This article was originally published on Forbes.com
Years from now, when Hilla Sferruzza recalls her initial actions to buffer the impact of COVID-19 on home builder Meritage Homes Corp. (NYSE: MTH) of Scottsdale, Arizona, she will likely not forget the seemingly endless calls that she placed to land sellers across the country.
“It’s not like I’m calling a manufacturer and telling them to bring less raw material to my factory. I’m calling land sellers in every one of our markets to start the renegotiation process,” says Sferruzza, who, as finance chief for the seventh-largest public home builder in the U.S., is no doubt accustomed to having her calls returned.
“They’re reading the same newspapers that we are and they know what’s going on, so they’re fairly understanding,” observes Sferruzza, who has been using her phone time to push back on seller payment terms and defer or delay home building projects in nine different states.
Meanwhile, Karri Callahan, CFO of RE/MAX Holdings (NYSE: RMAX), the global franchisor of real estate brokerages, has been formulating her own mode of outreach to RE/MAX’s franchisees, who understandably have been signaling some pushback of their own.
Factors such as social distancing and governmental stay-at-home orders are slowing the amount of home buying and forcing real estate brokers to tighten their belts. Suddenly, the franchise fees that real estate brokers pay to RE/MAX and other franchisors are looming large on broker P&Ls, leading franchisors to take action and pull back fees.
“Our franchisees can now defer their fees and pay them back later in the year as real estate transactions occur, or they can pay now, but at a reduced rate of 50% of what they would have normally paid,” explains Callahan.
Still, it’s the variances of COVID-19’s impact from state to state that is summoning real estate CFOs like Sferruzza and Callahan to be more accessible and visible to their firm’s extended network of partners and stakeholders across different geographies.
“Clearly, some of the challenges have to do with how different governments—whether at the state, county, or city level—have classified real estate and whether it’s classified as ‘essential.’ But transactions are still occurring, albeit at a reduced velocity,” says Callahan, who credits the size and breadth of RE/MAX’s franchise network with helping to minimize the impact of those jurisdictions that have classified real estate transactions as being “nonessential.”
To better assess Meritage’s sales pipeline and extend her lines of sight deeper into the business, Sferruzza has been keeping a close eye on sales appointment numbers. “I’m also looking at cancellations because as important as it is for us to get sales, I need to make sure that the backlog’s not eroding at a magnitude that’s overcoming sales,” she notes.
Still, when it comes to protecting the health of the business, Meritage’s CFO makes it clear that her primary focus remains on cash flow and preserving whatever she can of it to help Meritage weather what lies ahead. Hence her recent outreach to land sellers.
“It’s a pretty long cycle, and there is a substantial cash outlay at the start of the life of a community versus at the tail end, which is really when it is cash flow positive,” reports Sferuzza, who estimates that the cash outlays for most of Meritage’s communities run two to three years before becoming cash flow positive.
“We have to buy the land, which is expensive, and we have to develop the land, which is expensive. We have to build the models and then we have to build the homes,” adds Sferruzza, whose top-of-mind cash flow priorities are not unlike those of other finance leaders whose businesses were pursuing steep growth trajectories. Meritage, for example, told industry analysts last November that they should expect the home builder to grow by 25 percent in 2020.
Meanwhile, more regular communication with the analyst and investor communities has swiftly become a priority for both Callahan and Sferruzza as they seek to tamp down fears across the board.
“In terms of the employees, I split my responsibility with the rest of management—my main focus remains on our investors, in terms of where I take primary ownership,” explains Callahan, who since mid-March has participated along with RE/MAX senior management in two companywide “town hall meetings” for all 500 RE/MAX employees.
Says Sferruzza: “I think that the real fear in the marketplace right now is one that I think we’ll be able to overcome, and it’s simply whether people will still feel confident about making a home purchase.”
As for Meritage’s balance sheet, Sferruzza explains that “it’s actually not as stressful a scenario for us as it might appear to be. We become extremely cash accretive during a downturn because we stop spending money on new land, and everything on our balance sheet converts to cash.”
Asked whether additional cash preservation techniques may be required, Sferruzza is quick to add: “If the shelter-in-place extends beyond May, June, July, different decisions will need to be made.” – Jack Sweeney