Dell 'missed a beat' with its 4Q sales

Dell met analysts' estimates in its fourth quarter, but the PC maker's top-line numbers didn't meet expectations. In the quarter, Dell earned $425 million (£259 million) , or 31 cents (19 pence) a share, on sales of $5.

Dell met analysts' estimates in its fourth quarter, but the PC maker's top-line numbers didn't meet expectations. In the quarter, Dell earned $425 million (£259 million) , or 31 cents (19 pence) a share, on sales of $5.17 billion (£3.15 billion).

Dell also announced a 2-for-1 stock split effective Feb. 26 that will be paid in the form of a dividend. Its shares closed off 1 1/8 to 88 3/4 ahead of the earnings report. But shortly after the earnings were announced, the stock plummeted more than $11 (£6) a share in after-hours trading.

First Call consensus expected Dell to earn 31 cents a share in the quarter, but most analysts pegged it for sales between $5.2 bn (£3.2 bn) and $5.6 bn (£3.4 bn). On a conference call with analysts, Dell officials said revenue was "somewhat lower than expected." The company cited delayed corporate orders for its sales. "We were not as aggressive as we should have been," said Thomas Meredith, CFO, referring to landing enterprise accounts with lower prices. "If we were more aggressive we could have picked off a couple accounts to gain a couple $100 million (£61 million) in revenue and another cent of EPS. We missed a beat."

Dell said IBM was the most aggressive in the enterprise space followed by Compaq and Hewlett-Packard which reported earnings Tuesday.

The $5.17 billion (£3.15 billion) in sales represents a 38 percent improvement versus the year-ago quarter when it earned $285 million (£174 million), or 20 cents (0.12 pence) a share, on sales of $3.73 bn(£2.27 bn).

The company was also reporting sales of $14 million (£8.54 million) a day from its www.dell.com site.

Although delayed corporate accounts hurt the fourth quarter, Dell said it has landed some significant accounts that will boost earnings going forward. These customer wins will grow Dell's top line gradually. "It takes 60 to 90 days from the time of the win to the time it becomes revenue," said CEO Michael Dell. Meredith said sales would grow in the mid- to high-single digits in the first quarter. "We are very bullish on the opportunity for growth," said Meredith.

For the year, Dell pocketed $1.4 bn (£0.85 bn), or $1.05 (64 pence)a share, on sales of $18.2 bn (£11.1 bn) compared to a profit of $944 million (£576 million), or 64 cents (39 pence) a share, on sales of $12.3 bn (£7.5 bn) in 1997.

Dell noted the company was still growing well above industry rates and would tackle the sub-$1,000 PC market when it has the products and support to take market share and remain profitable. Dell said the company would address the low-cost PC market at its analyst meeting in April.

In the days leading up to Tuesday's earnings announcement, several financial analysts hinted that Dell's sales growth had slowed even though it was still turning out record profits. Historically, Dell's quarterly earnings results are rather boring as the company consistently topped analysts sales and earnings estimates. However, the less-than-stellar sales growth might result in a temporary pullback in its share price.

Dell did improve its gross profit margins to 22.4 percent in the quarter, up from 22 percent in the year-ago quarter. Also, operating expenses were trimmed to 11 percent from 11.4 percent in the same period. Strong sales into Asia and Europe helped bolster its bottom line. In Europe, total sales jumped 40 percent versus the year-ago period while sales in the Asia-Pacific region improved 30 percent.

Last quarter, Dell earned $384 million (£234 million), or 28 cents (17 pence) a share, on sales of $4.8 bn (£2.93 bn). Its shares moved up to a 52-week high of 110 earlier this month after trading at a low of 27 7/16 last February. Twenty-one of the 31 analysts following the stock maintain either a "buy" or "strong buy" recommendation