Autobytel sees black ink this qtr.

Operating profit would be 1st in 6-year history

Online auto marketer Autobytel Inc. is sticking to its fourth-quarter forecast of breaking even, if only on an operating basis, for the first time in its six-year history.

It is standing its ground despite troubles that include the departure of its CEO, low stock prices, failure to meet promises of a third-quarter profit, the end of a pilot project with General Motors, and increased competition from Web sites run by automakers and dealers.

"We have not changed our (earnings) guidance," said Jeffrey Schwartz, the new CEO. "I think the prospects for the company are strong."

Schwartz, 35, replaced Mark Lorimer, 41, on Dec. 5. "It was a logical time for Mark to leave," Schwartz said. "He had been here four years, and he wanted to pursue other things in his life."

Lorimer could not be reached for comment, and an Autobytel spokeswoman said the company has no way to contact him.

Worked for rival

Schwartz was CEO of rival Autoweb.com Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., before Autobytel acquired Autoweb in August. He joined Autobytel, of Irvine, Calif., as vice chairman.

A year ago Lorimer said Autobytel would be profitable by the third quarter of 2001. But Autobytel revised its outlook in July, saying dealers were spending less on online marketing and the advertising market was soft. The expectation for breaking even in the fourth quarter is based on a standard that measures earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

Autobytel has not been profitable - either on a net or an operating basis - since its 1995 founding. But it has narrowed its losses this year. In the third quarter ending Sept. 30, the company had a net loss of $3.2 million, compared with a loss of $7.9 million for the same period of 2000.

Autobytel stock closed Thursday, Dec. 13, at $1.73, rising from a record low of 70 cents in September. The stock peaked at $44 in April 1999.

The company raised about $72 million when it went public in 1999. Autobytel reported it had $105 million in cash and equivalents as of Dec. 31, 1999; that figure had shrunk to $69.6 million as of Sept. 30, 2001.

The company lost potential fee income in November when GM ended a "locate-to-order" pilot program in the Washington area. Fees from the pilot represented about $800,000 in revenue in the third quarter, out of a total of $18.2 million. Autobytel gets most of its revenues from dealers who subscribe to its online referral service.

Serious problems

Mark Buenger, an analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco, said Autobytel has serious problems, including a declining dealer count and increasing competition from Web sites operated by dealers and automakers.

Not counting 2,700 Autoweb dealers who came with the acquisition of Autoweb, Autobytel said its dealer count in the third quarter was off 20 percent from the year-ago quarter, to about 4,100.

"Some dealers are abandoning Autobytel because they can get leads that are pretty good, but free, from their own sites and from the manufacturers," Buenger said.

Said Buenger: "I don't think any of this means the failure of online car-buying or anything like that. I do think there are serious issues Autobytel is facing."

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com

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