Categories Earnings Call Transcripts, Industrials

Donaldson Company (DCI) Q4 2020 Earnings Call Transcript

DCI Earnings Call - Final Transcript

Donaldson Company  (NYSE: DCI) Q4 2020 earnings call dated Sep. 03, 2020

Corporate Participants:

Brad Pogalz — Director, Investor Relations

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Analysts:

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Bryan Blair — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Joe Aiken — William Blair & Co. — Analyst

Dillon Cumming — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Dan Rizzo — Jefferies — Analyst

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Presentation:

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen thank you for standing by, and welcome to the Donaldson’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2020 Earnings Conference Call. [Operator Instructions]

I would now like to hand the conference over to your speaker today, Brad Pogalz, Director of Investor Relations. Thank you. Please go ahead.

Brad Pogalz — Director, Investor Relations

Thank you. Good morning, everyone. Thank you, for joining Donaldson’s fourth quarter and full year 2020 earnings conference call. With me today are Tod Carpenter, Chairman, CEO and President of Donaldson; and Scott Robinson, Chief Financial Officer. This morning, Tod and Scott will provide a summary of our 2020 performance along with an update on key considerations for 2021. I want to remind everyone that we issued a business update press release on August 6, which included some details that we will reference on this morning’s call. During today’s call, we will also reference non-GAAP metrics. We included a reconciliation of GAAP to non-GAAP metrics within the schedules attached to this morning’s press release. Finally, please keep in mind that any forward-looking statements made during this call are subject to risks and uncertainties which are described in our press release and SEC filings.

With that, I’ll now turn the call over to Tod Carpenter. Tod?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Brad, and good morning, everyone. I want to start today by thanking our employees for their resilience, flexibility and commitment in fiscal 2020. I greatly appreciate the work they do every day to keep us moving forward. As always, we remain focused on those things under our control. Despite a significant shift in the economic environment during fiscal ’20, there were several things that went as planned including: sales of replacement parts performed better than new equipment and first-fit products, gross margin increased from the prior year, we reduced our discretionary expenses while investing in growth businesses, and we maintained a strong financial position while returning cash to shareholders through dividends and share repurchase.

We are entering fiscal ’21 with clear priorities and engaged employees. We do not anticipate strong market conditions overall this year but our diverse business model and robust operational capabilities give me confidence that we can make progress on our strategic initiatives in any economic environment. We will talk more about our longer term opportunities later in the call. So I’ll now turn to a brief overview of fourth quarter sales. Total sales were $617 million in the quarter with sequential increases in June and July. Compared with the prior year, sales were down 15%, which is consistent with the forecast we provided in early August. Both segments experienced a similar decline. However, there was quite a bit of variability within the results. In the Engine segment our first-fit businesses remain under the most pressure. Fourth quarter On-Road sales were down 44% from the prior year.

The U.S. is the largest portion of On-Road and it accounted for much of the decline as the cyclical slowdown in Class 8 truck production was magnified by the pandemic. As a reminder, On-Road first-fit in the U.S. is only about 3% of total Donaldson sales so our aggregate exposure to that market is limited. Sales in Off-Road were down 24% in the quarter. More than half the decline was due to Exhaust and Emissions. There were pre-buys in Europe last year related to an oncoming regulatory change and new programs for our Exhaust and Emissions products are not yet at meaningful volumes. In the U.S. production on heavy duty Off-Road equipment remains depressed, particularly for the construction and mining industries. On the other hand, Off-Road sales in China were up nearly 50% in the fourth quarter. The Chinese government is investing to stimulate activity which is benefiting our Off-Road business.

Additionally, we continue to win new programs with local manufacturers and some of those programs were won with PowerCore. These are new customer relationships in the country that produces more heavy duty equipment than anywhere in the world. We are learning how to best support these local manufacturers and we know that will come with order volatility, but our team in China is motivated as we see the opportunity for significant long-term growth. Sales trends for Engine aftermarket were predictably better than our first-fit businesses. Fourth quarter aftermarket sales were down 11% reflecting a decline in the mid-teens for sales through our independent channel. The headlines in our independent channel are fairly consistent with third quarter. Sales in the U.S. fell with the collapse of the oil and gas market combined with slowing transportation activity.

In Latin America, utilization is slowing across the region as the spread of the virus is compounding the impact from geopolitical uncertainty. And fourth quarter sales in Eastern Europe remain strong as we continue gaining share. Sales through the OEM channel of aftermarket experienced a more modest, low-single-digit decline. In the U.S., large customers pulled down inventory to match demand, which was partially offset by strong growth in China as we continue gaining share with local customers. In fact, aftermarket sales in China were at a record level last quarter and we see a long runway as we expect to continue winning new programs with innovative technology. Our portfolio of innovative products performed well in the fourth quarter. This portfolio makes up nearly a quarter of the total aftermarket revenue and fourth quarter sales were up in the low-single digits.

For nearly two decades, we have been improving, expanding and reinventing our offering related to these razor-to-sell razor-blade products. After all that time we still have very strong retention rates. These products create a significant opportunity for growth and relative stability in our Engine business. So, we will continue to invest in new technologies for a long time to come. Sales of Aerospace and Defense were down 3% in fourth quarter driven by soft sales of products for commercial helicopters. The decline was partially offset by a strong increase in sales for ground defense vehicles but some of the growth is timing-related as key distributors build inventory in the quarter. I also want to update you on a change to our strategic portfolio classification. Beginning in fiscal ’21, we are re-categorizing the defense business to critical core from mature.

Our mature businesses are committed to generating cash that allows for investment elsewhere while critical core businesses are geared towards driving share gains in existing markets with new technology, services and relationships. The Defense business has won new programs with our robust engineering capabilities and we expect these wins will deliver solid returns over a long time horizon. Turning to our Industrial segment, fourth quarter sales were down 15% driven in large part by the Dust Collection business within Industrial Filtration Solutions or IFS. Sales of new dust collectors and replacement parts were down as customers continue to defer investment and reduce output. The quote-to-order cycle remains elongated with large projects being put on hold while smaller must-do projects tend to move forward. At the same time, our value proposition still resonates.

Fourth quarter sales of our Downflo Evolution dust collection systems were up in the low teens and the sales of those replacement parts grew more than 30%. The Downflo family of products is only about 15% of total dust collection sales today, but it has grown rapidly as customers appreciate the space and energy savings it offers and we value the ability to retain the aftermarket. We are also building the dust collection business through our e-commerce platform shop.donaldson.com. We turned on the ability to take guest orders earlier this year and we are encouraged by the results. While incremental dollars are still small, we have seen a significant number of new dust collection customers. With our robust sales and delivery model, we believe the simplicity of our e-commerce platform gives customers another reason to choose Donaldson.

Fourth quarter sales of Process Filtration were down in the low-single digits after an increase of more than 10% last year. The decline was driven by new equipment while replacement parts were about flat with the prior year. We continue to make progress penetrating the highly valuable food and beverage industry. We position ourselves as an engaged partner and we market our ability to quickly fulfill orders with a product that can help improve efficiency in our customer’s processes. The pandemic gave us the opportunity to prove this value proposition to our customers in the food and beverage industry and our Process Filtration team delivered. We remain very excited about this market, so we will continue to invest in growing the sales force and adding new tools to drive this profitable business.

Sales of Special Applications were down 10% in fourth quarter. Disk Drive was down from the prior year after having a significant increase in third quarter while the slowdown in the automotive market resulted in lower sales of Venting Solutions. Fourth quarter sales in Gas Turbine Systems or GTS were up 6% due primarily to strength in small turbines. Once again the GTS team delivered another profit increase in terms of both dollars and rates. As you know, we shifted the GTS go-to-market strategy four years ago. We determined that the best path forward was to focus on replacement parts and small turbines while being highly selective in deciding which large turbine projects we pursue. The GTS team has done an incredible job executing their strategy and we see it in the results.

In the past quarter we also chose to consolidate our joint venture in Saudi Arabia into our company. Once again, we are focused on rightsizing and streamlining GTS to enhance our profitability. Based on what the GTS team has delivered and the opportunities in front of us, we are reclassifying GTS as a mature business in our portfolio. The GTS team has transitioned from fixing the business to driving profitability and we are on solid footing today. I want to thank them for the incredible job they did executing their strategy and delivering on their commitments. The success in GTS is not an isolated incident. Our company is filled with great people working together to deliver results and create value for all our stakeholders.

That’s why I’m comfortable and confident in our future. Before turning the call to Scott, I want to briefly touch on fiscal 2021. We’re not sure how long the pandemic will last nor are we sure about its ultimate impact on our business. Given those uncertainties, we will remain focused on what we control, prioritizing the health and safety of our employees, fulfilling our customer commitments, pursuing market share and growth opportunities around the world, executing margin enhancement initiatives and maintaining a balanced approach to expense management, which includes making targeted investments to advance our strategic priorities. Scott will share some more fiscal ’21 details.

So I will now turn the call over to him. Scott?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Tod. Good morning, everyone. Like most companies, we had to quickly adjust to a new way of working over the past six months, and our employees did an excellent job at that period. We increased our level of collaboration, we deepened our relationships with customers and suppliers, and we performed in critical businesses around the world with minimal disruption. Overall, I’m very impressed by what our team accomplished. To my colleagues around the world, thanks for all you do. As we turn to fiscal ’21, we have a solid foundation. But the markets are not yet on firm footing. Given the wide range of possible outcomes, including the timing and shape of the inevitable recovery, we are not issuing detailed guidance at this time. We do however want to provide some of our 2021 planning assumptions.

I’ll cover those later in the call, but first I’ll share some thoughts on fiscal ’20 results. Decremental margin was a notable highlight for us. We delivered 20% in the fourth quarter and 18% for the full year. Those results are stronger than our historic averages. So let me walk through some of the details. I’ll start with operating expenses, which declined 10% to $125 million in the fourth quarter, that’s flat sequentially, and it’s our lowest fourth quarter level in four years. Discretionary expenses were down significantly, due in part to pandemic-related travel restrictions, and we maintained our investments in strategic growth businesses like Process Filtration, Dust Collection and Connected Solutions. We will continue to focus on balancing expense [Indecipherable] investments, and we are pleased with the performance in the fourth quarter.

We are also pleased with our gross margin performance. Fourth quarter gross margin was up 20 basis points in the prior year, and our full year rate was up 50 basis points despite headwinds in lower sales and higher depreciation related to our capacity expansion projects. As a side note, many of these projects are now completed. That’s why our capital expenditures in fiscal ’21 are planned well below the $122 million we invested last year. Our focus has now shifted to the optimization opportunities enabled by these investments. We plan to lower our cost structure while maintaining or improving service levels. While benefits from these initiatives will ramp up over time our list of optimization projects give me confidence that we can deliver strong returns with these new assets. Lower raw material costs are helping us offset the loss of leverage, impact on gross margin.

We have seen favorability in market prices for steel, media and petroleum-based products and our procurement team is driving incremental savings as they strengthen our supplier network while improving terms. I also want to touch on pricing, while it has been a major contributor to the year-over-year gross margin increase it hasn’t been a headwind. We have more latitude to drive pricing in many of our replacement parts businesses and teams like those in the independent channel of Engine Aftermarket have done an excellent job consistently executing our pricing strategy. I know that takes a lot of work so I want to thank our commercial teams around the world for meeting our customers’ needs while promoting the value we bring in terms of technology and service. It makes a big difference especially in this economic environment.

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A favorable mix of sales is also making a difference to gross margin. In the fourth quarter and for most of the year we have realized mixed benefits as replacement parts make up a greater share of total sales. To a certain extent these mixed benefits are by design. We invest in technology to win first-fit programs that drive aftermarket retention. As we move through an economic cycle, our strong base of recurring revenue creates some relative stability and provide some gross margin inflation [Phonetic]. Replacement parts now account for 64% of total sales giving us confidence in the durability of our business model. Before moving further down the P&L, I want to quickly talk about segment profit margins. The story is Engine is consistent with the consolidated results. Mix benefits and lower raw material costs after the loss of leverage results in a year-over-year margin increase of 20 basis points in the fourth quarter.

Within the Industrial segment, the loss of leverage was magnified by continued investments in our strategic growth businesses. We expect Industrial margins will bounce back helping us deliver our goal of mixing the company’s margins up over time. Moving back to the P&L, Other income was $2.7 million in the fourth quarter compared with an expense of $0.5 million in the prior year, and improved performance in our joint ventures was a benefit in fiscal ’20 and the fourth quarter expense in the prior year reflects a charge related to our global cash optimization initiatives. These initiatives, which allowed us to streamline our legal and fee structure were enabled by tax reform. We excluded the charge of last year’s calculation of adjusted earnings per share and we also excluded a non-recurring charge related to tax reform legislation.

With that in mind, it’s best to compare the reported fourth quarter tax rate of 21.1% with the prior year’s adjusted tax rate of 21.4%. While the delta between rates is not significant, I’ll point out that current and prior year rates were well below what we would typically expect. The fourth quarter 2020 rate benefit from a favorable mix of earnings across jurisdictions while the 2019 adjusted rate included a non-recurring benefit related to the favorable settlement of an audit. As we think about fiscal ’21, we see our full year tax rate going up in 2020 to be more in line with our long-term estimate of 24% to 27%. In terms of our financial position, we feel good about where we ended the year. Our leverage ratio was 0.9 times net-debt-to-EBITDA and in the fourth quarter we paid off a term loan for $50 million and we reduced borrowings in our revolver by $110 million.

We proactively reduce from our revolver in the early days of the pandemic as a way to bolster our liquidity out of an abundance of caution. While markets still are uncertain, we are confident in our strong position and no longer feel the need for that extra layer of security. Receivables were down meaningfully from the prior year, which is what we expect in this environment. Inventory was also down. So we plan further improvements this year as we focus on leveling with demand. Our fourth quarter and full year 2020 cash conversion rates increased meaningfully to 165% and 103% respectively and we plan to exceed 100% again this year. Our fiscal ’21 assumptions for sales are directionally consistent with recent trends.

Sales are expected to vary widely by geography and market and sales of our replacement parts and products for new markets should continue to outperform the company average. Additionally, we expect sales during the first half of ’21 will be down versus the prior year due to the timing of when the pandemic began. We are seeing these sales trends play out in August, which we expect will be down about 10% from the prior year. Total sales for the month will also be down from July, but that’s typical seasonality. Regional trends in August match what we saw in the fourth quarter. Sales in the APAC region are performing the best versus the prior led by growth in China. Europe is faring better due in part to currency while the U.S. and Latin America remain under the most pressure.

And as expected we have pockets of relative strength from some of our more stable businesses including Engine Aftermarket and Process Filtration, which are both up in Europe while new equipment remains under more pressure. In terms of fiscal ’21 gross margin, benefits from product mix and lower raw material costs would lessen as we compare against strong tailwinds in the prior year. At the same time, we will execute our optimization projects to position ourselves for long-term increases in gross margin. Our fiscal ’21 operating expenses will also have some puts and takes. Resetting our annual incentive compensation plan generates a headwind of about $13 million and we are planning to make further investments in our strategic growth businesses and technology development.

We plan to substantially offset these increases by controlling expenses, which will likely see some benefits from pandemic-related restrictions and comparing against a higher level spend in the first half of the prior year. Should we see an opportunity that makes sense, we will also explore additional optimization initiatives. Finally, we plan to repurchase at least 1% of outstanding shares in fiscal ’21, which would offset any dilution from stock-based compensation. Any repurchases beyond that level would be governed by macroeconomic conditions, our investment opportunities and our balance sheet metrics. Should conditions improve, it is not unreasonable to assume this goal above the 1% in fiscal ’21. At a high level, our objectives for the New Year are consistent with our long-term strategic agenda.

We will pursue growth and market share opportunities in our Advance & Accelerate portfolio of businesses, drive optimization initiatives that will strengthen gross margins, control discretionary expenses while making targeted investments and protect our strong financial position to discipline capital deployment and working capital management. These are the actions we can control and I am confident in our ability to deliver in 2021. Before turning the call back to Tod, I want to share some news. After five years as our Investor Relations Director, Brad is going to be moving to Belgium to take over as Finance Director of our Europe-Middle East region. COVID makes the timing a little uncertain, but I know he’s committed to facilitate a smooth transition when we find his replacement. Thanks Brad for all your work in IR. You have done an excellent job and congratulations on the exciting new adventure with Donaldson.

I will now turn the call back to Tod. Tod?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Scott and I offer my congratulations to Brad as well. You’ll clearly be missed in this role, but we all know it’s a great opportunity, so we’re very excited for you. I’m confident in our ability to navigate the complexities of the current environment and I’m equally confident in our ability to create long-term value by meeting the evolving needs of our customers. We have strong relationships with our customers and they range from some of the world’s biggest brands to small business owners. We are grateful for the partnerships we have and I want to thank our customers around the world for their continued support of our company. Our goal is to solve our customers’ complicated filtration challenges in a way that allows them to deliver great products efficiently and I think we’re doing well against that objective.

Let me share some examples of what I mean. In the Engine segment, our Filter Minder team released a wireless monitoring system that helps fleet managers optimize their maintenance schedules for On-Road and Off-Road equipment. Our system integrates into the existing telematics and fleet management infrastructure making it easy for our customers to adopt this valuable technology. We’re also expanding connecting solutions into the dust collection market with our IQ offering. This service provides customers with real-time monitoring of their equipment performance helping them save energy costs and reduce unplanned downtime. Once again, we made it easy to adopt, our IQ set up can be used on any brand of dust collector and the retrofit process is very simple.

Our e-commerce platform is another tool for helping customers operate more efficiently. Shop.donaldson.com has a global reach and offers features like real-time availability and personalization functionality making it easy for customers to find what they need and place new or repeat orders. As always, new technology is a critical part of our success formula and we continue to expand our technologies and solutions to drive growth. Many of our Engine customers are looking to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions and our products can help them achieve their goals. We have shown that consistent use of our PowerCore products can help end-users improve fuel economy and it provides value to our OEM customers as they can retain more of their parts business.

We still see many opportunities with diesel engines and we also see a growing opportunity with alternative powertrains like hybrid solutions and hydrogen fuel cells. Hybrid platforms leverage the portfolio of air and liquid solutions we have today so we have good opportunity with that equipment. The needs are different for fuel cells and we have a specialized air filtration system that is specifically designed to meet those needs. In addition to our air systems, we also have venting products and specialized membranes for fuel cells. With our technical capabilities, we are well-positioned to participate in this growing market. We are also pursuing non-Engine markets like food and beverage. Sales of process filtration were about $15 million in fiscal ’20, that’s an increase of more than 60% over the past three years.

We have continued investing in new technologies and we are building capabilities that will facilitate our future expansion into life sciences. Our long-term success is dependent on our team, so we’re committed to making our company a great place to work. We have a strong culture and we place a high value on integrity, commitment, respect and innovation. We also have a continuous improvement mindset, so we’ve recently created a diversity, equity and inclusion council that will help identify and implement practices to make us a stronger company. The council is being led by a passionate group of employees and I want to thank them for stepping up to move us along in this important journey.

We are also on a journey with our sustainability practices. We began developing our global sustainability strategy last year. We have engaged our stakeholders and we have identified a long list of projects while reducing greenhouse gas emission, energy consumption and wastewater. Implementing and maintaining sustainable practices is one more way we drive towards our purpose of advancing filtration for a cleaner world. As I close today’s call, I want to thank again our employees for their contributions during fiscal 2020. I’m proud of what we accomplished as One Donaldson and I look forward to another successful new year.

Now, I’ll turn the call back to Lisa to open the line for questions. Lisa?

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] And our first question comes from the line of Nathan Jones from Stifel. Your line is open.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Good morning, everyone.

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Hi Nathan.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Maybe we can start on the top line. Fourth quarter sales in aggregate down about 15%, you said August was down about 10%. Can you talk a little bit about how the comparisons in the fourth quarter progressed and is that all goes down 10%, a better comparison than the kind of the exit rate out of the fourth quarter or have things started to settle down here and it’s kind of hovering in that minus 10% range? Just any color you can give us on how that’s progressed over the last few months?

Brad Pogalz — Director, Investor Relations

Nathan, this is Brad. I’ll start. And as a reminder for you and the group, a few months ago we announced that May sales will be down 24%, and then of course that came out the way we expected. So when you put June and July together, they were down in the low double digits, which is pretty consistent with the trend we saw year-over-year in April. The decline, or excuse me, in August; the decline in August from July is also not a typical seasonality. We would typically see that falling off as we get more towards the fall and winter months.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Maybe then — okay. So, June, July and August have been fairly consistent on the comparison levels there. Can you talk about which parts of the business there are seeing a recovery, which parts are slower to recover and would you anticipate some of those lagging parts of the business to gradually begin to improve as we go through the back half of the calendar year here?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure, Nathan. This is Tod. So, the businesses are very mixed as you might imagine. So, any first-fit type business. So, On-Road vehicles or Off-Road vehicles with first-fit production have the most significant headwinds and the most significant headwinds in the company is On-Road United States first-fit business. The rest of the businesses such as aftermarket both in the independent channel and the OE channel are more modest headwinds and we do see that with the destocking that has occurred in the previous two quarters really had a pull-through like level.

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As we turn to the industrial side, the most significant headwinds are going to be first-fit equipment in our industrial air filtration business. We also see slight headwinds in the replacement parts because industrial production is — has not come back particularly in the United States to the levels that we would expect. That’s where we are at the moment. We would expect the first half especially because COVID hit in the second half of last year, we would expect the headwind to be more predominant in the first half and then of course, with the easier comps and such a growth overall for the company to be in the second half of our fiscal year.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

So I guess if where you’re right now kind of low-double-digit declines in July and June, 10% in August, you should probably see some of those lagging businesses get a little bit better as we go through the back half. So is it at least fair to say that that first half revenue comparison should be down in the single digits somewhere rather than the potential for it to be down in the double-digits?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Tough to say specifically where — clearly high single to low doubles in the first half is not out of any of the models that we have built here.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Okay. Thanks very much. I’ll pass it on.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Nathan.

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Nathan.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Bryan Blair from Oppenheimer. Your line is open.

Bryan Blair — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Thanks. Good morning, guys.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Hi Bryan.

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Hi Bryan.

Bryan Blair — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

I was hoping I could dig in a little more on your gross margin performance, up 50 bps for the year despite the top line headwinds but obviously stands out. I was hoping you could parse out the operational lifts from your initiatives. I think you were targeting 50 basis points to 75 basis points there. And then the benefits of favorable mix and lower material cost relative to the clear hit from utilization?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, so I mean we’re pleased with — in the overall gross margin performance. It’s obviously been something we focused on for quite a while. And I think you’ve covered the main points there. If we look at kind of mix in raw material, we would probably put that in the 100 basis points range. If you look at the loss of leverage — offset somewhat by all the imperatives that we’ve had, that probably took us down 80 basis points. And then you have a lot of little puts and takes in that in depreciation and some other things to kind of sum for that overall improvement. So, it’s been mix in raw materials on one hand, and then lots of leverage but we’ve saved or spared quite a bit of that by all the great projects that have been completed. And we look forward to those projects moving to more of an optimization phase this year, which will help our margins next year and into the future.

Bryan Blair — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Got it. Appreciate the detail. And then on that front, it sounds like gross margin dynamics will be somewhat similar in fiscal ’21, just a lessening impact from the favorable mix, and then lower raws that you’ve had. Given your current outlook, is the expectation for further gross margin improvement this year or is it too early to call?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

No. We’re committed to improving those gross margins. I think you hit it right on the head, and we’re going to continue to push to drive margin improvement pending reasonable levels of sales.

Bryan Blair — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Okay. And kind of a housekeeping question. In understanding you’re not providing a hard number on your capex guide, is there a range as a percentage of revenue we should think about for 2021? And then looking forward, any shift to normalized capex in that 3% of sales range?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. So, that’s what I was going to say, kind of a normalized range. What we’ve always said is 3% of sales. I think we’re going to be under that for next year, quite a bit. We said we were — had a net number of $122 million for this year, which is kind of the completion of our investment period that we’re quite happy to be kind of done with. So, we would expect to be under our normal run rate and then obviously significantly under FY ’20. So, we’re going to get into a point. I noted that and we expect our cash conversion for next year to be greater than 100%, and that’s driven partly by improvements in working capital and then a lower level of capex.

Bryan Blair — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Got it. One last one if I can. Any quick update you can offer on your M&A pipeline? Seems like there’s been a little bit of an uptick in activity at least for companies that have more proprietary funnels and we certainly have capacity if the right deals are there?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, Bryan. This is Tod. We continue to work the M&A pipeline that we have. We would suggest to you that it still remains robust and no change in our stance, our philosophy, our ability to do a deal. We just continue to work it and we’ll continue to do so because we believe that’s an important part of our long-term strategy.

Bryan Blair — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Okay. Thanks again, guys.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Joe Aiken from William Blair. Your line is open.

Joe Aiken — William Blair & Co. — Analyst

Hi. This is Joe on for Brian today. Thanks for taking my questions.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Hi, Joe.

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Hi, Joe.

Joe Aiken — William Blair & Co. — Analyst

So first of all just on the model. Looking at operating expense, you mentioned the $13 million incremental incentives comp expected for fiscal ’21. Is that expected to hit in any quarters in particular, can you remind me?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. That will be most of it year-over-year and then second half of 2021.

Joe Aiken — William Blair & Co. — Analyst

Okay. And looking at kind of a run rate opex dollars of $1.5 million in the fourth quarter, how much of that — is that primarily temporary costs that have been taken out or are there some permanent costs that have been taken out there as well?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

I think we haven’t had any like big restructurings or permanent COGS structure changes. We have been obviously working hard to control our expenses. We do get some benefit from travel restrictions that are in existence in the world today. And we’ve been working hard to control our discretionary expenses that we could still spend because we’re really trying to protect those investments that we’re making to help drive the longer-term success in the company.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

So, Joe, I’ll just add a little bit of color. So, if we just look at the macro level from the way we’re approaching this. We’re playing a long-term game here and our people around the world are doing a fantastic job at controlling what they can control, the discretionary expenses while the company continues to invest in the long-term strategy and the controlling of the expenses right now is allowing us to play offense where we can play offense. And so that’s how we’re looking at it and we would congratulate and thank all the employees around the world for doing just an excellent job.

Joe Aiken — William Blair & Co. — Analyst

Got it. Appreciate the color there. And then just switching gears, looking at some momentum you’re seeing in China right now, how long can some of these tailwinds last? Have you seen some projects pulled forward as a result of the Blue Sky Initiatives and some of the investments China is making in stimulating the economy? Have you seen projects pulled forward and how long can some of those tailwinds last?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

So it’s important to understand that that our representation in China is still low-single-digit across almost every one of our markets there. And so consequently, it can last like a very, very, very, long time and we’re just now getting some momentum with technology-based wins that are actually shipping to China-based — China national-based customers, which is expansion for us from the multinational-based customers that we had there. So, our expansion in China can last a very long time as we continue to gain momentum and it’s broad. It’s in our Engine-based business on the first-fit with first-fit technologies of PowerCore. It’s on the aftermarket side that we’re gaining momentum and it’s also Blue Sky Initiatives on the industrial side particularly in the IAF business.

Joe Aiken — William Blair & Co. — Analyst

Okay. Thanks a lot. I’ll pass it on.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks Joe.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Dillon Cumming from Morgan Stanley. Your line is open.

Dillon Cumming — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Great. Thanks. Good morning, guys.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Dillon Cumming — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

I just wanted to kind of jump back into industrial margins for a second. I think you guys have been expanding margins at a pretty good clip kind of year-to-date, but then obviously the decremental stuff that we got this quarter. I guess Scott you mentioned in your prepared remarks but how much of that decremental would you say was kind of driven by some of the more internal investments you mentioned versus sale of like unfavorable mix and just kind of general lost operating leverage?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. I mean, I think you hit it exactly on the head. I would say its spread across those three factors — just the leverage on lots of volume. We keep talking about even on the questions here about how we want to continue to make investments and we’re continuing those and those are targeted in a higher percent to industrial. And then finally, we had a little weaker mix in the quarter compared to the year-over-year comps, which drove it down a little bit. So, we expect the mix to improve and so that headwind will ultimately probably abate. And we got to get those sales starting to increase over time so we can get rid of the deleveraging issue.

Dillon Cumming — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Got it. That’s helpful. Thanks, Scott. And then maybe on the aftermarket side and that was kind of one of the few revenue verticals that you mentioned were — and that is it still falling a bit. I guess you kind of had the rank or the headwinds on the aftermarket sales there. How much did you say is kind of related to this kind of general weakness in utilization versus this more kind of acute high market pressure in kind of areas like oil and gas or something else?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, we would tell you that the oil and gas as well as the fracking callback specifically were significant headwinds, even more so than we had originally modeled to be fully transparent there. So that’s the most significant headwind that we have. And then of course just a general more broad-based utilization slowdown would likely be the second largest hit.

Dillon Cumming — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Okay, got it, thanks. [Indecipherable] more in here. I mean it kind of seems like the aftermarket inventory levels have been pretty volatile over the past few quarters and it’s early on the OEM side, if you look back, it declined a bit in the quarter. I guess given view on kind of whether inventory levels are right sized at this point are you kind of [Indecipherable] level of destock in the first half?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, we’d say the independent channel actually destock first. The OE channel just tweaked a little bit, not a dramatic destocking. And so we would suggest to you that based upon the behaviors and the forward-looking orders that we have today that both channels are at pull-through levels.

Dillon Cumming — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Got it. That’s helpful. Thanks for the time guys.

Also Read:  Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) Q3 2020 Earnings Call Transcript

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Laurence Alexander from Jefferies. Your line is open.

Dan Rizzo — Jefferies — Analyst

Hey guys. It’s Dan Rizzo on for Laurence. How are you?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Hi Dan.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Hi Dan.

Dan Rizzo — Jefferies — Analyst

Hey, can we just circle back on the pricing you mentioned before. How does it work? I mean just some color there. I mean is it negotiated every time? Do you have any rebates or I mean do you have to justify a price increase just any color will be great?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

On the first-fit side of pricing, particularly within the Engine side of our business, we have price downs on annual long-term contracts. So each year, we start in a negative position relative to that revenue. And that would also be in the OE aftermarket piece of that business. On the independent channels of aftermarket in Engine, clearly we have more leeway there, and we do it on a region-by-region basis based upon local conditions. On the industrial side of the company, it more resets quickly with a project more — more of that revenue being project-based business. So, as you wash out a project based lead times typically three, four, five months, you’ll wash out the old pricing and come back with a new quoted project base. And then aftermarket of course is more like an independent channel where we have better control.

Dan Rizzo — Jefferies — Analyst

That’s actually very, very helpful. Thank you. And then just one another question on capex. You mentioned it’s going down. And I’m sorry if I missed this, but [Indecipherable] as temporary response to the pandemic because I know you had some big projects in hand, but I was wondering with the kind of what the mix was there and how we should think about it overall long-term?

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. I think you have it right. So we had been and said that we are in a period of high investments as we had many projects that were in flight, and we’re happy to report that we’ve completed the majority of those projects. And so, our investment will come way down. In early next year, we’re going to be really focused on driving the optimization of those projects instead of bringing in new equipment. So, it’s a great time for the company and that we get to fine-tune the things we already have and drive improvements from that versus having to invest additional dollars, which is why we expect a strong cash conversion in FY ’21.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

And just maybe a little bit of color, so people often will try to connect the dot of the pandemic equating to our capex based reductions here this fiscal year, and that’s not really what you’re seeing in our behavior. Remember, the past three years we’ve had a significant run-up based upon a strategic plan to optimize our supply chain internally. And so, we are now coming to the end of that pretty significant investment, and now we’ll be essentially shuffling the deck internally to continue to expand our gross margins and optimize our supply chain. So, the fact that we have less capex this fiscal year is less connected to the pandemic and more to our strategic priorities and what we’re executing longer-term.

Dan Rizzo — Jefferies — Analyst

Thank you very much, guys.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Richard Eastman from Baird. Your line is open. Richard Eastman, your line is open.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Yes. Thank you, sorry I was on mute. Yeah, thanks for the questions and best of luck to Brad. Congrats Brad. This is going to be exciting, congrats. Hey, just a quick question around gross margins. I just want to go back to this for one second; in total, the gross margins for the full year were what, plus 50 bps? And I’m curious the progress that was made in the Engine versus Industrial segments. And also just Tod, you spoke to price there a little bit, but net-net, was price kind of a neutral on gross margin for the year? I mean, again, it’s going to move with, presumably move with the mix, but I presume it’s more the volume than it is a price impact on gross margin for the year?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. Net net, Rick pricing was flat across the company, obviously very mixed results in different businesses, but to a total company, it comes out flat.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Okay. Okay. And then the progress on the Engine versus Industrial side, relative to that 50 basis points overall consolidated?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. I noted in my script, that overall the Engine story is kind of consistent with the consolidated results, which is, mixed benefit, lower raw material costs, offsetting by the loss of leverage. For Industrial, they had similar factors, but they also have the added concept, a little more investment and probably a little bit weaker mix. So those two additional factors come into play when you think about Industrial.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Okay. So was there any progress made in gross margin on the Industrial side, year-over-year or was that a bit of a drag and the 50 basis points consolidated was driven by the Engine side?

Brad Pogalz — Director, Investor Relations

Rick, this is Brad. I would say that there’s progress made, it’s just unfortunately masked a bit by the loss of revenue. So the things that we’ve been talking about with procurement savings for example, the team there is doing a lot of work to try and find ways to either negotiate differently locally, find new qualified vendors, things like that that help us and that benefits both segments. I would say the same is true on pricing discipline that that’s happening across the company, as Tod mentioned it is quite varied by business. And then this year as we grow into some of the new capacity, Industrial will certainly benefit from that. And then one more thing, the long game with Industrial, is also favorability with mix. These high tech markets are — I know we’re putting a lot of technology dollars are going to benefit the Industrial segment, probably disproportionately over time.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Okay. Okay. And then, just maybe as a — just kind of leads me into my next question, but lots of commentary around the puts and takes on the gross margin side as you just addressed. And then also, the opex, obviously, we had the incentive coming back in, and then, some other cost actions there. I think the reference was also made to some additional cost optimization, if necessary. But I’m curious when you look at where you exited or finished fiscal ’20, I think your operating margins were 13.2%. With the puts and takes in the commentary here around gross margins and opex, under the assumption that maybe sales are flat this year. That’d be my assumption. But under that assumption, would the target be here to have flat operating margins here as well? I mean, I’m trying to figure out how you’re maybe looking at the incrementals-decrementals, but if the assumption is flat, flat revenue for the year, is the goal and the target here to hold margins flat as well as a percentage of sales?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Rick this is Tod. So, with all of the moving pieces, we would still expect, even on flat sales to expand our operating margin so very slightly, obviously.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Okay.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

And that would likely be driven by the gross margin work that we continue to do across the company because we are very focused on gross margin.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Okay. Okay. All right. Very good. And just maybe one last thought around some of the first-fit businesses and maybe IFS in particular, anything that you are seeing, you talked about elongated quote-to-order trend, but is there any sense there that your backlog around some of these first-fit businesses is, has hit bottom here and we’re waiting for maybe calendar ’21, capital budgets to start kicking in or how do you look at where your backlog is in some of these, in your first-fit business in particular IFS?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

So, within IFS, we, on the first-fit business, we’ve seen roughly and the conversion rate from quote-to-order, it’s kind of doubled in its behavior, right? So, it’s out over a 100 days before people are making decisions. They’re deciding on the must-do projects, the thing that they have to do in order to protect, say, a particular environmental issue or whatever the case may be; they’re doing the must-dos. But the rest, they’re really pushing on and it’s been slow and that’s pretty broad based around the world with the notable exception of China. China is a little slower but not as slow as the rest of the world. They continue to move forward. So, what do we look on the backlog? When will that change? I think people are waiting for industrial production to gain a little bit more confidence as they can really gear up their factories again and that level of confidence is just not out there yet across our customer base.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Okay. Okay. Yeah. Yeah. Okay, makes a little sense. Okay. Thank you again and again thanks to Brad for all his help and I’m sure he will be fully engaged in and contributor from Europe.

Brad Pogalz — Director, Investor Relations

Thanks Rick.

Richard Eastman — Robert W. Baird & Company — Analyst

Yeah, congrats, yeah. Thanks, guys.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Nathan Jones from Stifel. Your line is open.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Hi, guys. I just wanted to put a final point on the operating expense expectations here, and I think maybe you’ve narrowed on this. First half of the year was running at that $140 million level, second half of the year is running at about $125 million per quarter. You’ve got obviously the stock comp coming back in and you’re probably going to have some of the temporary cost reductions, things like travel that are going to increase here as we go forward. I think you said, on flat sales, you’d look at operating margins expanding a little bit — bit mostly on gross margins, which would imply that the annual operating expense in ’21 is probably targeted to be roughly flat. So is it a reasonable expectation for us to think that this kind of these low 130s is where we’re going to go to and see that through 2021? And as the temporary costs start to naturally roll off as economies reopen, are there any plans to take some more structural cost actions in order to offset those expenses coming back?

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Nathan, the low 130s would be aggressive. We would not expect on a quarterly basis to hit that level of rate, just simply because we do have the investments coming online. So for example we have our new material research center and that will be staffing up and putting online here in Q2 and other strategic investments that we have. So the low 130s would be aggressive, we would suggest. And then longer term, with all this expansion that we’ve done to normalize into our supply chain to really get after our gross margin initiative, all we’ve done is we’ve advanced our strategic plan, our three- to five-year plan within operations and we’ve built out our internal footprint, if you will and so we continue to look at what are our next steps within that plan. And looking forward, should there be any kind of say tweaks or move the restructuring actions relative to that operations plan that are necessary. Clearly, we would take those actions. And that would be the first place that we would look relative to where we’re at in the company’s actions. But what we’re doing is we’re just playing our operations playbook in order to continue to expand our gross margins and that’s how we’re looking at it.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Okay. Just to clarify that, I said low 130, not below 130.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Oh, I’m sorry. Okay. Thank you. I heard below 130s. And that would be aggressive. So, low 130s makes more sense.

Nathan Jones — Stifel, Nicolaus & Company — Analyst

Okay. Thanks very much for the clarification.

Scott J. Robinson — Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. Thanks Nathan.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks Stifel as well.

Operator

I’ll now turn the call back over to Tod Carpenter for closing remarks.

Tod E. Carpenter — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

That concludes today’s call. And I want to thank everyone listening for your time and interest in Donaldson Company. And I hope that you and your families and friends are all safe. Goodbye.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

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