Campbell's Earnings Cool Down

Corny pun alert: Looks like the soup's off at Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB  ) . Fourth-quarter net income from continuing operations for the broth distributor came in at $0.14 per diluted share. Last year, Campbell booked an adjusted $0.19 per diluted share from continuing operations. That translates to a 26% decline.

That certainly isn't "mm, mm good," is it? Gross margin was down as costs and expenses ate into profits; streamlining initiatives in Indonesia and Australia also had an impact. But before shareholders get too depressed about the quarterly bottom line, the good news is that sales grew 10%.

Some other good news can be found in the yearly results. Sales increased 7%, and adjusted earnings per stub from continuing operations increased 13% to $1.95.

Alas, full fiscal-year cash flows were not that hearty this time around. Last year, Campbell recorded more than $1.2 billion of operational cash flow. For 2007, the figure dropped to $674 million. Changes in working capital were cited here as a big reason for the decline, as well as payments related to hedging transactions.

Although the quarter was a weak one in terms of earnings, I wouldn't advise against looking into Campbell as an investment idea. However, there are a few caveats to keep in mind, so stay tuned.

From where I sit, Campbell seems to be doing well with its brand portfolio, as it's been slimming down products that don't seem to fit anymore. Recently, the company addressed the changing marketplace by announcing its intentions to sell its Godiva asset, and it has jumped on the 100-calorie-pack bandwagon with Kraft (NYSE: KFT  ) , Kellogg (NYSE: K  ) , and General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) in order to stay on top of health trends.

Campbell Soup is a familiar brand that should always have a place on the supermarket shelf. Its story might be boring to some degree, but again, as a core holding, it might make up for its less-than-sexy appeal by applying a bit of an antidote against volatility via its dividend payments.

Now, about those caveats. The balance sheet showed some nice things in terms of long-term and total debt levels -- they're both down. Cash and cash equivalents, however, are pretty minuscule; there's $71 million of this metric compared with $2.7 billion in total debt. Taking this into account with the drop in cash flow might make an investor pause; that's fine, that's what further due diligence is all about. And digging further, you'll find cash was used to repurchase $200 million in shares. Campbell is easily covering its interest obligations with operating income; it's got a great portfolio which includes Campbell Soups and the Pepperidge Farm lineup; and I expect that earnings should grow steadily, if unexcitingly, over time. Fools should keep an eye on the cash management, however, as I counseled previously, and look for any attempt to get the stock on pullbacks and higher yields.

These Foolish broths are rich with investment flavor:


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