Fortune Brands' Three-Putt

There's nothing I hate more in golf than a bogey. Especially when I stripe a drive in the fairway, hit a solid iron to the green, and then three-putt on the short grass.

Unfortunately, this scenario comes pretty close to describing fourth-quarter results for Illinois-based Fortune Brands (NYSE: FO  ) . Two of the three operating segments performed well, but the company was unable to close the deal.

Spirits and golf segments on par
The spirits segment, which includes Jim Beam bourbon, increased sales by 10% and operating income by 22%. Several new marketing campaigns, along with additional international distribution channels, were drivers of the gains. Operating margins in the spirits segment improved by more than 300 basis points.

Sales in the golf business were strong in the fourth quarter, up more than 12% and led by such well-known brands as Titleist, FootJoy, and Cobra. Operating income was slightly negative, as the fourth quarter is the slowest sales period of the year.

Penalty stroke in home and hardware
As expected with the downturn in the housing market, sales of home and hardware products were soft -- segment sales were down 8%, and operating income was short of the prior year's results by 57%. However, one bright spot in the segment is that management believes it gained share in a shrinking market during the fourth quarter.

Any birdies in the future?
Earnings per share were $1.43 before restructuring charges and a prior-year gain from the sale of the Dalmore Scotch business. This is a penny higher than last year and in line with analyst expectations. Including the charges and gain, profits fell 22%.

So is the company likely to sink any birdie putts in the near term?  

Fortune Brands demonstrated the benefits of corporate diversification by not having all of its eggs in the housing market, helping it to weather the downturn. However, its home and hardware segment still plays a major role in its portfolio of brands, contributing approximately 50% of the quarter's total sales.

Fortune Brands looks to be making the best of a tough situation, but until we see signs of life in the housing sector, investors may be better off looking at pure business-segment plays that don't sell products directly tied to the housing industry. In spirits, consider Brown Forman (NYSE: BF-B  ) , Diageo plc (NYSE: DEO  ) , or Constellation Brands (NYSE: STZ  ) . Golfing enthusiasts should look at Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) , Aldila (Nasdaq: ALDA  ) , or Callaway (NYSE: ELY  ) .  

To avoid three-putts, check out some solid strokes:

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