If you hear someone knocking at your door tonight and you're unprepared, be ready to meet the wrath of the trick-or-treater. It's Halloween, and that means big business for candy makers, costume shops and, eventually, dentists.
Confectionery specialists are a misunderstood lot. Like Willy Wonka toiling away with his Oompah-Loompahs, it's an industry that relishes privacy over the more open public life. The country's second-largest candy maker -- Mars -- is privately held. That's right. M&M's stock might as well melt in your mouth because you just won't be holding the certificate in your hands. The Spangler folks who have brought you everything from DumDums to my personal favorite Lemonheads? They're private, too. Don't even get me started on the Spanish lollipop masters of Chupa Chups.
However, there are still a few candy companies that investors can buy into. They also happen to pay dividends, which might prove to be welcome pocket change when it's time to satisfy the sweet tooth (if you're not putting that money back into the company). So, open your goodie bag nice and wide, we've got some sweet rewards coming your way.
Hershey Foods (NYSE: HSY)
If you ever make it out to Hershey, Pa., you will come across a charming town where Kisses double as streetlamps and the chocolate empire that Milton Hershey built is still bubbling. It's a chocoholic's paradise, though earlier this year the chocolate was bittersweet.
When voting majority owner Hershey Trust Co. put the company on the auction block back in March, the line of sweet suitors was as long as trick-or-treaters queued up at a house handing out dollar bills. As you can imagine, the locals didn't like it one bit. And just as Nestlï¿½ and Cadbury Schweppes (NYSE: CSG) were on the verge of a bidding war, Hershey took down its "For Sale" sign. Like a tease, the company proved to be all Kisses but ultimately better off alone.
Over the first three quarters of the year, sales have been running essentially flat from last year's showing. Earnings have inched higher as the company has instituted effective cost controls. Is the stock cheap? Hardly. While the buyout premiums have started to fade away, it is still trading for about 20 times the $3.15 a share it's on track to earn this year.
That's a healthy markup on a company whose top line is basically sitting where it was five years ago. Last week, Rex Moore wrote about misleading earnings growth, and this is a classic example of a company that's achieving bottom-line gains through one-time overhead savings and shavings. Hershey is a quality company, but the upside is clearly limited in the near term.
Wrigley (NYSE: WWY)
By gum, Wrigley's chewing up even more market share. It was one of the companies in the Hershey Hunt earlier this year, and it commands half of the world's gum sales. It has proven to be recession-proof, as cheap chews have been an easy sell during uncertain times when it's not only the little things that count -- sometimes it's the only things we can afford..
Like Hershey, its voting majority belongs to the founding family that lends the candy maker its name. It also shares another trait with Hershey: The stock isn't exactly undervalued at this point. So while it may put out Doublemint gum, don't expect the stock to double your mint any time soon. It's taken the stock eight years to double, and it might very well take another eight to double again.
However, that's the real lure here. Its stock chart over the past decade has been consistent. You won't get too many surprises out of Wrigley where the both sales and earnings take small steps every year, but it's more often than not in the right direction. Selling at 25 times next year's earnings guidance may seem like a high price to pay but Wrigley's stock never seems to fall back to a multiple equal to its steady but certain growth rate. While new products have kicked up the company's growth rate into the low double-digits this year, this isn't a speed demon. It's like a stick of gum, worth chewing long after the flavor dulls out.
Tootsie Roll (NYSE: TR)
Who loves ya, baby? Our own Selena Maranjian isn't the only one smitten by the candy specialist. Kojak's Telly Savalas made the Tootsie Pop his signature item, and one of the biggest unsolved mysteries is just how many licks it takes to get to one of its Tootsie Roll centers.
The maker of Charms Blow Pops popped its own bubble last year, ending an impressive run of 24 consecutive years of sales growth along with 19 straight years of producing higher net income sums. Tootsie Roll was also taking baby steps backward through the first half of the year, though it's set to resume its historical growth now as 2002 comes to a close.
While the stock does not have a formal Drip like Hershey and Wrigley, it offers something just as appetizing: Every spring since the 1960s, the company has paid out a 3% stock dividend. With three new shares granted for every hundred owned, it's like a forced Drip. Given its attractive valuation right now, you can thank the company later for sending more stock your way.
The stock hasn't traded this low in five years. With double-digit profit margins even through this atypical lull in its business cycle, is the Sugar Daddy maker your sugar daddy? Looking to 2003, the stock is fetching a little more than 20 times its bottom-line target. That has it valued, on an earnings basis, smack dab between Hershey and Wrigley. But if it is able to shore up its operations to get back to the 18% in net profit margins it achieved three years ago, even modest sales growth will bring its earnings multiple down into the teens. That's no Sugar Daddy. That's Sugar Babies, see?
And that fills out this week's run of publicly traded candy makers. Full of Charms, Juicy Fruits, and Kisses, they all make compelling long-term investments. That is the ideal time frame for both Drip investors and parents looking to start portfolios for their children with brands they can recognize. (Through our sponsor ShareBuilder, you can build up a position for as little as a bag of candy.) Speaking of candy, you didn't forget to load up this year, did you? Isn't that me knocking at your door?
Rick Aristotle Munarriz can't wait for The Simpsons' annual Halloween special to air over the weekend. He's also really fond of Lemonheads and jealous that his former Foolish colleague Paul Larson grew up right by the plant. The best stuff on Earth, he claims. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's sweet disclosure policy.