The company, which owns the Chili's and Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant chains, recently announced that it no longer plans to present at ICR's 2017 investment conference, an unusual move for the restaurant company. Meanwhile, the company, a much-talked-about target for M&A, trades a steep discount to its peers and has been buying back its stock at a remarkable clip over the past six years.
An ICR Conference regular, Brinker was listed among the 2017 conference's presenters in a November. But the company told TheStreet that it no longer plans to present at the conference which takes place between Jan. 9 and Jan. 11 in Orlando.
Brinker, which owns about 1,660 company-owned and franchised Chili's and Maggiano's restaurants as of June 29, currently trades at about 11.9 times enterprise value to Ebit and 8 times enterprise value to Ebitda, according to FactSet data, well below peers including Darden Restaurants (DRI) - Get Report (trades at 9.9 times EV/Ebitda), DineEquity (DIN) - Get Report (10.2 times EV/Ebitda), Cracker Barrel Old Country Store (CBRL) - Get Report (11.3 times EV/Ebitda), Denny's (DENN) - Get Report (17.2 times EV/Ebitda) and Panera Bread (PNRA) (12.6 times EV/Ebitda).
Brinker shares closed Wednesday at $48.38 per share, giving the company a market capitalization of about $2.4 billion. The company has about $1.4 billion in long-term debt and about $34 million in cash and equivalents.
Meanwhile, management of the Dallas-based company has bought back over $2 billion in stock since 2010, most recently announcing a $300 million accelerated share repurchase agreement in September.
Maxim Group's Stephen Anderson attributed Brinker's lower multiple to its higher percentage of company-owned locations, which "would tend to have a lower valuation multiple compared to something that just throws off cash."
While Anderson declined to comment on whether a private equity firm or perhaps an activist investor may come into Brinker and look for ways to improve the share price, the fact that the company owns about half of its stores and real estate prompts the question as to what steps could be taken to unlock shareholder value.
Could the company look to sell off owned real estate, spin out slow-growth assets or simply continue to buy back shares? All have been popular tactics from restaurant operators (see Oliver Garden and Red Lobster spinoff of Four Corners Property Trust (FCPT) - Get Report , and Bill Ackman's efforts at Chipotle (CMG) - Get Report ) but analysts declined to comment on those prospects.
The lion's share of Brinker's revenues come from Chili's but the company also owns Italian restaurant chain Maggiano's since 1995. As of June 29, Brinker owned 51 Maggiano's locations, compared to 950 company-owned Chili's locations and 659 franchise locations. Brinker has previously exited other ancillary restaurant concepts, selling Romano's Macaroni Grill for $131.5 million in 2008 and On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina for $180 million in 2010, both to private equity firm Golden Gate Capital.
Maxim Group's Anderson said that Brinker lacked a strategy for these other concepts but "they believe Maggiano's still have growth for them." The chain is "at the higher end of the space, they have a new approach that requires less real estate, and they're growing a little," he said. "If you think of the Maggiano's of old, they had 15,000, 20,000 square feet of real estate, including banquet space, but now it's down to 8,000 to 10,000 square feet."
"Full-service dining-particularly casual dining, bar and grill-is an unloved sector right now," Anderson said. "Chili's is 87% of sales and they're perceived as being dead in the water. I would argue that their comps have been improving over the last couple quarters."
While Anderson noted that takeout rumors have persisted over the years, he believes Brinker is "a value play within the bar and grill segment" which is turning itself around.
Although Brinker was thought to be an attractive target, Stephens analyst Will Slabaugh believes an acquisition of Brinker is unlikely, saying by phone that "at this point in the restaurant cycle it's unlikely a more mature brand will be taken out."
Slabaugh added that the company skipping the ICR conference should not set off alarms.
"We had some events scheduled with them as well which they canceled," Slabaugh said, adding that he doesn't expect any other major news for the company. "It sounds as though there's some internal conflicts and instead of going to ICR they're going to meet with clients on the road."
Fast food companies including Domino's Pizza (DPZ) - Get Report , El Pollo Loco (LOCO) - Get Report , Bojangles' (BOJA) - Get Report , Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (RRGB) - Get Report and Noodles & Co. (NDLS) - Get Report are all expected to present at the conference, which will be held next week in Orlando.
Brinker representatives didn't respond to a request for further comment.