McCormick's Spicy Quarter

If you like spicy food, as I do, then you've probably run into McCormick & Co. (NYSE: MKC  ) more than once. McCormick makes just about everything you'd see in a spice rack, and its food distribution deals put it into a number of restaurants and stores, including Food Lion and Dollar General (NYSE: DG  ) . Indeed, McCormick is exactly the kind of sleepy, cash-generating business that, at the right price, can make millions for investors over decades. (Fool contributor Richard Gibbons argues in favor of this approach in our recent duel over technology stocks.)

But, alas, strong businesses don't always make for great investments. When I checked in with McCormick last quarter, its valuation was still a tad unsatisfying. I had hoped this morning's earnings report would bring a better dish, but I ended up with a mild case of heartburn instead.

To be sure, the numbers are good. The spice maker earned $42.9 million, or $0.30 per diluted share, for the second quarter ended May 31. That's a penny per share better than estimates, and 7% higher than the same period a year ago. Sales were brisk, up 13% to $596 million, due in part to the acquisition of Zatarain's, another food-seasoning business. A $9 million settlement from a lawsuit didn't hurt either.

Perhaps most impressive about McCormick is its cash flow, which is expected to rise nearly 60% this year, from $113 million to $180 million. That gives the company plenty of cash to plow back into growing the business and fund additional dividend hikes. (In a move Motley Fool Income Investor chief analyst Mathew Emmert would surely love, McCormick management has raised the firm's dividend every year since 1998.)

Where's the problem, you ask? Well, again, it's the valuation. McCormick trades at nearly 30 times its free cash flow when compared with its enterprise value. For comparison's sake, consider that the giants of American business, such as Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , don't get anywhere close to this multiple. (Microsoft and GE are at 17 and 26 times free cash flow, respectively.)

Much as there is to like about McCormick's spicy business, I'm not about to be burned by investing now. Better to wait till this dish cools off a bit.

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Writing this story has made Fool contributor Tim Beyers hungry. He's headed home to cook up a spicy meal, probably using a dash or two of McCormick's seasonings. Tim owns no shares in any of the companies mentioned, and you can view his Fool profile here.


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