The Motley Fool's 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 the interests of shareholders and the public first and are generally deserving of praise from investors. For reference, here is last week's selection.
This week, I want to highlight a pioneer in the apparel world that's putting money in shareholders' pockets and making a difference in the communities he operates in: Eric Wiseman of VF (NYSE:VFC).
Kudos to you, Eric Wiseman
If Eric Wiseman's name sounds familiar, that's because he landed in my top CEOs list of 2011, coming in fourth. Last year, Wiseman boosted VF's sales, profits, and dividend while also orchestrating the purchase of outdoor shoe and accessories company Timberland. Wiseman's ability to not lose focus on VF's core products (The North Face, JanSport, Wrangler, and Lee jeans) while also making diversifying acquisitions netted him that prestigious honor last year.
Moving forward to 2012, nothing seems to have changed: same great company; same great leader.
VF's third-quarter results, released last month, highlighted a 14% increase in revenue thanks to a big 29% boost in sales from the outdoor and action-sports segment (which saw operating income rise 16%, even excluding Timberland), and a 28% rise in direct-to-consumer sales. Furthermore, the company raised its dividend to $0.87 per quarter from $0.72, effectively giving shareholders their 40th consecutive annual dividend increase.
VF, of course, won't be without its set of challenges. International sales to Europe are challenged by the ongoing sovereign debt crisis, while input costs, like that of cotton, always threaten to pinch margins. Reduced wholesale shipments to Europe have hurt Polo Ralph Lauren's (NYSE:RL) bottom line while True Religion Apparel (NASDAQ:TRLG), whose denim products contain large amounts of cotton, has seen margins tighten. On top of this, VF is facing tough competition from the likes of PVH (NYSE:PVH), the owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brand names, and Michael Kors (NYSE:KORS), which have both demonstrated double-digit same-store sales strength in Europe. However, I'd say that given the aforementioned results, VF is holding its own quite nicely.
A step above his peers
One reason Wiseman and VF stand out from the crowd is the company's sheer outperformance over the years. Not only has VF delivered 40 straight years of dividend growth, as I mentioned previously, but the growth rate on its dividend has exploded to an average of 15.8% per year since late 2004. VF shares are also up a dividend-adjusted 441% over the trailing-10-year period.
But it's more than just hefty returns to shareholders that make VF a great company and Wiseman a great leader; it's the actions that are undertaken at the corporate and associate level to make VF's impact on the community and environment a positive one.
VF has always encouraged its employees to volunteer their time to charitable services, and each year, under the VF 100 program, the company honors the 100 associates who volunteer the most amount of their time, donating $1,000 each to the charities of their choosing. Since it began in 2005, more than $600,000 has been donated and 160,000 hours of community service have been performed. Its Timberland "Serve-a-Palooza" has actually accounted for more than 300,000 hours of charitable service in its 15 years of operation.
VF is also doing what it can from an environmental perspective as well. The company has partnered its Nautica brand with Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world's oceans. In addition, VF offers a line of products under the Reef brand that uses organic materials, such as organic cotton, recycled PET, and redemption foam (a plant cellulose-based material), to lessen its carbon footprint.
Two thumbs up
Another year and another impressive showing for Eric Wiseman. In spite of all the challenges presented, including weak domestic and European consumer spending and rising input and labor costs, VF not only manages to produce higher-quality earnings for shareholders, but also remembers to reward the communities that helped make it such a great company. Big dividends and a big heart equal two big thumbs up from me!
Do you have a CEO you'd like to nominate for this prestigious weekly honor? If so, head on over to the new CEO of the Week board and chime in with your fellow Fools on who deserves some praise. If you don't have a nominee yet, don't worry; you can still weigh in on other members' selections.
Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He loves giving credit when credit is due. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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