Judging by Constellation Brands' (NYSE: STZ ) upbeat first-quarter earnings call, business has never been better for the producer and marketer of alcoholic beverages. Yet while near-term challenges should eventually pass, I'm finding the outlooks from Constellation's archrivals easier to swallow.
Constellation is one of the largest global players in branded wine and enjoyed a 16% increase in sales, making it the best-performing business segment for the quarter. However, the company continues to struggle in the United Kingdom as low-cost, bulk Australian wine floods the market and flattens overall profitability. Another joint-venture accounting change served to take the fizz out of total sales growth, while earnings plummeted close to 64%.
Management is looking to increase exposure to more premium-brand alcoholic beverages -- a niche that makes up one of the fastest-growing areas in the industry. Constellation just completed an acquisition of Svedka Vodka, and it's also moving more aggressively into beer -- a recent Crown Imports joint venture, the company says, intends to "maximize the long-term growth potential for Corona and the other brands in the number one imported beer portfolio in the U.S."
Add it all up, and there are just too many moving parts to get a grip on Constellation's long-term potential. Granted, the near-term difficulties are depressing bottom-line trends, but the company has posted single-digit returns on invested capital (ROIC) for more than four consecutive years, suggesting that its acquisitive mind-set is failing to enhance its competitive position.
In contrast, Brown-Forman (NYSE: BF-B ) and Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation Diageo (NYSE: DEO ) post very high ROICs. King of beers Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD ) also boasts a double-digit ROIC, even though frosty brew remains one of the slower-growing segments.
I don't see much to convince me that Constellation can outperform the larger industry players over the long term, and near-term challenges only serve to cloud the picture.
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Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann is long shares of Diageo but has no financial interest in any other company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.