Why Yum! Brands Is Back On Track

Improved strategy and signs of stabilizing regional growth make this fast-food giant a long-term play on global fast-food domination.

Feb 10, 2014 at 5:24PM

It wasn't too long ago that Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) held the distinction of Wall Street's favorite fast-food conglomerate, as the company was tethered to China's explosive growth. In recent periods, after a series of incidents and slowed macroeconomic growth, many have questioned whether Yum! would meet long-term expectations in the region. Finally, the company exhibited stabilization in its Chinese market. When this is coupled with attractive growth plans in the U.S., Yum! is again proving its status as a global fast-food winner.

Does short-term matter?
A quick look at Yum!'s recent earnings and it would be easy to assume the company is still struggling to grow. The bottom line grew just 4% to $0.86 per share, excluding one-time items. Sales grew 3%, while unit-level sales declined again in China -- down 4%.

Worldwide, restaurant margins contracted slightly -- down 0.2% -- led by a 1.4% contraction in the international segment. Yum! Restaurants International involves operations outside of the U.S., excluding China and India.

The past quarter's results weren't thrilling, and concluded a very difficult year for the fast-food behemoth. Investors should be looking ahead, though, as the company made multiple moves in recent months that should set it up for a strong 2014 and beyond.

Getting Yummier
Management did not sound overly optimistic about the coming year as the company still struggles with foreign-exchange rates and rebuilding the KFC brand in China, but the company still guided for 20% EPS growth in the current year.

More important than the coming year's bottom line was evidence that Yum! is ready for years of crucial emerging-market growth, and even targeting startling growth back in the United States.

For one thing, the company did some restructuring that seems logical and brand-focused, rather than geographical. Yum! Restaurants International is no more as of Jan. 1. The company's non-U.S., China, and India operations are now organized under the three brands: KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Brand-focused strategy makes a ton of sense as the company needs to deliver a relatively consistent message across the board (and oceans) in order to ensure long-term growth of each chain. Leaving China and India as independent segments is important as well, because these are the two hypergrowth regions for the company.

Even during 2013's lackluster year, Yum! opened more than 700 Pizza Huts in China and actually saw positive unit metrics -- up 4% compared to 2012. In total, the company opened 1,200 restaurants, with 70% in emerging markets.

Back home, Yum! has big moves in store for the recently turned-around Taco Bell brand. For one thing, the company plans to hit 8,000 locations, up from the 5,000-plus it has now. Taco Bell's menu is moving even more toward all-day offerings, from breakfast to late-night snacks.

With bigger sales and favorable margins, Taco Bell could easily be the company's domestic darling while the other two brands conquer abroad.

Set for the long run
At 17 times earnings, Yum! isn't a bargain stock, but the company deserves its premium. Investors may see short-term fluctuations, influenced by the ongoing recovery and simultaneous growth efforts in China, as well as international currency issues and rising input costs. But the sheer magnitude of Yum!'s strategy is impressive to say the least. With leading, growing brands in its portfolio, the company will see attractive figures, globally, in the long-run. With the bonus of a consistently growing dividend (up 10% for the ninth year in a row), Yum! may be the industry's best bet.

Your best bet for 2014
There's a huge difference between a good stock and a stock that can make you rich. The Motley Fool's chief investment officer has selected his No. 1 stock for 2014, and it's one of those stocks that could make you rich. Could it be Yum! Brands? You can find out which stock it is in the special free report "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2014." Just click here to access the report and find out the name of this under-the-radar company.

Michael Lewis has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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