Chemicals giant DuPont (NYSE: DD ) is in the middle of a strategic transformation, right before our eyes. Over the past year, it's been quietly (in most cases) selling off divisions deemed non-critical to the company's future, and it's been simultaneously building out other businesses with high potential for future rewards. One of these is agriculture, which has a bright future ahead thanks to solid underlying economics.
Other chemicals companies like Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW ) are selling off non-performing businesses too, but there's an important distinction that separates DuPont from its competition. DuPont's unique strategy to plow into promising businesses with solid underlying economics, such as agriculture, will pave the way for strong growth in the years ahead.
Gearing up in agriculture
DuPont has placed the agriculture industry squarely in its cross-hairs, and there's plenty of evidence that suggests this is a wise strategy. DuPont Chief Executive Officer Ellen Kullman recently stated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that DuPont's future value proposition is in agriculture. As a science company, DuPont science is determined to solve the world's increasingly complex food demands. Due to soaring global populations and rising standards of living, there will soon be an immense strain on food production. As a result, DuPont is determined to provide more, and better, food.
To free up funds available for investing in agriculture, DuPont is shedding assets it doesn't consider critical to its future. For example, in 2012 DuPont sold off its Performance Coatings unit to The Carlyle Group (NASDAQ: CG ) for $5 billion. Asset divestments are a common theme throughout the chemicals sector. Dow Chemical sold its chlorine business last year, which was its oldest business, one that generated $5 billion in annual sales.
The key difference between DuPont's and Dow's strategy is what they plan to do with the funds raised from asset sales. Dow is content to utilize the new-found cash to increase dividends and buy back its own shares. Dow refers to its strategy as the 'Efficiency for Growth' plan, in which it wants to shore up its balance sheet and increase its financial position. As part of this plan, Dow recently increased its dividend by 15% and announced a $4.5 billion share repurchase authorization.
By contrast, DuPont isn't content to sit idly by with its financial windfall. It's aggressively expanding into agriculture, which is quickly becoming the company's next avenue for growth.
Green shoots in DuPont's agriculture business
While DuPont's strategic shift is still in its early stages, there are already signs of success. The underlying economics of the agriculture industry are extremely favorable. That's because global populations continue to expand, and rapidly emerging economies have placed an enormous strain on food production.
In addition, DuPont's existing Agriculture division was is best-performing business segment last year, since it produced 13% sales growth and is the company's largest operating unit. One of its best-selling products last year was its insect control, whose sales exceeded $900 million.
Going forward, DuPont is equally excited about the recent launch of its Encirca services, which is a product line that helps farmers increase crop productivity and profitability. DuPont's Encirca also addresses a number of other issues for farmers, including decisions regarding nitrogen fertility and irrigation. This product has a very promising future. Over the next decade, management believes the Encirca line could reach peak revenue of $500 million per year.
The Foolish bottom line
Agriculture is a major theme across the chemicals sector right now, and for good reason. Millions of new entrants into the middle class across the world will result in a huge demand on food production. DuPont is determined to meet these challenges with a new line of products suited specifically for the agriculture industry.
DuPont's major investment in agriculture is supplemented by asset sales of under-performing businesses. Unlike Dow Chemical, DuPont isn't content to use funds raise from divestments for share buybacks alone. DuPont is proceeding full-steam ahead into agriculture, which has the potential to become a major avenue for future growth.
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