Snacking on General Mills

Looking to snack on a food company? Then you should consider adding General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) to your shopping list. After satisfying investors last fall with solid second-quarter growth, the company has served up positively tasty third-quarter results.

Volume growth is where it's at these days in the food business, and General Mills is showing appetizing momentum. Pound volume for the quarter grew 6%, with the U.S. retail segment up 8% and international business advancing 4%. I like the company's simplistic approach to measuring core volume growth. No esoteric metrics for General Mills: A pound of product sold is simply a pound of product sold.

Ready-to-eat snack products Fiber-One and Yoplait yogurt continue to deliver double-digit sales gains. But the company also enjoyed healthy growth in long-term franchise brands such as Cheerios, where sales have advanced 5% year to date. Bakery and foodservice sales improved 13%, but that was mainly because of price increases, since core volume was flat with the previous year.

As commodity input costs continue to rise and cause trouble for other food companies, including Unilever (NYSE: UL  ) and Kellogg (NYSE: K  ) , General Mills is figuring out how to protect margins through pricing. Accordingly, the gross margin expanded to 39.8%, nearly 5 percentage points above last year's 35% margin, while segment operating profits grew 14%.

Third-quarter earnings per share were a whopping $1.23, with $0.36 of that figure coming from a mark-to-market of commodity grain positions. Even excluding that unusual item, the $0.87 increase was still up 18% from the previous year and well ahead of analyst consensus estimates of $0.79.

With the stock hopping up nicely on these savory results, I was surprised the company didn't increase earnings guidance for the year. Management is still looking at a tight range of $3.45-$3.47 per share for the full year, the same as it announced last month.

General Mills' decision to stand firm seems a little coy to me. On the earnings call, the company said it expected sales growth to moderate somewhat in the fourth quarter. But I wouldn't be surprised to find that General Mills thinks it's holding a winning hand and just doesn't want to show all of its cards just yet.

So, is General Mills a buy right now? Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) has picked Kraft (NYSE: KFT  ) as his main course in the food business. It's hard to question the master, but General Mills is making a lot of the right moves. It could at least be worthy of a light snack.

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