US Report: Apple demolishes Street estimates in 4Q

The revival is complete. Apple Computer Inc. smashed analysts' estimates in its fourth fiscal quarter Wednesday, returning a profit of $106m (£65m), or 68 cents a share, on sales of $1.
Written by Larry Barrett, Contributor

The revival is complete. Apple Computer Inc. smashed analysts' estimates in its fourth fiscal quarter Wednesday, returning a profit of $106m (£65m), or 68 cents a share, on sales of $1.6bn (£1bn). Apple shares were up 1 1/4 to 40. First Call consensus expected Apple to earn 49 cents a share in the quarter.

Now we know why interim CEO Steve Jobs called a rare afternoon press conference to announce the astounding results. In past quarters -- many of which provided very depressing results -- Apple waited until after the bell to release its earnings.

In the fourth quarter of 1997, it lost $161m (98m), or 33 cents a share, on sales of $1.6bn. Apple shares hit a 52-week low of 12 3/4 in December before rallying up to a high of 43 3/4 in August. Once written off for dead as yet another victim of the Wintel steamroller, Apple has transformed itself from a once-great company on the decline to an innovative contender overnight. Brisk sales of its popular iMac computers have vaulted the company back into relevance, forcing even the most outspoken critics to laud its efforts.

"Unbelievable," said Don Collier, an analyst at ProLytix Corp. "This stock was dead and buried less than a year ago. What a turnaround." In the quarter, Apple improved its gross profit margins to 27 percent versus 20 percent in the year-ago quarter. Unit shipments grew 28 percent against the same period last year.

Jobs even went as far to compare the company to Dell Computer Corp. He said inventory days outstanding passed Dell Computer Corp.'s in the fourth quarter with six days outstanding compared to Dell's eight. In the third quarter, Apple had 11 days inventory outstanding compared to Dell's eight days outstanding. "Apple is gaining operational excellence," said Jobs. "It was a world-class performance."

"Apple grew faster than the industry this quarter for the first time in nearly five years," Jobs said. "Apple is regaining operational excellence -- exiting the quarter with only six days of inventory, surpassing Dell Computer's most recently reported level of eight days."

For the fiscal year, Apple reported a profit of $309m (£188m), or $2.10 a share, on sales of $5.9bn (£3.6bn). Last year, Apple lost a staggering $1bn (£0.61bn), or $8.29 a share, on sales of $7.1bn (£4.3bn).

Jobs was also gloating about the success of the iMac, which fuelled the quarter. Jobs said Apple shipped 278,000 units in the first six weeks and that more than 40 percent of iMac buyers were new customers. Of iMac's buyers, 30 percent were first-time buyers, 12.5 percent owned a Wintel machine, and the remainder already owned a Mac. Of the Mac owners, half replaced an existing Mac and the other half became two Mac households.

Apple plans to ride the iMac for all its worth. Jobs said the company has added Best Buy as its second national retailer. CompUSA Inc. had been the sole national retailer. Jobs said the iMac will be in the Best Buy stores on Nov. 8, just in time for the Christmas season. Best Buy will give the iMac even more consumer appeal. "The iMac has been a home run and has really struck a chord with users," Louis Mazzucchelli, an analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison said. "It's a back to roots type of story for Apple."

Apple had three consecutive quarters of profit under its belt without the benefit of iMac sales, but the iMac, introduced on August 15 in the U.S. for $1,299 (£792) took 150,000 orders before a single machine was on a CompUSA shelf. CompUSA, tapped as the only national Apple retailer, said its first quarter results got a boost from August sales.

Analysts said Apple is likely to extend the iMac product line while luring more new users through Best Buy. "Apple is in an interesting position," said Mazzucchelli. "The iMac is even sneaking its way into other places such as small businesses and corporations."

The company also released a the new Mac OS upgrade. "We're going into a very important quarter, we have primed the pump for another strong quarter," said Jobs. Eric Fleming contributed to this report.

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