McCormick Maxed Out?

In January, fellow Fool contributor Rich Smith wrote that McCormick (NYSE: MKC  ) was a tad overvalued, despite a healthy fiscal 2003. I agreed with him then, and I still do after seeing first-quarter earnings from the spice maker.

To be sure, McCormick had tasty results. Sales rose 18% to $572 million. Consumers' interest in spicing up their meals accounted for most of the growth. Revenue from supermarkets and other consumer outlets was up 27% over last years' first quarter, helped in part by new distribution deals with Food Lion and Dollar General (NYSE: DG  ) .

But like a spicy meal that burns a little too hot, only half of McCormick's 18% revenue gain sprinkled to the bottom line. Net income was up 9% to $38.1 million. Divested operations, including a U.K. brokerage and a spice-packaging unit, added less than $2 million to income during last year's first quarter.

Still, there were a couple of dashes of good news for McCormick investors. Australian rival Burns Philp is preparing to sell its Tone Brothers unit, which is second to McCormick in the North American spice trade, but published reports say the unit's earnings fell 44% last year, prompting Burns Philp to hire Credit Suisse Group's (NYSE: CSR  ) Credit Suisse First Boston to broker a divestiture. McCormick is also expected to receive an $11 million payment this month from the settlement of a class action lawsuit that dates to 1999.

Add to the recipe McCormick's improving cash flow and share buyback plan and, normally, I'm inclined to start buying shares by the truckload. But not in this case. Valuation is important, and McCormick's stock is still just too expensive.

Even at a projected $175 million in free cash flow for fiscal 2004, McCormick is valued for 27 times its forward enterprise value-to-free cash flow. That means investors should see free cash flow growing annually at greater than 27%. McCormick's free cash flow has been roughly flat over the last three fiscal years.

So, as much as I love spicy food, I'll stick with a bland salad this time.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers isn't usually compared to Seinfeld character George Costanza, but he does like his kung pao chicken spicy. He has no stake in any of the companies named. You can view his Fool profile here.

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