It seems more often than not I find company management teams to be sluggish, resistant, or even ignorant of the trends in their own business. Sometimes the best moves for a business involve shrinking down, eating a piece or two of humble pie, and adapting to a changing business environment. Try telling that to your average power-tripping CEO. It is with all of this in mind that I am relieved to report a large corporation making all the right moves for shareholders.
As in many sectors, there is a disruption taking place in the fresh food industry. With the rise of organic foods and the farm-to-table movement, food manufacturers have had to realign their strategies to tap into these high growth areas. For a company like Dole (NYSE: DOLE ) , the process isn't easy. The more socially conscious shoppers become, the worse a company like Dole appears.
Dole, along with smaller competitor Chiquita (NYSE: CQB ) have seen their pre-packaged produce business suffer as shoppers turn to fresher options and stores turn to in-house private labels. The pre-packaged greens and veggies simply cannot command the price premium they once could. For Chiquita, the company has focused on making partnerships with supermarkets and becoming their supplier for in-house private label goods. Dole, on the other hand, has taken a much more aggressive approach. It is an approach, which I believe, will show shareholders greater value and, ultimately, greater returns.
As of this week, Dole is handing over the reins to its billion-dollar-plus packaged foods business to Japanese corporation ITOCHU. This includes the company's canned pineapple, fruit concentrate cans, frozen fruit, fruit cups, and probably some other things with fruit in them. For $1.7 billion, Dole is letting go of a business line that is declining in the United States and is flushing itself with the cash to beef up its core businesses, recapitalize its debt, and make a more nimble, valuable business.
By focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables, Dole is enabling itself to compete more narrowly in a high-margin market, driven by the efforts of powerhouse supermarkets like Whole Foods Market (NYSE: WFM ) . In today's food landscape, the dollars are in organic, in "natural," in "fresh." If you are offering the frozen and pre-packaged alternatives, you are selling a low-margin product that people just don't want any longer on the scale that they used to.
In lower income nations and developing areas, such as Southeast Asia, the pre-packaged offerings might be more appealing to consumers. Dole, as stated by Chairman David Murdock, will still be an international company, with its focus on North and South American, European, and African markets.
A smart cash injection in a forward-looking company
The nearly $2 billion will, as mentioned, help the company recapitalize its debt at more favorable rates, as well as accomplish corporate restructurings and the elimination of legacy systems. The estimated annual savings as a result of these actions is around $50 million.
Combine these moves with the fact that Chairman David Murdock owns almost 60% of the company, and it looks about as shareholder-friendly a stock than as any other I can think of.
At 9.5 times forward earnings, the company trades at a richer valuation than Chiquita, but carries a more varied business line and, in my opinion, just made a decision that puts it ahead of Chiquita in the long run.
The tiny downside
The one issue with Dole is that it and Chiquita are infamous for questionable ethical practices and its support of banana republics. Both firms have faced lawsuits in the past, and are currently in litigation, regarding human rights issues. If ethics are a factor in your investment decisions, this may not be the best company.
But, for those of us who throw caution to wind and seek a nice return, Dole is a very viable option.
Another viable option is Whole Foods, a tremendous company that is well-insulated from the vicious food manufacturing industry. It's hard to believe that a grocery store could book investors more than 30 times their initial investments, but that's just what Whole Foods has done for those who saw the organic trend coming some 20 years ago. However, it may not be too late to participate in the long-term growth of this organic foods powerhouse. In this brand new premium report on the company, we walk through the key must-know items for every Whole Foods investor, including the key opportunities and threats facing the company. We're also providing a full year of regular analyst updates to go with it, so make sure to claim your copy today by clicking here.