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Losing Trust in Hershey?

The Halloween season is supposed to be a sweet time for Hershey (NYSE: HSY  ) . This year, though, it's downright scary. And the Hershey Trust wants the company's board of directors to do something about it.

Yes, these have been rough times for the iconic candy maker. The company's second quarter went sour. The first quarter wasn't too tasty, either. In contrast, other confectioners have been reporting delectable results. Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (Nasdaq: RMCF  ) impressed investors with a decadent earnings report, while Wrigley (NYSE: WWY  ) continues to wow Wall Street.

With Hershey's stock near a 52-week low, shareholders are losing patience -- especially the shareholder, the Hershey Trust, which acts as the controlling shareholder of Hershey Foods. Milton Hershey long ago established the trust to manage funds to be used for philanthropic activities; the Milton Hershey School is a current beneficiary. And now the trust has issued a firm statement to the Hershey board.

According to a Reuters article, the trust wants the company to get its house in order and set itself on a path to growth. LeRoy Zimmerman, the chairman of the trust board, categorized the confectioner's current state as one of "unsatisfactory performance." The trust doesn't plan to relinquish its control of the company, but Zimmerman said that shouldn't hinder the board of directors from carrying out some needed growth initiatives.

Even though I am a long-term bull on Hershey, I'll concede that things don't seem so sweet right now. But I'm encouraged by the trust's expression of dissatisfaction. The board would have a hard time ignoring the wishes of its controlling shareholder, especially given the current state of the stock. The hope with this action is that management feels the kick in the pants and takes effective action. Perhaps it already is: Recently, COO David West was suddenly promoted to the CEO position, to replace Richard Lenny.

Hershey has a valuable portfolio of tasty treats that people are addicted to. (Come on, you know you love to sneak a bit of Hershey's chocolate between meals.) This past August, the company raised its dividend by 10% to an annual rate of $1.19 per share. At current stock prices, the yield sits at about 2.7%, which isn't too shabby. Nor is the estimated price-to-earnings ratio for 2008 exorbitant, at 18.5.

Even if Hershey remains on its own -- a possible merger with Cadbury Schweppes (NYSE: CSG  ) has been on the minds of many onlookers -- I think the confectioner has the capacity to rebound, and the contention between the board and the trust will work to shareholders' benefit. It'll take time to turn the ship around. In that spirit, I'd say Hershey should definitely be a stock to hold for the long term.  

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