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A Carvana sign and signature vending machine in Tempe, Ariz.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

PHOENIX – As layoffs and cost cuts roil Wall Street, from retail and shipping to tech and media, embattled online used car sales giant Carvana says its own restructuring is in the rear view.

Carvana over the last 18 months aggressively restructured its operations and debt amid bankruptcy concerns to pivot from growth to cost-cutting. They were crucial moves for the company and its largest shareholders, including CEO and Chairman Ernie Garcia III and his father, Ernie Garcia II. The two control 88% of Carvana through special voting shares.

The efforts thus far have been successful, propelling Carvana’s stock last year from less than $5 per share to more than $55 to begin 2024 – marking a significant turnaround for the company, but still a far cry from the stock’s all-time high of more than $370 per share reached during the coronavirus pandemic in 2021. Shares closed Thursday at $42.53.

“We have every intention of continuing to make progress and don’t expect to return to a situation like that,” the younger Garcia told CNBC about the company’s dire circumstances. “I think the pressure of the last two years caused us to really focus on the most important things.”

The Tempe, Arizona-based company has taken $1.1 billion of annualized expenses out of the business; reduced headcounts by more than 4,000 people; and launched a new proprietary “Carli” software platform for end-to-end processing of vehicle reconditioning as well as other “AI,” or machine learning, systems for pricing and sales. The systems replaced previous processes that involved manually inputting data into separate systems or spreadsheets. 

The result, Carvana hopes, is better footing to navigate an automotive industry that’s shifting and normalizing from a supply-constrained environment to one with less favorable pricing power for dealers.

Return to growth

Carvana has been a growth story since its initial public offering in 2017. It posted growing sales every year from its 2012 founding through 2022, when restructuring began.

The business concept of Carvana is simple: buy and sell used cars. But the process behind it is extremely complicated, labor-intensive and expensive.

Carvana puts each vehicle it intends to sell through a lengthy inspection, repair and sale preparation process. It ranges from fixing scratches, dents and other imperfections to engine and powertrain components. There’s also significant logistical costs and processes for delivering vehicles to consumers’ homes and the company’s signature car vending machines across the country.

A Ford F-150 is prepped for a painting booth at Carvana’s vehicle reconditing center outside Phoenix. The vehicle is wrapped so only the spot needed to be repainted is showing.  

Michael Wayland / CNBC

In 2022, retail sales declined roughly 3%. Headed into the fourth quarter of last year, they were down a further 27%.

Carvana is currently in the “middle of step two” of a three-step restructuring that Garcia initially laid out to investors roughly a year ago.

Step 1: Drive the business to break even on an adjusted EBITDA basis. Step 2: Drive the business to significant positive unit economics, including positive free cash flow. Step 3: Return to growth.

“We’re trying to stay really focused on just building the business as best we can,” Garcia said during a rare, wide-ranging interview at a Carvana vehicle reconditioning center near Phoenix in mid-January.

The CEO, sitting under a “Don’t be a Richard” poster featuring former President Richard “Dick” Nixon (it’s one of Carvana’s six core values), says the company is largely done with taking fixed costs out of the business, but he believes there’s more room for reductions in variable costs to increase profits before returning to a growth-focused company again.

Wall Street largely agrees.

Carvana CEO and cofounder Ernie Garcia III


“We walked away confident that CVNA has room to further improve its cost structure and drive additional operational efficiencies. These efficiencies would come from three main areas: the further development of internal software, standardized processes, and improved training and career pathing,” said JPMorgan analyst Rajat Gupta in a December analyst note following an investor briefing and tour of a Carvana reconditioning center in Florida.

At the end of the third quarter, Carvana had $544 million in cash and cash equivalents on hand, up $228 million from the end of the previous year. The company reported total liquidity, including additional secured debt capacity and other factors, of $3.18 billion.

It recorded a record third-quarter gross profit per unit sold of $5,952, while cutting selling, general, and administrative expenses by more than $400 per unit sold compared to the prior quarter.

The company reports its fourth-quarter results on Feb. 22.

New era, new tech

At the center of much of Carvana’s cost reductions is new tech to optimize operations.

The company introduced Carli, a host of software “solutions” or apps for each part of reconditioning a vehicle. The suite of tools records inspections and reconditioning of inbound vehicles step by step, including price checks and benchmarking costs for parts and overall expenses per vehicle. It’s followed by other systems to assess market value and sales prices for each vehicle.

The systems helped contribute to $900 in cost savings per unit in retail reconditioning and inbound transport costs over past 12 months.

“We rolled Carli out across all sites. It’s a single, consistent, much more granular inventory management system,” said Doug Guan, Carvana senior director of inventory analytics, who formerly led expansion for Instacart. “That’s what we’ve been focused on for the last year and a half.”

Each vehicle that enters Carvana’s reconditioning center has a barcode sticker to assist in tracking the vehicle through its process as it prepares to be sold.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Guan, who started at Carvana in 2020, is among a new group of hires from a variety of backgrounds that range from Silicon Valley tech startups to more traditional vehicle operations such as CarMax, Ford Motor and Nissan Motor.

Carvana’s offices, where it shares a campus with State Farm, feel a lot like a startup. On a floor housing customer support, music blares – the likes of Coldplay to Neil Diamond. A black-and-gold gong sits nearby to celebrate when costumer service reps, internally called “advocates,” assist customers in a sale, among other milestones.

Other than Carli, Carvana has built custom tools to support its inbound and outbound logistics activities that have driven down costs by about $200 per unit. These include mapping, route optimization, driver schedule management, and pickup/drop-off window availability, including same-day delivery, which the company recently launched in certain markets.

The customer care team has also recently begun piloting generative artificial intelligence for some requests, including automatically summarizing customer calls, training AI to act as an “advocate” and incorporate the company’s values: be brave; zag forward; don’t be a Richard; your next customer may be your mom; there are no sidelines; we’re all in this together.

A black-and-gold gong sits nearby to celebrate when costumer service reps, internally called “advocates,” assist customers in a sale, among other milestones.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

“Customer experience has been No. 1 at the heart of everything that we do, which I think after being here all these years, it’s amazing to say that still very, very true statement,” said Teresa Aragon, Carvana vice president of customer experience and the company’s first employee outside of its three cofounders.

In 2023, Carvana’s customer care team under Aragon handled 1.3 million calls and another 1.3 million chats and texts, according to stats posted on a bathroom flier called “Learning on the Loo” that the company confirmed.

The generative AI pilot, which is separate from Carli, has helped Carvana to reduce headcount in the department by 1,400 people while reducing processing times.

‘Never something that we considered’

Many investors are back on the Carvana bandwagon after the company managed through the last two years, but some concerns remain.

The Garcia family and its control of the company have been a target of some investors, including a lawsuit last year brought by two large North American pension funds that invested in Carvana alleging the Garcias ran a “pump-and-dump” scheme to enrich themselves. Its one of several lawsuits that have been brought against the the father-son duo in recent years, largely involving the family’s businesses.

In general, CEO Garcia said he attempts to use criticism as motivation in his “march” to lead Carvana, invoking a phrase he has regularly ended investor calls with for several years: “The march continues.”

Family ties

Carvana went public three years after spinning off from a Garcia-owned company called DriveTime, a private company owned by the elder Garcia, who remains the controlling shareholder of Carvana. DriveTime was formerly a bankrupt rental-car business known as Ugly Duckling that Garcia II, who pled guilty to bank fraud in 1990 in connection to Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal, grew into a dealership network.

Carvana has separated itself from the company but still shares many processes with DriveTime. The close link between Caravan and other Garcia-owned or -controlled companies has given some investors pause.

The Wall Street Journal in December 2021 detailed a network of Garcia companies that do business with DriveTime, Carvana or both.

Most notably, Carvana still relies on servicing and collections on automotive vehicle financing and shares revenues generated by the loans. The businesses also, at times, sell vehicles to one another and Carvana leases several facilities from DriveTime in addition to profit-sharing agreements.

For example, during 2022, 2021, and 2020, Carvana recognized $176 million, $186 million and $94 million, respectively, of commissions earned on vehicle service contracts, or VSC, also known as warranties, sold to its customers and administered by DriveTime.

Carvana sells such warranties or other service-related protections to customers, and DriveTime takes them over, giving Carvana a commission. It’s one of several multimillion-dollar transactions between the family-controlled companies.

The younger Garcia, who started Carvana while serving as treasurer at DriveTime, says completely separating from Drivetime is not a main priority at this time, as it utilizes already established systems such as the financing and servicing that aren’t core to Carvana’s operations.

Carvana’s march hasn’t always been in a straight line: The company was a darling stock of the coronavirus pandemic, as it was lightyears ahead of traditional auto retailers in selling vehicles online – a process that surged during the global health crisis and, in some states, became the only way businesses could operate due to stay-at-home orders.

But it couldn’t keep up with demand, pushing Carvana to invest billions in growth opportunities, including an acquisition of used car auction business ADESA.

Then the used vehicle market shifted and Carvana’s aggressive growth plans — which included buying thousands of vehicles from auctions and consumers at hefty premiums compared to traditional auto dealers to build inventory — became a major liability when prices declined.

Carvana’s debt grew, including the debt-funded ADESA deal, and its stock became the most shorted in the country as fears of bankruptcy and a creditor fight grew. The stock lost nearly all of its value in 2022, causing some to speculate bankruptcy may be ahead.

Garcia is adamant that he never believed bankruptcy would happen, saying “absolutely not” when asked about it. His confidence was fueled by a belief that the service Carvana offers – selling and buying used vehicles online and streamlining the tedious process of car purchasing is something consumers need and want.

He also said taking the company private – which scared some stakeholders and investors – was never a viable option: “I would say it was a thought in the sense that other people thought about it. It was never something that we considered,” Garcia said.

The inside of a Carvana sign vending machine in Tempe, Ariz.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

But Carvana’s debt load is still very much a factor.

A deal between Carvana and a group of investors who collectively owned $5.2 billion of its outstanding unsecured bonds reduced the used car retailer’s total debt outstanding by more than $1.2 billion but also kicked much of the debt to later this decade, at largely higher interest rates.

Marc Spizzirri, a senior managing director of B. Riley Advisory Services, said every restructuring is unique but in general companies need to take action quickly after taking on debt to ensure they don’t land in the same circumstances that drove the debt in the first place.

“They have to be able to service that debt,” said Spizzirri, a former franchised dealer. “It’s a classic pre-bankruptcy process and in [many companies’] minds that’s not an option for them … But they can’t keep repeating what they’ve done before.”

Carvana’s new notes will mature in 2028; the old notes, which carry interest rates ranging from just under 5% to more than 10%, are due between 2025 and 2030. The old and new notes make up roughly 78% of Carvana’s nearly $6 billion total debt.

For now, the march continues for Carvana.

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