Investors haven't seen much good news from consumer goods giant Kimberly Clark (NYSE: KMB) lately. In fact, back in January, the company closed the books on its second consecutive year of slowing sales growth. And despite financial wins such as rising profitability, results were disappointing enough that management announced a new strategy aimed at getting the business back on track.
Investors are hoping to see early signs that this shift is starting to pay off when Kimberly Clark announces its fiscal first-quarter results on Monday, April 23. Let's take a look at the trends to watch for in this report.
Growth and market share
Organic sales were flat last year to mark a discouraging slowdown from the prior year's 2% uptick -- not to mention the 5% spike Kimberly Clark managed in 2015. The good news is, the company isn't alone in its sales struggles since all consumer goods giants have complained about a generally weak selling environment. However, rivals are posting stronger results.
Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), whose Pampers diaper franchise competes with Kimberly Clark's Huggies brand, grew at a 2% rate last year. Peers like Colgate Palmolive and Unilever also managed more robust gains.
Part of the challenge is that Kimberly Clark's business is tilted more heavily toward developed markets like the U.S., where aggressive price cuts contributed to overall sales declines last year. CEO Thomas Falk and his team are aiming to fix that weakness, in part by expanding deeper into attractive markets like China, and also by cutting out underperforming brands. Investors will hear an update on those initiatives on Monday, but they shouldn't expect a quick growth rebound. Kimberly Clark is projecting just a 1% organic sales uptick in 2018.
Costs and cash returns
Kimberly Clark beat its own cost-cutting target in 2017, and that success helped profitability and earnings rise despite the fact that sales were flat and selling prices plunged by 8%. Management is determined to do even better this year, though. While they aren't forecasting much in the way of revenue growth, Kimberly Clark launched a restructuring plan that doubles its cost-cutting efforts. "We know we need to grow our profit and earnings," Falk told investors in January, "even in slow-growth conditions."
The restructuring plan should reduce annual expenses by as much as $500 million, and that's on top of the $450 million that will come from its standard cost-cutting program. All of this should help power earnings growth of between 11% and 16% in 2018 as adjusted profit rises to between $6.90 per share and $7.20 per share.
The financial success will help keep direct cash returns flowing, but at a slower pace. Yes, Falk and his team recently raised their dividend payout by 3%. Stock repurchase spending is projected to decline, though, as Kimberly Clark ramps up investments in its growth initiatives.
Can Kimberly Clark turn things around?
The company's top- and bottom-line targets call for modestly improving results in 2018. Broadly speaking, Kimberly Clark should return to organic sales growth while at the same time boosting its operating margin and generating a double-digit spike in adjusted earnings.
Those goals imply continued struggles with minor market share losses. But they would mark an important positive step in what should be a multiyear effort to get the business back on track.