Hold On to Whole Foods?

If the past several months are any indication, some investors have found Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI  ) a bit less appetizing. Certain elements seem to have made some investors wonder if this historically pricey, high-growth stock is seeing an inevitable cool down, and its most recent quarter really made people worry, considering the stock dropped about 20% in one day, in response to the earnings announcement.

Despite the specter of slowing sales growth in the near term, Whole Foods reported an impressive quarter in many ways. The company more than quadrupled its profit -- fourth-quarter earnings came in at $40 million, or $0.28 per share (versus $9 million, or $0.06 per share). Sales increased 16% to $1.3 billion, and same-store sales increased 8.6% (versus 13.4% this time last year). Indeed, the company pointed out that it has delivered three years of double-digit comps growth.

One element of Whole Foods that Fools can appreciate is its focus on economic value added, or EVA, which is a good measure of long-term returns on invested capital. Compared to last year's quarter, Whole Foods increased EVA to $8.3 million.

Whole Foods also has a good cash position -- it has $256 million in cash, and only $9 million in long-term debt. (Cash may have decreased 26% year over year, but debt decreased 53%.) And of course, this is a company that has been repurchasing shares and pays out dividends, to boot.

The thing that's making investors nervous is Whole Foods' slower projections for the next year. It now expects sales growth of 13% to 17% in fiscal 2007, and same-store-sales growth of 6% to 8% (it still projects $12 billion in sales by 2010). Bear in mind that when you look at those growth projections and compare them to traditional grocers', they are still impressive. Of course, worries about the competition abound right now.

In its conference call, Whole Foods admitted that in some cases, it's cannibalizing its own stores with openings, and conventional grocers like Safeway (NYSE: SWY  ) are starting to do a better job at competing with Whole Foods. Along the same lines, a good example of a formidable niche rival, Trader Joe's, has been opening stores at a rapid clip, and specialty grocers like Wegman's are entering some of the same markets that Whole Foods is in. (And of course, few investors forget about Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) .)

Furthermore, the company is raising its salary caps for executives (although CEO John Mackey said he will accept only $1 in salary) -- it's an economic reality that some of the companies hungry to compete with Whole Foods might try to woo members of its executive team over.

Mackey described 2007 as a transitional year (and that might also mean a tough one for investors who don't have the long term in mind) and has hinted that more innovation is on the way to differentiate itself from the competition. And when it came to the discussion of cannibalization, he said that the company is more interested in maximizing EVA than managing short-term comps, which is a solid long-term plan. Furthermore, Whole Foods hopes to convey to potential customers that through its private-label business, it isn't quite the pricey grocer it's perceived to be. The company plans aggressive expansion; indeed, in the conference call, Mackey said higher pre-opening and relocation costs will "significantly impact" fiscal 2007 earnings growth.

When many investors are this negative about a company, it often adds up to an investing opportunity (especially when the stock's been battered). As long as Whole Foods' long-term growth plan -- and retention of its leadership position in the organic and natural foods arena -- is still intact, it seems those who can see past the current pessimism have a golden opportunity to invest in a great business for the long term.

For related Foolishness, see the following articles:

Whole Foods Market is aMotley Fool Stock Advisorrecommendation. Wal-Mart is aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.


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