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Universal Technical Institute, Inc.'s (UTI - Analyst Report) third-quarter fiscal 2013 adjusted earnings of 1 cent per share beat the Zacks Consensus Estimate of breakeven earnings. We believe that better-than-anticipated student starts and improved efficiencies from restructuring efforts led to the earnings beat in the quarter.

However, earnings declined 75% from the prior-year quarter’s earnings of 4 cents due to lower year-over-year top-line growth.

Net revenue of this Zacks Rank #2 (Buy) company for the quarter declined 8.7% to $91.0 million from the prior-year quarter due to a decline in enrollments. Revenues were in line with the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $91.0 million. Revenues excluded $4.4 million related to unrecognized proprietary student loans, up from $3.8 million last year.

Quarter in Detail

The mechanical training institute reported a 9.8% decline in average undergraduate full-time enrollment to 13,800 in the second quarter. New student starts declined 7.4% to 2,700 in the quarter.  However, the decline in starts improved from the over 15% shortfall in the previous two quarters.

Enrollment has been trending down consistently over the past few quarters as a result of macroeconomic headwinds; sluggish demand due to reluctance in taking loans and continued challenges in obtaining student financing; changing regulatory requirements; increased price sensitivity and affordability concerns; and increased competition.

Though these macro challenges continue, with some recovery of the auto industry and resultant technological advancement and an aging workforce, the demand for skilled auto technicians is increasing. Accordingly, the company witnessed improved student applications in the quarter.

Total new applications improved 20% in the quarter with growth seen across all channels – high school, adult and military. High school applications grew 18%, adults grew 22% while military applications went up by 13% in the quarter.

The company is working toward improving its marketing efficiency by generating higher-quality inquiries using a new media-mix model. Universal Technical hopes to improve its new student starts at a lower cost by simplifying work. The strategy seems to be working with student inquiries increasing 8% even though advertising expenses have been going down. The renewed marketing efforts have been beneficial for the adult segment as this segment is largely driven by media generated inquiries. The quality of inquiries and conversion rates have also improved year-over-year.

During the reported quarter, revenue per student improved 1.5%. The same in the previous quarter had remained flat.

Universal Technical’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) in the quarter declined 15.8% to $6.4 million. In the quarter, the company reported an operating income of $0.5 million against $1.5 million in the prior-year quarter. Despite the decrease in advertising and compensation expenses, operating income declined due to lower top-line growth. Advertising expenses declined almost 10% in the quarter to $9.1 million as the company is trying to lower as well as better align its marketing investments.

We note that Universal Technical’s profits were better than the past two quarters as the company gained traction with its marketing and operational efficiency initiatives.

In addition to the marketing efforts, Universal Technical is also modifying its programs according to the needs of the employers, to provide relevant training that leads to quality student outcomes, thereby offering more value. A couple of weeks back, United Technical announced plans for collaboration with General Motors Co. (GM - Analyst Report) to devise a new training program for UTI students at its Avondale campus. In addition Universal Technical already works closely with leading original equipment manufacturers (OEM) in the automotive, diesel, motorcycle and marine industries such as, Ford Motor Co. (F - Analyst Report), Honda Motor Co., Ltd. (HMC - Analyst Report), Harley Davidson and many more.

The company is also working to attract students who are likely to have a successful career at Universal Technical. Universal Technical is also making its loan programs more accessible to students and easing some eligibility restrictions. The company has also increased the number of need-based scholarships to attract students. Alongside, Universal Technical is working toward controlling costs to better align it with lower enrollments.

2013 Outlook Retained

The company retained its previously provided revenue guidance. It expects revenues to dip in high single-digits in 2013 as new student starts will decline in mid single-digits. However, new student starts are expected to grow over the next two quarters. The company expects new student starts to grow at mid-single digit rate over the next six months. New student starts are expected to grow in the mid- to upper-single digit range in the fourth quarter (as inquiries and applications improve) and remain flat in the first quarter of 2014.

Moreover, Universal Technical expects overall contraction in fiscal 2013 operating margin and lower net income from the prior-year levels, despite significantly lower costs expected in the year.

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