including cash and used floorplan availability, our net leverage ratio was 1.1 times at the end of March.

Our AutoNation USA expansion continues to provide a very attractive growth opportunity. During the first quarter, our five existing AutoNation US stores generated over $3 million in pre-tax profit. As Mike referenced earlier, we plan to open five new stores by the end of this year and 12 new stores in 2022 and targeting over 130 total locations by the end of 2026. We’re also excited to welcome Peacock Automotive Group to the AutoNation family. And we will continue to look for attractive acquisitions that complement our portfolio and we can meet our return thresholds.

During the first quarter, repurchased 3.8 million shares of common stock for an aggregate price of $306 million. We have approximately $892 million of remaining Board authorization for share repurchases and approximately 80 million shares outstanding. Looking ahead, we will continue our disciplined capital allocation strategy, utilizing our strong balance sheet, robust cash flow generation and ample liquidity to invest in our business and drive long-term shareholder value.

With that, I’ll turn the call back over to Mike.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thank you, Joe. We had another impressive and record-breaking quarter. We remain focused on delivering a peerless customer experience with industry leading digital capabilities and outstanding associate interactions. Our commitment to the customer experience is why we’re number 1 for the J.D. Power Dealer of Excellence Recognition Program for the third year in a row.

Less than 2% of all US franchise dealers achieve this honor. 78 AutoNation stores representing over 20% of our dealerships were recognized. Our associates did not let the pandemic interfere with their ability to provide a great experience. We’re in the stores and in the offices to meet the needs of our customers. I want to thank each of them who show up every day for our customers and each other.

With that, I’m delighted to take any questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your first question comes from Rajat Gupta of J.P. Morgan. Your line is open.

Rajat Gupta — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Hi, good morning. Thanks for taking my questions and congrats on a really strong quarter. I just had a question on the supply, the days supply, it dropped pretty materially from the fourth quarter to first quarter. And then you’re obviously sourcing a lot directly from consumers and outside the auction. Just curious as to how do you see that low-day supply end of the quarter impacting your second quarter growth? Are you able to sustain the first quarter kind of growth into April? Do you expect that to continue here in the second quarter based on a strong demand and just curious as to how much of the constrained is the supply right now, both on new and used? Thanks.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

There is no question that there is more demand and supply. That is the headline. On the new vehicle side, day supply is tight, but shipments and production are disrupted with the chip crisis and will be for the rest of the year, but it’s nothing like a year ago. During the pandemic, when we had the factory — factory shutdowns, our shipments, this second quarter will be double what they were a year ago. So it’s on the margin as far as shipments. But, the headline is more than and supply. We’ve adjusted pricing to reflect that. And you see the improvement in our funding groups. The demand for personal transportation is across the board from price point of $5,000 to $500,000.

And we’ve aggressively move to increase our availability on pre-owned, do you see that? And we have the capability, the source, 90% of what we retail ourselves, and that’s a core capability. So the marketplace is good in our combination to perform within that of a brand. Great experience, digital platform and operating execution, which includes how we acquire and speed to market, we can do it profitably, is all to the benefit of AutoNation. We’re in a very good position.

Rajat Gupta — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Got it. So it looks like that the trends on just the same-store comps here, at least comparing versus 2019 levels, I mean that’s continued here into April or have you seen any slowdown here at all or is that simply solid?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

The demand is very strong. I’ve been saying it for over a year that there has been a heavy seismic shift, you pick the word, but the American spirit is that they want individual transportation, individual personal vehicle. They want to decide where they go when, who’s with them, who’s been in the vehicle before them, who’s been in the vehicle after them. And I think this demand shift towards personal vehicle is very strong. You also see it in the housing industry and people want bigger, more comfortable home with more electronics in it. Hence the competition for chips between the home industry and the automobile industry, and of course underpinning all this is very attractive interest rates for our customers, which — so the demand, we expect to last for the rest of the year, interest rates will be low for the rest of the year. Chip result disruption will be there for the rest of the year. So I think it continues.

Rajat Gupta — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Got it. Just a follow-up on capital allocation. A pretty aggressive buybacks here in the last couple of quarters, also started to ramp up some M&A activity. Could you give us a sense of how we expect — how we should expect the balance capital allocation to be going forward.

I mean, do we see a bigger pivots towards M&A. Just on the M&A side, if you could comment on what the pipeline is looking like? How the valuations are looking like? Therefore assets would be helpful. Let me open the line. Thank you.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Joe, can you take that please.

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Sure. So, to start out, experienced on capital, extremely strong cash flows for you to start that discussing. So $278 million of free cash flow out of the quarter. So, we’re generating extremely strong cash. Our first priority is always going to be reinvesting in the business. Again we’ve come out and communicated expectations on AutoNation USA and a general timetable and kind of giving you a sense on average about $10 million a store. In addition, we are going to continue to be opportunistic on M&A.

We do have a high threshold for both financial and I’ll call it strategic cultural fit, but we’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing in the marketplace, remain disciplined. And still believe that our stock represents an attractive value. And given the strong free cash flow extremely strong balance sheet, we continue — expect to continue to have a very balanced deployment across all those categories. Obviously the hardest to predict is the M&A, but that is going to be opportunistic based on situation.

Rajat Gupta — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Got it, got it. Okay. That’s really helpful. Thanks again and best of luck.

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thanks.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from Bret Jordan with Jefferies. Your line is open.

Bret Jordan — Jefferies — Analyst

Thinking about your use retail sourcing going forward, I think you mentioned you sourced in-house. But given the current environment, should we expect to see a shift in how used vehicles are sourced and I mean, I guess, another way, there’s a slowdown in trade-ins from maybe lack of new vehicle supply. Should we expect to see more sourcing from off lease and direct to customers? And is there ample opportunity in both those channels?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, we intend to source everywhere aggressively and have the capability to do all of that and then have to be prepared to deal with any developments in the marketplace that would be a challenge. We’re very excited about our direct purchases from consumers, which are now running over 5,000 per month and we expect to continue to grow that. So clearly our ability to acquire pre-owned is a core capability, requirement, the right place. More importantly, we have a system in a process that we can recondition to a very high standard, both cost effectively and very quickly and have them frontline ready.

And therefore, we’re on a very high churn rate on our pre-owned inventory. So we’re in a good place with the brand, all pre-owned is one price with consumers love. We have a great digital platform where everything is listed. And we have a speed to market and a core ability to acquire pre-owned. So we’re very confident and optimistic about the future of our pre-owned business. Hence, the decision to lay out the additional years of our investment in the USA stores, that will take us to 130 USA stores in operation by the end of 2026.

Bret Jordan — Jefferies — Analyst

Okay, great. And thinking about SG&A growth, Q1 was another really great quarter in that respect. And obviously a portion of that is due to the higher gross profit you putting up. But it looks like you’ve updated expectations for the year to 65% from I think your prior target was below 68%. And I’m just wondering what opportunities you’re seeing there that contributes to an updated outlook?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Joe, could you please take that.

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Sure. So really seeing the deployment of our digital tools, both in the stores, I mean the back half is really helping where we’re seeing greater leverage both in overhead and compensation at advertising. So as we kind of look across all three categories, we’ve seen significant improvement. I believe, the only kind of difference is very little comp which actually increase, which is understandable given the strong growth.

But if you look at the underlying drivers, we continue to see the benefits, strict discipline, fewer heads, what we’re spending on advertising, lower discretionary spend. When we now look out the rest of the year, we have a high degree of confidence that we can drive that — into that 65% range and below. So it really is leveraging the tools that we put in place and maintained the discipline on costs going forward.

Bret Jordan — Jefferies — Analyst

Okay, great. Thank you very much for taking my questions.

Operator

Your next question comes from Stephanie Benjamin of Truist. Your line is open.

Stephanie Benjamin — Truist — Analyst

Hi, good morning.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Good morning.

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Good morning.

Stephanie Benjamin — Truist — Analyst

I think, following up on your either question that was just asked, I wanted to hear a little bit more about the updated USA store investment. I believe expanded knowledge store count. But it sounds like accelerated the timeline as well. So, I’d love to hear what happen really over the last couple of months that gave you the confidence that to accelerate the plan includes the performance of your existing stores, the overall market, love to get more color on what was behind this decision. Thanks.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

So, the performance of the existing stores is outstanding and continues to develop really well. Joe, I think the operating profit of the existing stores was $3 million for the quarter. Is that correct?

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Correct. Exceeded $3 million.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Exceeded $3 million in the quarter. Now, as far as what we just announced, we really had already announced ’21 and ’22 and I think there’s only a slight difference in the store count in those two years. And what we really announced today was what we’re building from ’23 through the end of ’26. And that’s just an expression of our confidence that we really have this combination figured out. And not to be repetitive, but it’s important, the brand, one price digital platform, operating skills speed the market. USA stores are really a reconditioning center that we can, when we acquire vehicles. It’s an acquisition point but a reconditioning center for pre-owned and for speed to market and it’s a delivery center and we’re able to build those very cost-effectively and with a very reasonable ramp to profitability. Joe, you — what would you like to add to that on the USA stores?

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I think, the only thing I would add, Mike is just, underlying that is the success we’ve had in procuring vehicles, which is where it all starts. If you go back just a year, 80% of our procurement was self-sourced. And as you cited earlier in Q1 we’re up to 90%. And I think the skills we’ve learned in procuring vehicles directly from customers really is a differentiator in the marketplace and something we think we can leverage going further — going forward.

Stephanie Benjamin — Truist — Analyst

Great, that’s really helpful. And then lastly just a follow-up question. I don’t believe you called out that any kind of impact this quarter from the weather events in tax, if you could kind of quantify that in any way or anything that you saw or do you feel like most of that — most of that was recovered at least at some point later on and call it March or so.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, I think I said at the time that it was a huge challenge for Texas, but it’s one of the most resilient fightback states in the country and they really got to say, Texas moving quickly and I think whatever disruption, we had, we were able to recover. Joe, you would know the actual numbers. But…

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I’d like to…

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

The material impact one way or the other.

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

No, there really wasn’t. And if anything, we did better than the market in Texas. I think as we can have demonstrated our ability to navigate that.

Stephanie Benjamin — Truist — Analyst

Great. Well, thank you so much.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Richard Nelson with Stephens. Your line is open.

Richard Nelson — Stephens — Analyst

Thanks. Good morning. Mike, congrats on a great quarter.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thank you.

Richard Nelson — Stephens — Analyst

The new car side same-store units, up 22%, up 12% compared to 2019, are you in fact outpacing the industry? What do you think retail SAAR did in the first quarter?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

I think we are at or close to retail SAAR for new vehicles in the quarter. I think we’ve clearly outperformed on pre-owned. So there it is. We clearly with limited supply have made the decision on new to hold margin. There is no reason to rush things out the door. You can’t easily replace it. Now, we’ve increased front end gross margins on new considerably. But on pre-owned, while our front end margins are excellent, we clearly have going for volume and feel the demand is there. And those customers who are looking for a different price point are not open to paying what’s being asked for new vehicles, then we shift them to a pre-owned, which we have and we can and do replace. So that’s how we’re moving through this situation. But the headline is, there’s significant demand, significant sustainable demand and we are moving with market I would say on volume, but doing an excellent job on front-end gross margin on new, and are going for volume in pre-owned, hence plus 28%.

Richard Nelson — Stephens — Analyst

The SG&A target 65% or below, I’m curious what that assumes in terms of GPU, I think you are going to be able to hang on to these outside kind of GPUs as you’ll move through the year.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah. So again, our front-end growth on new move from 4% to 6%, is that correct, Joe? We’ve been at 6% before in the past. It’s not like we’re at some unprecedented level or some unreasonable level. So — and there is a very active discussion by the manufacturers about having some discipline and maybe as I’ve been advocating for 15 years running in different parts between demand and supply, would be intelligent. So, we’ll see. But the question won’t be answered until 2022. I mean, there is going to be more demand than supply through the balance of this year.

Richard Nelson — Stephens — Analyst

Those supply challenges might be quite the worst is behind us for those have become more problematic as the year unfolds.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

So look, from my perspective, in my world, the worst was the factory shutdowns, literally a year ago for six, eight, 10 weeks, depending on manufacturing and then a very, very gradual resumption. What we face with the chip is, absolutely nothing like that. What is very interesting at the moment is how much of our incoming shipments are pre-sold. So shipments are somewhat disrupted and they can’t run everything at a 100%, but it’s twice as good as it was a year ago. But I sort of think the way it is now, the way it’s going to be the rest of the year from everything I hear from the manufacturers, they really do not have a clear sightline to higher levels of production. So, we probably are running the plan that we have right now, which is get good front-end growth on new and go for the volume in pre-owned, and that seems to be a very weighing equation in this environment.

Richard Nelson — Stephens — Analyst

State makes sense. Thanks and good luck. Thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from John Murphy with Bank of America. Your is open.

John Murphy — Bank of America — Analyst

Hey, Mike. Good morning.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Good morning.

John Murphy — Bank of America — Analyst

I just wanted to follow up real quickly on that comment you made about the automakers. I mean, with the dealer body, including AutoNation’s dealing is miraculous, right, with the level of inventories being so low. I mean, you’re selling 16.7 [Phonetic] in the first quarter in the industry at large, mostly retail, not a lot of fleet. So just curious, do you really think that — I mean, is there a discussion that you’re having and that they’re having to finally understand this balance? Because they’re making a whole lot more money, too. But it’s not just you, they are too. I mean are they rumbling for that? Or is this just still TBD until you’re confident?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Having this conversation for 30-plus years from my days of running Mercedes through my days here at AutoNation, and I think for the first time ever, I can see a lively constructive conversation about this issue. I mean, in the past, it was always theoretical. And I would never wish for this pandemic. It’s a horrific, horrible thing that we’ve gone through. But if you ever wanted a case study of what the world looks like if you did it different, this past year in this moment and all of this year will be it and the list of benefits, both at the manufacturer, supplier and retail level, with a little adjustment here and there, is considerable and it’s long. So retail — and on top of that, a big part of that is trade-in values for consumers is excellent. That’s one of the ways this situation is working for everyone from the consumer through the manufacturer. So look, it’s force majeure at the moment because the chips simply aren’t there, and they’re not going to be there in any meaningful way for some time compared to the demand. But I think, John, at the end of the day, there could be a new way forward.

John Murphy — Bank of America — Analyst

Yeah. It’s very encouraging. Second, quick question, on acquisitions. It seems like pricing is going up dramatically. This is a very nuanced way that we model stuff of 15% to 30% of price to sales, just on our cash flow statements in our models. Joe, how should we think about that roughly? Is that range about right these days? Because with some of these numbers, it seemed like you’re a bit higher in that on price to sales. How should we think about that in modeling it? It’s costing for us to do because not a lot of information is disclosed, but just how should we think about it?

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I’d say we generally think more about it as a multiple of EBITDA than revenue. And it’s kind of in that high single-digit range, and returns are mid-teens.

John Murphy — Bank of America — Analyst

Got it, okay. That’s very helpful. And then just on your AutoNation USA expansions, it seems like you’ll be at 22 stores, I think, by the end of 2022 if my count is correct. So it’ll be 27 per year for the next four years after that. That’s a heavy pace. I mean, I’m sure on the capital front, on the inventory front, I’m confident you guys could pull it off, but human capital is always a question, right? So, I mean, how do you ramp up those GMs of those stores and the staffs in those stores? That’s a lot of hiring with people that are cashless, a lot of expensive inventory.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Now you’re spot on. This was — there’s two critical paths as far as sustaining that level of growth. And it’s both management and the ability to build the stores on the right side for the right locations. And we’ve been hard at work at that for the past 2 years. And it’s the reason why we waited to say something publicly until we were absolutely convinced that we could do it.

So on the human capital side, we have AutoNation General Manager University, which is an internal development capability, that general management within the Company is trained and developed high potential, future general managers are identified years ahead of time and go into development programs and the development programs as a big component around preowned cars, and running and leading a USA store is something now that’s aspired to within the Company. Everybody sees the success that they are. So we have a development pipeline of talent that we will promote from within to lead these stores.

John Murphy — Bank of America — Analyst

Okay. And then just lastly, parking service is still not getting a lot of airtime or ink. Historically, that’s been the key driver of the business, you used to get UIOs in it, you ran the parts service business off them. When do you think we see an inflection point there? And is there a lot of deferred maintenance that, second half of this year, early next year, it really pops back up? Because I mean, if what’s going on right now continues, and then you get that kicker of parts and service, I mean it just seems like nuclear fuel to earnings and cash flow. Just when do you think that kicks in?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

So first, in principle, John, you’re exactly right. Although in the past year, the number of miles driven was reduced, depending on the period of time you pick. And as such, the pent-up need for maintenance was reduced proportionally to that. But there isn’t a point coming. And Joe, you’ve done the calculations backwards and forward several times. Would you describe where we are for the first quarter and where do you think it goes from here?

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. As we’ve said, it continues to recover. Our first quarter Customer Care growth was positive percent, which is a continuation of the progress. It’s really month by month. The areas that are recovering the fastest, not surprisingly, our customer pay. It’s the internal work as far as prepping cars. Warranty and collision has trailed, as we’ve mentioned, and it really is tied to that miles driven, but we continue to see sequential monthly improvement. But that’s been the laggard. We do expect that, that will continue to improve over the course of this year, which will help all of our Customer Care business. But March was our best month we’ve seen in a while. We’ve continued to see a positive trend.

John Murphy — Bank of America — Analyst

So it would be fair to say we’re just the precipice of a positive inflection point, but how positive it is, is still TBD. Is that — will that be the way you’d characterize it? Is that fair?

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I think this is fair.

Operator

Your next question comes from Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley. Your line is open.

Adam Jonas — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Thanks. Mike, I’d like to ask you long-term questions because you just got such an unbelievable experience and we all value your views. So Volvo is trying to go direct-to-consumer with their EVs, right, Mike? I’m sure you’ve been following that. Why, in your opinion, would they want to do that? Can you see the motivation from their perspective? And do you think they could be successful? Or should they just — are they nuts? That’s my first question.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, that’d be polite. Yes, they’re not. Thank you, Adam, for allowing me to say that. And I think at the end of the day, they’re going to have to kick the beehive and end up not that different from where they are today for very rational, appropriate reasons. And others who talk about this selling direct, and we’ve experienced with other manufacturers, when the moment of truth finally arise, they end up with what is basically a reservation listing order bank, which you can’t even specify your, in detail, your vehicle with the manufacturer, and it gets turned over to the dealer and the retailer to take over. But they sort of established a reservation. Reservation is the best word to describe what some of these selling direct things are.

Now of course, you have the Tesla model, which is absolutely a sell-direct model, and you have other electric vehicle startups that are talking about it. I think the Achilles heel in that model is that you do not put in a service infrastructure. So the franchise system, in order to get a franchise, you have to invest in the facilities that you are going to care for the units and our operations in the marketplace. So if you’re a start-up, you don’t need that on day 1, but ultimately, you need it. And I think it’s an Achilles heel and very expensive and difficult to build subsequently. But if you’re a startup, it’s your decision to go to market however you wish.

But I think the franchise model is the best for the manufacturer, for the consumer. And as a retailer, if you’re good at the business, it can be a very rewarding return. So I think it’s viable, sustainable. And my — and I was once — one once, a manufacturer — on the manufacturing side. I mean, you sit in these meeting rooms and you dream all this stuff up and you throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

I don’t think this is going to stick. I’m not overly concerned about it. I will say, though, unequivocally that retailers who have a proprietary digital capability, unique tools that are very effective, have a significant competitive advantage. I think that’s really the headline in all this. And for us, it’s Global 360 and equity mining, some other fabulous tools that are just unlocking business for us every day.

If you’re competing against us and you’re buying off-the-shelf manufacturer cookie cutter tools to compete in retail, you are really in a unsustainable position because you don’t have the scale to go out and build your own tools. I mean it. You know, Adam, what we went through in ’14, ’15 and ’16 to build these things, and I’m glad we did it, especially with the inflection point that came. So I think that’s driving — I think that’s the headline for auto retail, and I think that’s going to — I think you’re going to see more buy-sells and consolidation into bigger entities, and the ultimate winners are those who have scale, a big brand, freight experience, digital platform, oh, and the ability to do all that profitably.

Adam Jonas — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

All right. I want to put — at the risk of putting some napalm on the hornet’s nest, here I go. Here we go, baby. So the dealer — the state dealer franchise laws, I mean, don’t you think they’re past their sell-by date in some areas? Like what is — just for the sake of discussion, if you’re wrong, and these startups aren’t all going down some path where they say, just kidding, we need help, we’re not going to go direct-to-consumer anymore. That was a bad idea.

And — but let’s say they actually do, and they start building their parts and collision stuff the way Tesla is doing, and going service centers and they’ll have hiccups and stuff, do we run the risk of having two classes of auto distribution, one, where you got the new guys that actually have the option, they might screw it up, but some won’t, of going direct. And then the others that are legally kind of can’t do it, and there may be things to do, but they just kind of locked into the one? And I wonder if this reaches like FCC or — sorry, FTC or Supreme Court, like you really think that it’s — those 60 year old laws are just absolutely, they don’t need any clicking? They’re just right for this moment in tech?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Well, Adam, you’ve never seen AutoNation object any of these start-ups, it is really their decision how they want to go to market. And it’s their decision, their responsibility, it’s their capital, and you’ve never seen AutoNation protest that in any state or get involved in it. Now where state franchise laws have a certain relevance and merit is when a manufacturer comes to us and says, okay, here’s the deal, build this exclusive facility. Here’s the keyword, exclusive facility for us, and there’s given market and we’re giving you a given territory and return for that exclusive investment. Well, I’m going to eject if you make that deal with me and you put another one down the road for me a week later.

Now if you’re not asking me to be exclusive, if you let me do what I want as a retailer, which is I’m going to build one great, big mega facility delivery center and put everything in it under one roof, then I don’t need franchise laws to deal with that issue. But as long as you’re asking for exclusivity, there has to be some protection on this exclusive investment that’s been made. And their franchise laws have relevance. But this whole campaign to block startup manufacturers from going direct, we are not involved in. And it’s really their choice, what they want to do.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your next question comes from David Whiston of Morningstar.

David Whiston — Morningstar — Analyst

I guess I know it’s too early to talk about a SAAR expectation for next year. But similar to what I think John was asking about on service, I mean, given the supply shocks we’ve had on new vehicles for a couple of years now, plus low interest rates, plus actually healthy demand, do you see a scenario for next year or worse, sales could just — new vehicle sales could just explode up?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

So again, the headline is there’s far more demand than there is supply. So it’s really difficult to judge where the level of demand is out there. I think the pandemic was a scarring event for America. I think shelter-in-place was a scarring event for America and people have changed the way they live, and they changed the way they work because of this pandemic. And I can remember, as a kid, meeting my grandparents, which were unbelievably frugal and I say, why don’t you loosen up and spend a little money and they would say, listen, you don’t understand. You haven’t been through the Great Depression.

So I think this has been a scarring event on the psyche of America, and they think differently about their home. There’s concern about density. They want more space in their home. They want their home to be able to do more for them. And when they do leave their home, they want to control the vehicle that they’re in to the greatest extent possible and who’s been in it before them. So I don’t really know where demand has gone because this is — the supply is restricted. What — but we should be careful here what’s — I’ve never seen so much preselling of shipments. We — these vehicles are coming in and going out if you want an indication of the level of demand. So people are buying up the pipeline before they even get to the dealership. And we’ve gone on our digital platform, AutoNation, where we show now a market, everything we have incoming. And we’re selling incoming vehicles that have been produced.

Now the predictability of arrival is not exact with disruptions in production, but it’s amazing how many people are now have changed the way they buy a vehicle in that sense. And again, that’s all possible to do where our incoming pipeline is visible on a national basis. So it would be — it’s hard to predict on and it’s premature to predict on ’22. But I think I have a pretty good sight line for the rest of the year that the headline is — demand is high. They want personal vehicle. They’re willing to buy an incoming vehicle. They’re willing to switch to a late-model preowned and the demand is across the board. And if you manage the business correctly, you can do very well in this environment.

David Whiston — Morningstar — Analyst

And somewhat related to that question then is, as you know, there’s a balance between the amount of inventory you have and then your pricing power, and you talked about right now, you’re sticking to getting the high front-end gross, which I agree with. But just crudely speaking, do you want slightly more inventory than you have now, a lot more or a payer mix?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, it’s a — careful what you wish for. And as I walk the stores, I hear that all the time, they say, “Oh, Mike, if you could — if we can only get some more cars, we would sell so many, it’s just unbelievable. And I always say, well, be careful what you wish for. So look, I have a very good sight line on the rest of ’21. I think the rest of the ’21 is about, as I described, outstanding demand, very attractive interest rates and customer flexibility that they’re willing to purchase incoming shipments in advance and they’re willing to switch over to pre-owned to get their personal vehicle.

David Whiston — Morningstar — Analyst

Okay. And just last question on the balance sheet. You have big bond maturities in both ’24 and ’25. They’re only at 3.5%. The rates are quite low right now. Do you have any interest and perhaps we could find either of those this year to spend the timeline out beyond the ’24 and ’25’?

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Joe, that’s in your wheelhouse.

Joe Lower — Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yes, not at this time, we continue to evaluate, but not a priority in this current environment.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Okay. Thank you. Appreciate it.

Operator

There are no further questions at this time. Mr. Jackson, I’ll turn the call back over to you.

Mike Jackson — Chief Executive Officer and Director

Well, I want to thank you for joining us today, and thank you for all your questions. And I also want to thank all our associates who put on the mask every day and come to work and imagine — just imagine, through this entire pandemic, on any given day, 95% of our associates were physically at work to take care of our customers. And for that, I’m very grateful on this outstanding performance and four record quarters in a row would not be possible without 95% of our associates putting on that mask and coming to work. So we have 50% of them are vaccinated at this point. We’re working hard that everyone who wants a vaccination can get it, and we look forward to the day that we don’t have to wear masks. It’s not here yet, but we look forward to that day. Thank you, everyone, for joining us. Appreciate your questions.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

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