School spirit tops the shopping list of customers of AAC Group. Doing business as American Achievement, the company manufactures and supplies class rings, yearbooks, and letter athletic jackets, as well as graduation items, such as caps and gowns, diplomas, and announcements for the US elementary through high school and college markets. Its ring and accessory brands include ArtCarved, Balfour, and Keepsake. Although scholastic products account for most of its sales, AAC Group also makes commemorative jewelry for families, bridal jewelry, personalized rings for the military, bowling tournaments, and pro sports such as World Series, Super Bowl, and Stanley Cup. The memorabilia maker is owned by Fenway Partners.
The lagging economy coupled with high gold prices has dampened sales as consumers postpone or forego purchases, or opt for lower-price metals for jewelry. Moreover, AAC Group's business is closely tied to the school year; seasonality further exposes the company to economic downturns, making it difficult to service interest on debt (noted by S&P as significant) and reducing discretionary cash. In 2010, AAC Group's preliminary results revealed flat to declining year-over-year earnings on a slight increase in sales, albeit less than the record high in 2008.
The company looks to regain its financial footing by diversifying its product portfolio with new interactive technologies, including a multimedia line that students can use to capture their personal milestones. To lead the change, Fenway in mid-2011 tapped Steve Parr as president and CEO. Parr, most recently head of Car and Driver magazine publisher Hachette Filipacchi Media, comes to AAC Group with 20-plus years of expertise in media and digital strategy initiatives spanning the US, Canada, and England.
The move to diversify follows the publishing industry's transition from print to digital. In addition to class rings, yearbooks are AAC Group's biggest sellers, regularly generating about 40% of revenue, each. The company sells its class rings through mass merchandisers (including Wal-Mart and J. C. Penney), jewelry stores (such as Gordon's and Zales Jewelers), booksellers (including Barnes & Noble and Follett), online, and through campus sales representatives. In contrast, yearbooks are sold directly to students by their academic institutions. The yearbooks, which are marketed under the Taylor Publishing name, are produced under contract with universities and elementary and secondary schools.
AAC Group's change at the executive level also reflects the shared stress of a business built on memorabilia. Fenway Partners tried to sell American Achievement to rival Herff Jones in 2008, but the deal was called off. The sale, which required regulatory approval, failed to get it. The combination of the company and Herff Jones would have created a much larger competitor to Jostens. American Achievement is the second-largest provider of high school class rings (after Jostens), and the largest maker of college class rings. – less