Member of the Management Board and Chief Financial Officer
In the following interview Chief Financial Officer Peter A.M. van Bommel discusses some of the key financial topics that impacted the company in 2018 and comments on capital return and share buyback programs that were executed during the year.
We increased our sales by 11% in 2018 to €818 million, which is a new record high. We benefited from increasing demand particularly in the logic, DRAM and analog market segments. Equipment sales continued to be led by ALD, but the other product lines, epitaxy, vertical furnaces and PECVD also delivered a very robust performance.
The gross margin decreased slightly to 40.9% due to the impact from investments in new products and growth initiatives. With operating expenses under control operating profit increased by 14% and the operating margin improved slightly to 15.2% (2017: 14.8% based on comparable 2017 financials restated for IFRS15).
Results from investments excluding amortization of intangible assets - reflecting our share of ASMPT’s net profits - decreased by 46% to €61 million. This was due to a 21% decrease in ASMPT’s net profits on a 100% basis and the full year impact of the reduction of our stake in ASMPT during 2017 from 39% to 25%. In total, our normalized net profits decreased by 11% to €170 million.
ASMI’s financial position continues to be healthy. While our cash balances decreased from to €836 million to €286 million, this was fully caused by the more than €600 million in cash that we returned to our shareholders in 2018.
In terms of financial reporting, in 2018 we began disclosing the sales breakdown between spares & services and equipment sales. Our spares & service business, which is a solid and consistent contributor to our growth, increased revenue by 14% in 2018.
In 2017 we combined our Corporate Responsibility report and Annual Report to increase the relevance and quality of reporting for all our stakeholders. The 2018 Annual Report again reflects the additional steps we have taken in areas such as reducing our environmental footprint and strengthening our safety culture. Going forward, we will continue to move towards integrated reporting.
The gross margin decreased slightly in 2018 from 41.5% to 40.9%. This decrease was entirely due to initially lower margins on newly introduced products, a substantial increase in evaluation tools shipped to customers and new growth initiatives such as investments in the expansion of our service organization. The impact was especially visible in the first half of the year, while gross margins improved in the second half to 41.2% (H1 2018: 40.3%). We maintain a strong cost focus. One of our key projects in 2018 was the implementation of a new product lifecycle management (PLM) system, which, amongst others, will help to drive further cost reductions at an early stage of the product lifecycle. Our structural target for the gross margin continues to be a percentage in the low to mid 40’s.
We kept operating expenses under control during the year. Total R&D expenditure increased by 10%. Reported R&D decreased as capitalization went up, which is explained by a higher balance of development projects that were closer to the point of commercialization in 2018.
SG&A expenses increased by 22% due to costs related to the new PLM system, targeted investments such as in the Chinese market and higher legal expenses for the patent litigation cases that we initiated in 2017.
Free cash flow for the year decreased to €23 million, from €32 million in 2017, due to a substantial rise in investments. Over the last few years we have been able to largely accommodate increased customer demand within our existing facilities. However, to grow to structurally higher levels we are stepping up investments in the 2018-2019 period, as we already announced last year. Capital expenditure increased to €63 million (2017: €43 million), which primarily reflected the investments in two new facilities. In October, we completed our new facility in Dongtan, Korea, which includes an expanded, state-of-the-art R&D lab. We also made the first investments in a new expanded manufacturing facility in Singapore. As we further invest in the construction of this facility, we project a continued higher level of capital expenditure in 2019, in line with our earlier indications. Furthermore, in 2018, we also had a significantly higher cash outflow for evaluation tools placed with customers of which the benefits should become visible in the coming years.
Working capital has been, and continues to be, an important area of attention within our organization. In the first quarters of 2018 our free cash flow was negatively impacted by an increase in working capital. Accounts receivables fluctuated from quarter to quarter in 2018, depending on the distribution of sales within a quarter, but the underlying quality, which was already healthy, further improved in 2018. Due to greater volatility in tool shipments and supply chain constraints in 2018, we maintained higher levels of inventories to ensure timely deliveries to our customers.
During the course of the year we began several initiatives to mitigate this effect by structurally bringing down inventory levels. During the latter part of 2018 these actions started to bear fruit. With a meaningful improvement in working capital in the final months of the year we generated free cash flow of more than €60 million in the fourth quarter. By the end of 2018, working capital was still higher year-on-year, in part due to the higher activity level in the fourth quarter. Measured in quarterly sales, days of working capital decreased to 72 at the of 2018, down from 103 at the end of the third quarter and 89 at the end of 2017.
During 2018, we used €607 million in cash for shareholder remuneration, more than double the amount we spent in 2017. As a reminder, during 2017 we reduced our shareholding in ASMPT in two partial stake sales from 39% to 25% and we committed to returning the proceeds to our shareholders. From the total of approximately €700 million in cash proceeds, we returned €500 million via two share buyback programs. The first one we started in September 2017 and completed in March 2018. The second buyback program began in June 2018 and we completed it in November. In total, we purchased 7.2 million of our own shares during 2018. In addition, we used more than €200 million to distribute €4 per common share to our shareholders through a tax efficient capital repayment. This was in addition to the regular dividend of €0.80 per share paid in 2018. During the year, we also canceled 6 million treasury shares which reduced the share count by almost 10%.
Since 2010, we have returned more than €1.6 billion in cash in different forms to the financial markets. Our policy to use excess cash for the benefit of our shareholders remains unchanged. Our overall financial position continues to be healthy and enables us to continue investing in the growth of our business, which remains our key priority.
Looking at 2019, we will propose a dividend of €1.00 per share to the forthcoming AGM, which is an increase of 25% compared to last year and underlines our confidence in the prospects for the company. We will also propose the cancellation of 5 million shares. This will further reduce the number of issued shares by approximately 9%.
Wafer fab equipment (WFE) spending started to slow down in the second half of 2018. This slowdown was due to a correction in memory spending, particularly in 3D-NAND investments. For 2019, market watchers expect a double-digit decrease in WFE spending, due to a further drop in memory investments. At the same time, the logic and foundry segments increased in the second half of 2018 and are expected to remain relatively healthy in 2019, driven by spending on the most advanced nodes. We hold a particularly strong position in logic and foundry. This drove our revenue to record levels in the fourth quarter of 2018 and we expect it will further support our sales performance in 2019, as evidenced by our guidance for continued solid sales levels in the first and second quarter.
We believe the long term outlook for our industry remains solid, though the exact spending level will fluctuate annually due to the timing of our customers’ investments in new technologies and depending on general economic conditions. We are well equipped to deal with such swings in demand. Our focus has been on consistently improving the efficiency and flexibility of our manufacturing and supply chain operations. In addition, our outsourced model helps to limit the impact from swings in demand on our gross margins.
Over the past 50 years we have grown to become a leading global supplier
of semiconductor wafer processing equipment. A company that develops
innovative process solutions for our customers, and manages itself in the best
interests of our investors, our employees, society, and other stakeholders.
Yet now is the time to enter a new era of innovation, to embark on the next
phase of growth. We understand that this requires commitment and strength
across many areas. From innovation in R&D, to advancing new technologies
and addressing new applications. From developing our people, to creating
even stronger relationships with key customers.
This is how we will take the next leap forward.
ROADMAP TO THE FUTURE
Our roadmap to the future will enable us to not only
achieve our next phase of growth, it will ensure we
can continue to help our customers achieve their
technology roadmaps for next-generation devices.
Our technology helps drive innovation, increasing the number of scientific breakthroughs, many of which are achieved from our advanced process equipment that deposits new materials with precision and productivity, positively benefiting society in sectors from healthcare and education, to transport and energy.
For semiconductor manufacturers, scaling chips
to smaller dimensions is an ongoing challenge.
Our innovations and equipment are vital in helping make many of these transitions happen.
Striving for efﬁciency ensures that our
customers get the products, services,
and results they expect. Intensifying
our focus on efﬁciency will make us a
stronger company, ready to take the
next leap forward.
We are a multinational company that
embraces diversity in every sense
of the word. With 29 different
nationalities working across the
company, we combine our talents
to drive innovation.
Achieving our ambitions takes intelligence, knowledge, skill,
determination, and dedication. And it is this combination of
qualities that we nurture in our people.
Our goal is to impact tomorrow’s generation
as positively as we’ve impacted today’s.
Making this happen takes the xtraordinary
talent of our people, who work together
to drive innovation and deliver excellence.
Collaboration is fundamental to our
continued success; from working
with our customers to optimize our
equipment and processes to enable
their technology roadmaps, to
creating partnerships on cutting-edge
research and development.
Operational excellence is one of the essential
pillars of our strategy, which enables us to provide
our customers with the high-quality, leading-edge
products and services they demand.
R&D is central to our development,
leading to new device architectures,
new materials, and new processes
that strengthen our competitive
positioning and enable our customers
to deliver the next-generation chips.
By extending our technological scope with a
more diverse product portfolio, we can help our
customers continue to advance their business
while growing our own in new market segments.
We create long-term value for our
stakeholders in a variety of ways.
From working with our customers
to develop innovative solutions, to
ensuring value creation growth
and positive investor returns.
We are committed to positively
contributing to society and
reducing our impact on the
environment. Only then can
we truly say we are helping
create more with less.
We believe sustainability takes many forms.
From developing sustainable technology
roadmaps for our customers, to creating
a sustainable living environment for all.
Safety is a front-line requirement,
which is why our ZERO HARM!
policy outlines our vision on product
safety, and our CR policy lays out
our commitment and expectations
towards health and safety.