Thursday, May 13, 1999

"Hit the ball over the fence, and you can take your time going around the bases." -- John Raper

Latest Market Numbers

ConAgra in Overdrive

Omaha, Nebraska-based diversified food giant ConAgra (NYSE: CAG) announced plans to eliminate around 7,000 jobs, or 8.4% of its workforce, as part of a major restructuring intended to improve profit margins and save the company $600 million a year. The company expects to incur $810 million in pre-tax charges over three years and anticipates identifying additional restructuring initiatives that may result in charges of up to $400 million in the next two years.

In the name of efficiency, ConAgra -- whose food brands include Butterball, Healthy Choice, Orville Redenbacher's, Parkay, Peter Pan, and Slim Jim -- said it will close at least 15 production plants and at least 70 storage, distribution, and smaller processing facilities. Plus it plans to exit some 20 small non-core businesses. Over the next three fiscal years starting this June, ConAgra aims to improve pre-tax profit margins by 50% to 6.5% from 4.3%, and achieve annual earnings per share growth, before charges, of at least 14%.

The move is the latest initiative in "Operation Overdrive," the strategy ConAgra launched last summer to "spur top-line growth and reduce expenses to power premium earnings growth." ConAgra Chairman and CEO Bruce Rohde explained that the company chose the term "overdrive" because it is "a gear that increases an engine's power output by leveraging its horsepower, while reducing fuel consumption and engine wear." Rohde said that the company will begin to reap "significant" benefits from Operation Overdrive in its fiscal year 2000, which starts next month.

To listen to a replay of a discussion of Operation Overdrive by company executives, click here or call (800) 964-4185. The replay will be available through May 26.

News to Go

PC direct seller Gateway (NYSE: GTW) has agreed to invest $200 million in Internet investment firm CMGI (Nasdaq: CMGI). The companies also announced a strategic alliance that will involve collaborative business and investment opportunities on the Internet, including site development and interactive marketing solutions. Gateway will integrate various products and services within CMGI's network of Internet companies, and the two will treat each other as preferred vendors.

Retailer Sears, Roebuck & Co. (NYSE: S) begins selling appliances online today in hope of increasing its 35% share of the appliance market and boosting sales at its stores, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Sears website features more than 2,000 appliances, including such well-known brands as Whirlpool, GE, Amana, Maytag, Frigidaire and Sears's own Kenmore brand.

Software company Computer Associates International (NYSE: CA) will invest up to $50 million in microcomputer-products distributor CHS Electronics (NYSE: HS) as part of an expanded strategic alliance. Separately, CHS said it will close 25 redundant warehouses, freeze hiring worldwide, and fire some 700 people. In addition, its officers took a voluntary 15% pay cut as of April 1. CHS reported a breakeven first quarter compared with a profit of $0.38 a share last year and analysts' expectations of a profit of $0.09.

Talks between pharmaceutical and healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) and biotechnology firm Centocor (Nasdaq: CNTO) regarding a merger valued in excess of $3 billion have been suspended, The Wall Street Journal reported. The companies encountered several roadblocks, including a purchase price and Centocor's co-marketing relationship with drug rival Eli Lilly & Co. (NYSE LLY), which gives Lilly half of the profits from the sale of Centocor's hot-selling artery drug ReoPro. Centocor shares dropped 10.5% yesterday to $41 5/8.

Electronic business process optimization (eBPO) software company i2 Technologies (Nasdaq: ITWO) will acquire privately held SMART Technologies, which develops Internet-based customer-relationship solutions, in a stock swap valued at about $68 million as of Tuesday's close. SMART stands for "Sales Marketing Administration Research Tracking."

Feminine-care products maker Playtex Products (NYSE: PYX) said it sold its declining Jhirmack shampoo and conditioner business to privately held Allegheny Pharmacal Corp. for an undisclosed sum. Playtex held on to the Jhirmack business in Canada, where it said sales remain healthy.

More Foolishness

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Yi-Hsin Chang (TMF Puck), Writer
Jennifer Silber (TMF Amused), Editor