Magna, Callers Differ on Company Methods

With company debt bottoming out at about $700 million during the third quarter of the year, and with no-show chairman Frank Stronach still serving as interim CEO, Magna Entertainment officials parried with contentious investors and financial analysts during an earnings conference call Nov. 2.

Callers took issue with persistent liabilities dogging the publicly-traded (Nasdaq: MECA) racetrack, gaming and entertainment arm of auto parts maker Magna International during a 41-minute conference chaired by Executive Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer Blake Tohana.

Stronach, who was scheduled to chair the conference call according to a news release issued by the company a little more than a week ago, was in Russia on "auto business," Tohana said. Stronach, who has been interim CEO since March when Thomas Hodgson became the third CEO to leave Magna in two years, has also recently been in the spotlight as the subject of the uncomplimentary book "Magna Cum Laude : How Frank Stronach Became Canada's Best Paid Man" that was released in late October.

Some callers took issue with the lapse in finding a permanent replacement for Hodgson, as well as with Stronach's statement earlier this year that he hoped MEC would be debt-free, or close to it, by 2007.

Tohana stressed that the delayed, but pending $175 million closing of The Meadows complex in Pennsylvania Nov. 14, the proceeds of which are contractually obligated to paying down MEC debt, are an indication of the company's determination to eliminate excessive liability.

"The focus is to continue to reduce the debt," Tohana said, emphasizing the sell-off of more than $368 million in company assets in the last 14 months. "We have been able to do in small chunks, and are still focusing on it, and ways to get it down in the most prudent manner."

MEC also announced Nov. 2 that it was selling an Austrian golf course to a subsidiary of Magna International for $38.3 million. In August, MEC sold its Magna Golf Club in Canada to Magna International for $46.4 million.

When quizzed about his run as interim CEO earlier this year, Stronach jokingly suggested that analysts send him resumes of qualified candidates. One caller participating in the Nov. 2 conference call said he acted on the request.

"I would pay 50% more in equity if Mr. Stronach stepped down," he added. "Frank talks about far-less debt, and to do that he might need to take in some minority partners. The problem is that I don't want to be his minority partner, and nobody else wants to be a minority partner."

Another caller questioned the need for training centers in the MEC portfolio, such as Palm Meadows facility in Florida.

"We have all of these training centers that seem to do nothing," the caller said. "When is this company going to be run for the shareholders, and for the betterment of the shareholders? No offense to the horse industry, but this is a publicly-traded company. This company has some world-class properties; we just need to get rid of the millstone (of debt) that is choking us around the neck."

Tohana replied that MEC was sensitive to shareholders, and that Palm Meadows was "incredibly important." But he allowed that MEC is "considering opportunities" for other training sites.

The company reported that third-quarter losses ballooned to $50.7 million from $34.5 million during the same period a year ago, an event which officials blamed on increased debt and higher financing interest rates, among other factors.

Revenues rose to $113.7 million from $78.8 million over third-quarter 2005, helped in part by the advent of slots at Remington Park in Oklahoma, and investments in totalizor company AmTote International. MEC completed a $17.4 million purchase of AmTote in the third quarter.

Tohana was mum about any plans for its Dixon Downs site in Northern California that recently received local government approval. "We are still going through the entitlement process," he said.

The Dixon city council will vote on zoning changes and a developer agreement Nov. 14.

MEC is working towards opening the first-phase of 516 slots at Gulfstream Park within the next few weeks, but Tohana declined to speculate on exactly when the next 1,000 or so machines will be implemented. He said the second-phase was still in design stages and would require an additional facility.

A caller also asked about MEC's involvement in the bidding on New York's racing franchise through Empire Racing, which also includes rival Churchill Downs, as well as other horsemen. MEC vice president Joe DeFrancis said the company was an equity partner in the group, and would be responsible for about 6% of the equity if Empire Racing's bid was successful

MEC stock closed Nov. 2 trading at $4.87, down 5.62% from the previous day's closing price of $5.16.