The Motley Fool readers have spoken, and I have heeded your cries. After months of pointing out CEO gaffes and faux pas, I've decided to make it a weekly tradition to also point out corporate leaders who are putting shareholder interests and those of the public first and are generally deserving of kudos from investors. For reference, here is last week's selection.
This week, we'll take a closer look at how CEO Gregory Wasson of Walgreen (NYSE: WAG ) has waded through a sea of bad news yet still continues to deliver for both shareholders and the American workforce.
Kudos to you, Mr. Wasson
Go ahead and scratch your head, because that's going to be the initial reaction for most investors who are familiar with Walgreen and its recently ended spat with pharmacy-benefit-management services company Express Scripts (Nasdaq: ESRX ) .
Express Scripts sued Walgreen over breach of contract last year for purportedly disparaging the company and attempting to lessen the amount of new enrollees in Express Scripts' network. Although Express Scripts dropped the suit in early June, the damage has been done. Millions of consumers within Express Scripts' network have been forced to find new prescription homes with CVS Caremark (NYSE: CVS ) and Rite Aid (NYSE: RAD ) , both of which have recently noted pharmacy growth thanks to the Walgreen-Express Scripts dispute.
Despite all of this, Walgreen still has a solid plan to grow its business, a plan to reward shareholders for the patience, and a way to get America moving again.
Walgreen's plan to boost growth once again was outlined last week when it formed a strategic partnership with Alliance Boots to become the world's first pharmacy-driven health and well-being retailer, as well as a large purchaser of prescription medicines. Wall Street might be iffy about this deal's prospects, but given managements' insistence that cost synergies would run $100 million-$150 million and earnings would be accretive by $0.23-$0.27 within the first year, I'd say I'm sold on its success. This deal has the potential to invigorate growth beyond what it lost from Express Scripts with promises of $1 billion in cost synergies by 2016.
A step above his peers
But I'm not done! Not only does Mr. Wasson have a plan to get Walgreen back on track, but he plans to boost shareholder morale by putting more money in their pockets yet again. Considering the exodus of Express Scripts customers, Walgreen could very easily have maintained its dividend and conserved its cash. Instead, Walgreen raised its dividend by 22% to $0.275 quarterly, marking the fourth major dividend increase in just the past three years. Just take a look at this nearly exponential dividend growth in recent years:
Source: Dividata. *Estimated payments assuming $0.275 quarterly payout.
Houston, we are go for rewarding our shareholders! Walgreen has now raised its dividend for 37 consecutive years and has made it evident that rewarding shareholders with a payout ratio of 30% to 35% of its earnings is part of its growth plans. Walgreen's new yield of 3.7% absolutely trounces its peers'. CVS yields only 1.4%, Rite Aid is too busy trying to dig its way out of nearly $6 billion in net debt to worry about rewarding its shareholders with a dividend, and even consumer do-it-all Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) , whose low-cost pharmacy business is a primary stop for low-to-moderate income families, only offers a yield of 2.4%.
Finally, with unemployment figures running above 8% and employment growth slowing, I wouldn't have been surprised to see Walgreen reducing its staff to conserve money. Oh how wrong I would have been. Although Walgreen has seen sporadic layoffs in Florida, its new store additions in Chicago that added 600 jobs in 2011 more than offset the jobs it has jettisoned recently. Add Walgreen to the list of employers helping to put America back to work.
Wasson may be unpopular given that Walgreen's stock is near a new 52-week low, but he has a plan to get Walgreen growing again, has more than enough cash to reward shareholders for sticking around, and is putting Americans back to work. I'd call that a resounding two thumbs-up to you Mr. Wasson.
Do you have a CEO you'd like to nominate for this prestigious weekly honor? Shoot me an email and a one- or two-sentence description of why your choice deserves next week's nomination, and you just might see your nominee in the spotlight.
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