ConAgra Foods (NYSE: CAG ) has a reputation as a steady, reliable company. That's because it's a food company, and, as everyone knows, humans need to eat to survive. So putting up consistent growth would seemingly be a sure thing for ConAgra. However, there is a tremendous amount of competition within the packaged food industry. In addition, consumer preferences can change rapidly.
ConAgra's most recent earnings report disappointed. Earnings were lackluster, and sales fell in a few of its most important product categories. Let's take a look at some of what management had to say during the quarterly conference call on June 26 to learn more about how the company is doing.
"Our shortfall to our expectations was driven by two key factors; one, weaker than planned consumer foods volumes, and two, significantly lower profitability in our private brands operations," CEO Gary Rodkin said during the conference call on fiscal-fourth-quarter earnings.
The company lost $0.76 per share in earnings from continuing operations, due to falling sales in its consumer foods group and a large impairment charge in its private label brands segment. Volumes of its consumer foods products dropped 7%. ConAgra also took a massive $681 million noncash impairment charge due to higher than expected integration costs pertaining to its acquisition of Ralcorp Holdings.
"The biggest portion of our volume decline relates to a handful of brands that we have talked about before, namely Healthy Choice, Orville Redenbacher's and Chef Boyardee," Rodkin said.
These three key brands performed poorly during the fiscal year, which is disturbing because they collectively bring in more than $1 billion in annual sales. According to the company, it has net sales totaling approximately $16 billion. In the most recent quarter management noted a soft packaged and frozen foods industry performance over the past year, driven by changing consumer preferences toward fresher alternatives. With this in mind, it's up to management to reenergize the portfolio, and ConAgra plans to do just that.
"We have begun making changes with these brands to improve performance. We are confident we are doing the right things to make an impact, and we recognize the need to move faster," said the CEO during the conference call.
Management is resorting to promotional activity to push sales. Within Healthy Choice, ConAgra is going to shift focus to its higher-performing Café Steamers line, as well as discontinue a few slower-moving products. Café Steamers has high margins, and management believes it has staying power with consumers.
Management also noted a mistake with Chef Boyardee. "Moving on to Chef Boyardee, we had eliminated at the beginning of fiscal 2014 the Easy Open lid on Chef Boyardee cans and in retrospect this was a mistake," Rodkin said during the call with analysts.
It was interesting to see management acknowledge a mistake in one of its major brands. ConAgra is busily getting its Easy Open lid products back on store shelves. The company believes Chef Boyardee will remain a hit with its core consumer, who pay only about $1 for a can of Chef Boyardee that contains roughly 16 grams of protein. It believes this is an effective proposition, and the new lid will bring customers back to the brand.
"Looking ahead, we do have confidence in stabilizing consumer foods volume, getting sequentially better in fiscal 2015 for three reasons," Rodkin said.
The first reason is the projected improvement in the three major brands, as discussed above, which will help put its financial performance back in order.
Second, the company expects to increase penetration in retail outlets in which it doesn't yet have a meaningful presence, the most prominent being dollar stores. This will help open up its products to a new demographic that may shop almost exclusively at deep-discount retail outlets; the company is shifting research and development, as well as supply chain resources, to enhance the effort.
Thirdly, ConAgra is counting on international growth to drive its future. Its international consumer foods business remains a very small part of overall operations, but it is seeing good results thus far. Management pointed to the potential in emerging markets such as Latin America, Mexico, and India, where ConAgra believes its brands will do well.
These five quotes from ConAgra management are an acknowledgement that things aren't going very well right now. Nevertheless, it's a great sign that management is on top of these issues, and is working to reshuffle its portfolio in new product categories and new markets, which should get the company back on track next year.
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