Is Tyson Foods Bound for Greatness?

Over the past weekend, Tyson Foods (NYSE: TSN  )  shareholders likely sat back on their chairs and enjoyed a nice big plate of Tyson chicken wings. And why not? After reporting first-quarter earnings that far surpassed analyst expectations, the company saw its shares climb more than 8% to close at $37.40. But for those of us who didn't buy into Tyson's shares, is there still some value left on the table or just an empty plate of chicken bones?

Tyson blew away earnings estimates but matched on revenue
For the quarter, Tyson reported revenue of $8.8 billion. This matches what Mr. Market anticipated and represented a 4% gain compared to the $8.4 billion the company reported in the first quarter of 2013. According to the company's earnings release, all of its segments reported year-over-year outperformance, but the two that stood out most were beef and prepared foods.

During the quarter, revenue in the company's beef segment rose an impressive 7.1% compared to the same quarter a year earlier. The primary driver behind this segment's growth was a 4.1% increase in volume accompanied by a 2.9% increase in price. Prepared foods performed even better.

Although this segment is the company's smallest and represents less than 10% of revenue, it experienced a 7.9% rise in sales. This was driven by acquisitions, which added 3.5% to sales volume, but was also due to a 4.2% jump in sales price.

On an earnings-per-share basis, the company smashed forecasts. While Mr. Market was hoping to see earnings come in at $0.65, Tyson surprised by reporting $0.72, 71% higher than the $0.42 the company saw the same quarter a year earlier. On top of rising revenue, the business benefited from lower-than-expected costs. For instance, its cost of goods sold fell from 93.6% of sales to 92.2%, mostly due to a doubling in the company's operating margin in its chicken segment.

Does this represent a turnaround for the business?
The past few years for Tyson haven't been terrible but they haven't been particularly impressive. Over the past three years, revenue rose a modest 6.5%, from $32.3 billion to $34.4 billion, as volume in its product line fell but was offset by rising sales prices. This was accompanied by a 3.7% rise in net income, due, in part, to the rise in revenue but offset by rising costs. Now, though, it appears that business is beginning to pick up. But the big question is whether management can keep the ball rolling or whether it will be hindered by competition from competitors like Kraft Foods (NASDAQ: KRFT  ) or Pilgrim's Pride (NASDAQ: PPC  ) .

Over the past three years, Pilgrim's Pride has seen its revenue rise a strong 18%, from $6.9 billion to $8.1 billion. Despite experiencing declining volume that was offset by price increases, the business benefited from a significant rise in both volume and prices in Mexico. These factors helped net income double from $87.1 million to $174.2 million over that period.

Kraft hasn't been so lucky. Just as with Tyson, the business was hit by falling volume but benefited from rising sales prices. The confluence of these factors pushed sales up 3%, from $17.8 billion to $18.3 billion. In terms of profitability though, the business was slammed. Over the past three years, Kraft's net income fell 53.5% to $1.6 billion.

Even after adjusting for the gains that were realized in 2010 as a result of discontinued operations, the company's bottom line still fell more than 13%. This was driven primarily by a rise in the company's cost of goods sold, which rose by 2% of sales, and impairments that rose from zero to 0.8%.

Foolish takeaway
As we can see, Tyson's strong first-quarter earnings are a sign that the business is alive and well. Moving forward, the company will need to try to maintain this positive trend. In the face of competitors like Pilgrim's Pride and Kraft, this will prove difficult, but management seems to be up to the task.

In 2014 alone, the company is forecasting revenue of $36 billion, which would imply a growth rate of nearly 5%. If this does come to fruition, Tyson shares could very well be an attractive long-term opportunity for the Foolish investor, and you know what that means! More wings on your plate down the road.

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