Fortune Still Down on Its Luck

When I read Fortune Brands' (NYSE: FO  ) second-quarter earnings release, I'm reminded of the first paragraph from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."

The company operates in three business segments -- home and hardware products, spirits, and golf -- all of which are struggling mightily with the soft economy. Management is viewing the results from the "glass half full" perspective, explaining that they're growing market share and positioning the company for success in the long term. But my eyes are getting strained from all this looking through rose-colored glasses.

Not surprisingly, the home and hardware business is struggling the most, with second-quarter sales down 14% and operating income down 30% year over year. The company has closed one-quarter of its manufacturing facilities serving this market and reduced staff by 20%. It's hard to see a rapid turnaround in this segment with no turnaround in sight for the housing market, and homebuilders like Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL  ) and KB Home (NYSE: KBH  ) still singing the blues.  

The golf business is holding up better, but still declining. Golf revenues fell 5% for the second quarter, with softness in the U.S. market more than offsetting growth in Asia. Fortune Brands owns some enviable golf monikers, like Titleist and Cobra, but they aren't faring as well this year as Callaway (NYSE: ELY  ) , which assured the street in mid-July that it would show profit growth in the second quarter.

Fortune Brands has launched aggressive marketing efforts to support its Jim Beam and Sauza spirits brands. Initial results look to be driving solid volume gains. But Fortune was blindsided this quarter when Australia increased excise taxes on RTD (ready-to-drink) products by 70%, causing sales of those beverages to plummet more than 30%. One positive note in the spirits segment is that management hasn't sounded any alarms over rising commodity costs, which have been plastering Brown-Forman (NYSE: BF-B  ) .

Fortune Brands' management is sending some positive signals to investors by boosting an already hefty 3% dividend by 5% and aggressively buying back shares. But I don't see a rapid return to sales or profit growth in the near future. All three of the company's business segments are facing headwinds for at least the balance of 2008. Foolish investors who want to bet on a turnaround in housing, golf, or the spirits market have more attractive pure plays in each of those industries.

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Fool contributor Timothy M. Otte surveys the retail scene from Dallas. He welcomes comments on his articles, but doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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