Tag Archives: FRANCESCAS




There aren’t too many publicly held retail stocks that offer an attractive risk/reward relationship, especially since so many have rebounded from pandemic created low points. We would be happy to learn about any other retail companies, with no net debt, that were profitable with a high return on invested capital just a couple of years ago, whose Enterprise Value is about $.03 of the pre-pandemic annual sales dollar. While Francesca’s (FRAN) remains a “workout”, to be sure, and we can’t predict if, and to what extent, the current balance sheet will need to be strengthened (and what form it will take), we have been impressed with new CEO, Andrew Clarke, and his team, as they have navigated through recent challenges. As we describe below: The upside possibility, at some point in the next few years, provides a uniquely positioned chain of 6-700 retail boutiques doing something like $400M of annual sales, generating perhaps $6.00/share or more of annual earnings. It obviously wouldn’t take much of a P/E multiple to generate a handsome return from this starting point.



Francesca’s Holdings, Inc. (FRAN) reported an expectedly poor 2nd quarter, ending 8/1/20, obviously still coping with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Since just under 50% of their 700 stores are located in covered malls, the balance including 92 outlet malls,  unpredictable mall traffic remains the single largest impediment to renewed success.

Over the last two years, the stock performance mirrored the poor operating results, as described in our report dated 6/25/20…


FRAN, trading post the July’19 1:12 reverse split, now in single digits ($3.82/share) is down from the equivalent of over $400/share, providing investors with an enterprise value of under $12M. There are only about 3 million shares outstanding, and no “net debt”, so this unusual situation, with sales just three years ago well over $400M and very profitable (over $13.00/share on the current shares), becomes a bet on the Company’s ability to ride through the pandemic (combined with their own fundamental recovery) without the necessity of meaningful dilution of the current share base.

As described in our report in June, referenced above, new management is well qualified and there is a great deal of low hanging fruit. We summarize below the Positives and Negative points at the current juncture.


  • Nobody knows how long it will take (if ever) for mall traffic to come back. With 339 locations, out of 700 in covered malls, this obviously remains a major question mark.
  • While there is no net debt, it remains to be seen whether inventory, labor, rents and payables can be managed through the second half of ’20,  traditionally (especially Q4) the busiest time.
  • Margins have been under pressure for the last 2-3 years, especially the last six months, as management has promoted their way out of store level inventory that included merchandise frozen on the shelves during the pandemic closings. It is uncertain how much of a recovery in margins can be produced, and when.
  • Women’s apparel, especially that to be sold to young women, is an obviously fickle business.
  • Though vendors and landlords have been willing to work with the Company, the extent to which this will remain the case remains to be seen.
  • The 2nd quarter, ending 8/1/20, looks dismal on the surface, though progress (as described below) was also evident. The pretax loss was $13.2M, with a merchandise gross margin of 17.5% vs. 38.2% YTY. While the cash position was $20.2M, up from $14.3M at the end of Q1, this was largely a function of inventories being down about $12M (promotional clearance) and Accounts Payables being up by about $7M. As we indicated above, how far vendors will go in terms of supporting a new inventory build remains to be seen.
  • “Going Concern”, “Evaluating Strategic Alternatives”, “Restructuring Under Bankruptcy” are not terms that investors like to read about, and have again been provided in the Q2 release.


  • Comp sales, excluding stores that were closed for four days in a week during the pandemic, were down a modest 5% in Q2. Since covered malls are just under 50% of locations, and traffic was worst there, it seems likely to us that off-mall location comps were positive. Considering that the sales were highly promotional, and the Company indicated that conversion and Average Unit Retail Sales were higher, anything like positive comps would indicate that the Brand is still a draw, and we make that suggestion after watching young women continue to visit some of the mall stores even during the last few months. Furthermore, if 339 locations are in enclosed malls, many of those are no doubt in “A” malls, so far from all are at long term risk. We suggest that a maximum of perhaps 100 locations might be at risk over the next few years, still leaving 600 nationwide, and providing a unique localized boutique shopping experience. If sales can be rebuilt over time, with a higher online presence offsetting possibly lagging mall revenue progress, this can still be a chain with $400M of revenues or more. If margins rebound in the course of that to only half of those three years ago, and the shares outstanding are the same, that would be something like $6.00 per share.
  • Only time will tell to what extent management can successfully navigate the early stage of FRANs fundamental rebound. There are positive signs, though, which can encourage landlords, lenders, vendors and even equity investors. Ecommerce sales were up 27% in Q2. This continues to be a major long term opportunity, and new CEO, Andrew Clarke, has a strong background in this area. Considering that the major marketing focus in Q2 was  clearance of store level inventory (frozen in late March, April and May), a 27% increase is admirable and this is just the beginning of the effort in this area.
  • Relative to margins: Management indicated that customers are reacting well to fresh merchandise, which is selling closer to full price (with margins predicted to improve in H2), lounge wear and leggings and joggers are among new best sellers, new “tween” customers are newly targeted, and merchandise is being localized relative to climate and style preferences to a much greater degree than ever before. Moreover, management indicated that gross dollars and gross margin percentage improved in July, though sales were still impacted by restrained traffic trends.
  • Fickle though women’s apparel is, the Francesca’s brand was created based on a trend following, a “read and react” approach. Departure from that discipline created most of the problems, and management has returned to their merchandising roots. The localized nature of this national (small footprint) brand is a unique asset, and is further supported by a most impressive store level sales culture that we have described in our previous report.
  • The degree to which vendors, landlords and lenders will “stay the course” remains to be seen, but what is their choice? If the merchandise moves within reason, the product will be sold before the vendors need to be paid, so the “read and react” principle should keep the goods flowing. The landlords can’t find anybody more able to fill that 1,400 square foot box, so why not stick with Francesca’s? The current lenders don’t want to run 700 apparel boutiques, and will largely be paid back from the tax refund, in any event. New debt can likely be raised, the terms of which remain to be seen, since there are hundreds of billions of dollars searching for a yield.
  • We have already discussed above most of the initiatives that the Company is putting in place. The degree to which they will succeed remains to be seen, but management seems to have managed well through the last six months, negotiating with landlords and vendors, managing inventory liquidation to generate the cash for new merchandise, upgrading online sales and setting the stage for a new mobile app.
  • Most of the civilized world is in a “workout” mode, and more companies (and countries) than we can count are illiquid, insolvent, bankrupt or all three. The whole planet is living off the accommodations provided by central banks. “Going Concern” language, and the such are provided by lawyers on a routine basis, whether or not that concern is justified, all part of the CYA routine.

CONCLUSION: Provided at the beginning of this article




Francesca’s Holdings, Inc. (FRAN) is a Company I have followed for many years. It was considered, just a few years ago, as a differentiated young women’s apparel retailer with strong store level economics, well positioned strategically to provide a unique shopping experience. As described below, and as shown in the table above, FRAN has gone through about three dismal years. The operating results, prior to the pandemic, drove away most investors. Interim management stabilized the situation in 2019 and the pandemic hit just as new, highly qualified, management was installed. In the wake of investor disillusionment with “anything retail”, FRAN stock has declined to the point that virtually no possibility of fundamental recovery is implied. There are, to be sure, many unanswered questions, as described below. However, we are impressed with the credentials and the initial efforts of new CEO, Andrew Clarke. If Francesca’s can return to even half of its previous peak earnings power of $13.18/share, FRAN could trade at 10-20x its current value. Longer  term, if CEO Clarke’s turnaround and omni-channel expertise combines well with Francesca’s nationwide physical presence, the upside could be even more impressive.


Houston based Francesca’s Holdings, Inc. operates a nationwide chain  of just over 700 apparel boutiques, averaging about 1450  square feet in size, selling modestly priced, fashion driven merchandise (apparel- 46% of sales, jewelry-27% , accessories-16%  and gifts-10%)  to a core market of women, aged 18 to 35. The Company had a solid history of success from the time it went public in 2011 until calendar 2016, growing its number of stores, building same store sales to a peak of $545/square foot with high margins, generating a high return on invested capital, managing a strong balance sheet, with the stock often selling at 20-30x expected earnings and 12 to 18x trailing twelve month EBITDA. The personalized approach at the store level, selling a curated selection of modestly priced, fashion following  (rather than leading) merchandise allowed FRAN to compete successfully with much larger (both brick and mortar and on-line) companies and presumably ensured a strategically well positioned future. It is noteworthy that Francesca’s on-line presence has not, until very recently, been more than 10% of sales, so that remains an important opportunity.

All of this went awry several years ago when new management, with “big box”credentials, allowed the Company to become slower to react, over-inventoried in the wrong items, less fashion sensitive, in effect  straying from the “read and react, fashion following” strategy that had been the core of Francesca’s success. In late calendar 2018, Alvarez and Marcal (a well regarded retail turnaround consulting firm) was retained to study and then manage the business.  A&M’s agent, Michael  Prendergast, was installed as interim CEO early in 2019 and stabilized the business during  2019, as shown in the statistical table above. In February, 2020, a permanent  CEO, Andrew Clarke, was recruited. He is experienced with turnaround situations, has negotiated with vendors and suppliers In the course of flowing new product  while managing working capital. His experience with women’s “fast fashion”,  successfully applying omni-channel distribution and marketing, is especially applicable to Francesca’s. Time will tell, of course, but the Board’s choice of Andrew Clarke seems well considered.

Sales and earnings peaked in calendar 2016, the fiscal year ending 1/31/2017. We interject here that there was a one for twelve reverse split in mid-2019, so the reported peak earnings shown in the table above of $13.18 per share were reported at the time to be $1.10. Accordingly, the stock peaked in late 2016 at about $250 per share based on the current capitalization. The all time peak of over $400/share was in 2012.  The result today is that the stock, now under $5.00/sh., down from an all time high of  $400 and  with only  three million shares outstanding, provides a total equity value under $15M for a company that just last year, was still doing over $400 million (with a GAAP loss but still positive Adjusted EBITDA. It is also crucially important that, even today, as the pandemic (hopefully) winds down,, the Company has no net debt. The challenge, of course, is to manage the balance sheet as stores are reopened, inventory is refreshed and seasonal needs are met, but at least the Company is not in a hole as the process begins.

The statistics in the table above show historical  peak earnings of $13.16 per share, FRAN still doing close to $400M of annual sales, no current net debt, an enterprise value today at 1.4x trailing twelve month depressed Adjusted EBITDA, and an Enterprise Value under $15M. As you might expect, there are more than a few risks to be considered, including:


Almost half (342 at 2/1/20, of which 91 are in outlet centers) of the 700 boutiques are located in shopping malls, obviously not the best place to be in a post-pandemic world. The fashion driven sales per square foot have declined to $390/ft. in the latest fiscal year, and it was more promotionally driven than hoped. New management, led by Andrew Clarke, has just recently been installed. Though the credentials are impressive, the results are yet to come. The latest balance sheet, as stores reopen, discussed below, could prove to be inadequate to support the operating plan. More debt could be expensive and equity issuance could be very dilutive to existing investors. Negotiations continue with landlords and future traffic in malls is uncertain. Vendors have apparently worked constructively with the new management team as post-pandemic plans are implemented but this might not be the case for long, depending on results. Relative to FRAN stock, there is no current apparent coverage, and the small capitalization could discourage future institutional investors. There is a 22% equity owner, Cross River Management, who could potentially sell their stock. Alternatively, Cross River could increase their position, even to the point of buying the entire Company, perhaps to the detriment of other public shareholders.

On the other hand:


The potential of FRAN must be based on store level economics, potentially enhanced by materially higher online sales. Peak sales of $545/ft. (under 10% of which were on-line) declined to $390/ft. most recently. The objective of the new management team is obviously a recovery in AUVs, with a much broader omni-channel approach. The relatively small footprint of 1,462 square feet provides a personalized boutique shopping experience and is unique relative to competitive apparel retailers.  From the landlord standpoint, FRAN remains attractive as a tenant, as capable as any to pay a fair rent. The physical presence of 700 locations can prove to be a unique asset for the Company, even as the omni-channel approach is pursued. The opportunity for a customer to see and feel the product before purchase, and return or exchange in a nearby location can help FRAN differentiate their commodity.

The balance sheet seems adequate, for the moment at least, discussed further below under “Recent Developments”. There appears to be the possibility of raising debt capital on attractive terms under the pending US government Main Street Lending program.  Should that prove to be the case, there would be less need for more expensive debt or dilutive equity capital.

Our observation from personally visiting dozens of locations over the last year is that the store level sales culture is one of the most important long term assets. The stores have almost invariably been staffed by sales personnel that are age appropriate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their,product, prepared to be helpful without being intrusive in the sales process. We had many conversations with store level personnel who had been with FRAN for several years at least, who reflected on the improvements in merchandise and the fact that “corporate is listening to us again”. Very successful retail companies, such as Lululemon, Ulta Beauty, and Starbucks have successfully weathered difficult periods, with their store level operating culture providing the foundation of the effort. While it is obviously “a reach” to compare FRAN to these much larger very  successful companies, if Francesca’s turns the corner, the store level culture, which doesn’t happen by accident, will have been a critical necessary ingredient.


There has been a positive Cash Flow from Operations and Adjusted EBITDA even in the last two disastrous years.

In the year ending 2/2/2019, Net Cash from Operating Activities was $9.5M. Aside from working capital changes, the largest non-cash addbacks to the $40.9M GAAP loss were $24.5M of D&A and $20.1M of Asset Impairment charges.  Adding back the D&A, Asset Impairment, Interest of $426K and $7.5M of taxes would have provided Adjusted EBITDA of $11.6M.

In the most recent  year, ending 2/1/2020, Net Cash from Operating Activities was $2.8M.  Aside from working capital changes, the largest non-cash addbacks to the $25.0M GAAP loss were $21.4M of D&A and $11.9M of Asset Impairment charges.  Adding back the D&A, Asset Impairment, Interest of $1.2M and $125k of taxes would have provided Adjusted EBITDA of $9.6M.

 THE BALANCE SHEET  – Year End, 2/1/20,  and 5/2/20 (Q1’20)

Cash at 2/1/2020 was $17.8M, down from $20.1M a year earlier. A/R had been reduced by $13M, Inventories were up by $1.2M, Prepaid Expenses were up $2.0M, A/P was down by $13.5M, Current Portion of LT Debt was $8.9M vs. 0, Long Term Debt was zero, down from $10M.

Total cash and cash equivalents at the end of the first quarter were $14.3 million compared to $17.5 million at the end of the comparable prior year period. As of May 2, 2020, the Company had a $15.0 million of combined outstanding borrowings and a combined borrowing base availability of $3.1 million under its Amended ABL Credit Facility and Term Loan Credit Agreement.

SUMMARY Q1’20  (5/2/20) OPERATING RESULTS – Per the 8-K filing on 6/18/20:

“As the Company’s boutiques began to reopen, its cash position increased to approximately $21.0 million as of June 12, 2020 from $14.3 million as of May 2, 2020 (the end of Q1). This increase was primarily due to the Company’s efforts to drive sales and monetize existing inventory, aggressively reducing costs and managing cash flows, including deferring payments for rent, inventory and other accounts payable, subject to discussions with landlords and vendors. Additionally, the Company also expects to receive an income tax refund of $10.7 million related to certain provisions under the Corona Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act during the second quarter of fiscal year 2020. This refund is required to be used to repay the approximately $5.0 million in outstanding borrowings under the ABL Credit Agreement as of May 2, 2020 along with any other then outstanding borrowings under the ABL Credit Agreement in accordance with the letter agreement entered into between the Company and the ABL Credit Agreement lenders. As of June 12, 2020, the Company had no borrowing base availability under its ABL Credit Agreement.

“Net sales decreased 50% to $43.8 million from $87.1 million in the comparable prior year quarter primarily due to the mandated boutique closures beginning on March 25, 2020 and continuing through the end of the first quarter related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This decrease was partially offset by strong performance in ecommerce as all of the Company’s efforts subsequent to March 25, 2020 were focused on driving ecommerce sales during the temporary boutique closure period. The Company permanently closed eight boutiques during the first quarter, bringing the total boutique count to 703 at the end of the quarter.

“Gross loss, as a percent of sales, was (6.6%) as compared to gross profit, as a percentage of sales, of 34.8% in the prior year quarter. This unfavorable variance was primarily due to lower deleverage in occupancy costs as a result of lower sales. Occupancy costs include the full lease expense for all boutiques for the month of April 2020 (editor Note – which was not paid, presumably deferred and/or abated). Additionally, merchandise margin decreased due to aggressive markdowns and promotions as well as increased higher inventory reserves due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Selling, general and administrative (SG&A) expenses decreased $15.0 million or 38% to $25.0 million from $40.0 million in the prior year quarter. Adjusted SG&A in the first quarter of fiscal 2019 was $38.0 million and excludes $1.2 million of consulting expenses associated with the Company’s review of strategic and financial alternatives and turnaround strategy, $1.1 million in severance benefits and other payroll costs also associated with the turnaround plan, and $0.3 million of stock-based compensation reversal associated with the departure of certain employees. There were no non-GAAP adjustments to SG&A in the first quarter of fiscal 2020.

“The $13.0 million decrease in adjusted SG&A versus the comparable prior year period was primarily due to a $10.7 million decrease in boutique and corporate payroll costs as a result of the temporary furlough of substantially all of the Company’s employees, a $0.9 million decrease in boutique and corporate bonus expenses and $0.6 million decrease in professional fees.

“The Company ended the quarter with $34.8 million of inventory on hand compared to $32.2 million at the end of the comparable prior year period. Average inventory per boutique increased 11% at May 2, 2020 compared to May 4, 2019 due to the mandated boutique closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Editor Note – Inventory management on a quarter to quarter basis has been less than ideal in the last several years, presumably providing opportunity for improvement under new management.)

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS – as boutiques reopen

Per the 6/18/20 earnings release and conference call:  The operating loss for Q1, as provided above, was obviously due to the required closing of the entire chain. At the same time, Andrew Clarke, CEO since 3/9/20, made clear his optimism for a successful long term recovery and new growth for the Francesca’s Holdings brand. 85% of the stores are now reopened, the balance to operate by the end of July.  Q2 will be a process of liquidating store level inventory to make room for new product. Online sales were up 85% during the Pandemic. While that gain has moderated as stores have reopened, a far larger omni-channel presence for Francesca’s is a long term opportunity. Stores that have reopened have shown encouraging sales. As stated on the call:  “On average, retail sales are running at similar levels to the same prior year period. The significant increase in conversion and average units per transaction indicating acceptance of promotional and engagement strategies and have offset negative traffic trends.” Purchasing is through fewer vendors, and relationships are apparently improved. Better inventory management is a particular opportunity and a number of new hires, including a new SVP of Merchandising, have been made. Rent was not paid in April, May and June and negotiations have resulted in reductions and/or deferrals into calendar ’21 and beyond. The existing fleet of about 700 locations is expected to be largely maintained.

CONCLUSION – Provided at the beginning of this article