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Molson Coors: A Look Back at 2012

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With only a few days left in 2012, it's an opportune time for investors to look at the stocks they own and decide whether their performance met previously set hopes. Often, investors focus on short-term stock performance, but it's important to examine other dynamics -- like sales and margin trends and management changes -- when assessing if a company justifies a place in their portfolios.

Today, we'll take a look at megabrewer Molson Coors (NYSE: TAP  ) and evaluate its achievements and challenges.

Company basics
Molson Coors produces brands including Coors, Blue Moon, Molson, and Keystone. The company currently derives 48% of its revenues from the U.S., 31% from Canada, 20% from the U.K., and a mere 2% from the rest of the globe. Not surprisingly, Coors has its eye on developing markets for future growth. In April, it announced that its buy StarBev, an Eastern European brewer with dominating market share. Molson Coors' stock is down nearly 1% year to date, compared to the Dow Jones Industrial Average's almost 7% gain during the same period.  

Big brewers getting bigger
The global beer market increased 2.7% in 2011, primarily due to growth in emerging markets, but represented an improvement over the 1.6% growth in 2010 and 0.4% in 2009. While still considered a top 10 global brewer, Molson Coors is a smaller player . Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD  ) is the world's largest brewer, followed by SABMiller (OTC: SBMRY), Heineken NV (OTC: HEINY), and Carlsberg (OTC: CABGY). These four brewers command a combined global market share of roughly 50%.

But they're all vying for more, raking in market share through acquisitions. In April 2012, AB InBev agreed to buy Dominican Republic's Cervecceria Nacional Dominicana, the same month Molson Coors announced its StarBev acquisition. Last year, SAB Miller ponied up for Australia's Fosters, and Heineken purchased Fomento Economico Mexicano SAB.

However, big brewers such as Molson Coors are also gaining market share through the back door.

Mega brewers have jumped onto the craft beer movement, mostly because that's where growth resides in the otherwise flat beer industry. In 2011, craft brewing enjoyed 15% growth by dollars and 13% growth by volume.  Even though craft beer makes up only 6% of market share, it's a huge part of the beer industry's future.

Another reason big brewers are jumping in the craft market is because it delivers higher margins and, oftentimes, higher returns. For example, return on assets and return on equity for Molson Coors are roughly 2% and 7%, whereas they're nearly 20% and 30% for Samuel Adams maker Boston Beer (NYSE: SAM  ) .

So what's a megabrewer to do? Many companies are producing beers that approximate the taste of craft beer. But they're employing backdoor tactics by distancing these niche brands from their parent companies. Molson Coors has done so with its popular Blue Moon brand, as has AB InBev with its Shock Top. Megabrewers have even craftily created separate divisions to house their specialty beer brands. For example, MillerCoors -- the joint venture between Molson Coors and SAB Miller -- has created Tenth and Blake Beer Company. AB InBev has done the same with its Green Valley Brewery  and its 2011 acquisition of Goose Island. 

Big beer = massive muscle
Megabrewers such as Molson Coors wield a huge amount of control over the beer distribution system, a complex and tiered web of brewer, distributor, and retailer. This system was originally set up to prevent an imbalance of power, particularly from allowing big brewers to muscle smaller operators. But distributors are often in the pocket of the big brewers, and the powerful players control access to the market. Such states as New Jersey are crafting legislation to help smaller, more local brewers. But burly big beer knows how to throw its weight around.

Foolish bottom line
Undoubtedly, Molson Coors shareholders will be happy to put a lackluster 2012 behind it. But will the company's increasing presence in developing markets pay off in 2013? Might its foray in the surging craft beer niche reward stockholders next year? Or will its stock performance disappoint? Stay tuned.

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