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Is Bill Ackman About to Go Activist Investor on Starbucks?

By Motley Fool Staff - Oct 12, 2018 at 11:23AM

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His Pershing Square hedge fund just revealed a $900 million investment in the coffee shop giant.

For anyone who thinks that Starbucks(SBUX -0.98%) long growth arc has started to level out, there's a billionaire who disagrees, and he's putting his investors' money where his mouth is. Bill Ackman's hedge fund, Pershing Square, has taken a $900 million stake in the coffeehouse chain, and he sees the stock doubling in the next three years.

In this segment from MarketFoolery, host Chris Hill and senior analysts Jason Moser and Matt Argersinger consider what Ackman's interest might mean for the company and its longer-term strategies.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Oct. 10, 2018.

Chris Hill: Starbucks is in the news, but not because of anything that the company did. Starbucks is in the news because Bill Ackman has announced that Pershing Square, the fund he runs, has invested $900 million in Starbucks. Ackman, no shrinking violet, said that he expects shares of Starbucks to double in the next three years. I will just say, from my standpoint, this is the single biggest holding I have in my portfolio, is Starbucks. And I do not view this as welcome news.

Jason Moser: [laughs] It's the curse!

Hill: It's not even so much the curse. I just thought, you know what? I don't need that right now. And I don't even work at Starbucks. I just thought, if you're Starbucks' management, if you're Starbucks' board, you're looking at Bill Ackman saying, "I'm here. I've got some ideas. Let me share with you the wisdom that I shared with the people at Chipotle when I took a stake there, and Burger King." I don't want to dump all over Ackman, even though I just did, because the guy has had some success. But this just seems like, ultimately, more of a distraction for Starbucks' management than anything positive.

Matt Argersinger: I agree. I mean, he's investing a little over 1% of the shares. This has to be a passive investment. I don't know what value he thinks he can add. In my mind, Starbucks is a business that has a pretty clear trajectory. There's not really a lot wrong with the business. I know growth has been slower, but this isn't a business where I think Ackman's coming in, saying, "Here's a problem. Here's something that's undervalued that I think I can create value or add value to."

Again, I don't know why we have to keep talking about Bill Ackman. He's definitely a newsmaker. But you start tallying up misses here over the last, say, decade, starting with Target, Herbalife, then Valeant Pharmaceutical, which was multi-billion dollars.

Moser: JC Penney.

Argersinger: JC Penney, right! The list is building here! I share your discomfort as a Starbucks shareholder, as well. I'm not sure what Bill Ackman actually brings to the table anymore.

Moser: Yeah, I think he's just looking for an easy win, frankly. Given the stretch that he's had... you just listed off some of his failures. That wasn't all of them. He's had a really tough go of it lately. I think, frankly, he's just looking for an easy win. We were talking about this yesterday, I think it's easy enough to get out there and make fun of Ackman for picking Starbucks. Oh, it's no big secret, everybody knows what Starbucks is. But that's kind of the point, too, really. I think we talk about this a lot that -- really, at the end of the day, those great businesses, they're not secrets. They're out there right in front of us. So, I mean, the reasoning behind this, he listed off a lot of qualities that we like about the business.

I don't think he's going to go in there and try to turn things around or shape their strategy whatsoever, because he certainly has a history of seeming to think he knows more than he really does. Starbucks is obviously a very big company, with management there already set on a strategy. I guarantee you they know more about the business and its future markets than he ever will.

So, yeah, to me, I really just think he's looking for an easy win here. And I can't blame him. Starbucks is a good business. It's one we like a lot here. I think if you can hang on to it for even longer than three years, you'll be better off.

Hill: Do you think it doubles?

Moser: No, I don't think it doubles.

Hill: I would love to be sitting here in three years doing this show talking about how wrong I was to doubt Bill Ackman that Starbucks shares had doubled in a three-year period. It's such a mature business at this point. As you said, Matty, the trajectory for Starbucks is pretty clear. If I had to bet, I'm betting it's higher in three years. But it's a $77 billion company!

Argersinger: Yeah. To me, Starbucks is more of a total return story. You're looking at dividends, you're looking at buybacks, you're looking at a little bit of growth on the top line, you're looking at what they can do in China. But a double in three years? For that to happen, there has to be the dreaded financial engineering or something like that that does that. Ackman kind of does bring that to the table. I hope that's not the case. To me, Starbucks is a steady 10% returner business. Certainly not a double in three years. I'd love to see it!

Moser: I think it's also worth remembering, Starbucks is probably going to witness a little bit more on the expense line there as it pertains to employees, because they continue to revamp the benefits that they offer. Just a recent example here was the child care subsidy. I think they're expanding that offering to every employee in the company. As an investor, I think you have to applaud that. As an employee, I'm sure you love that. Does it perhaps tamp down potential returns in the short run? Yeah. Is it the right thing to do? Yeah. And I think longer-term, it gives the company more opportunity to succeed, to grow. Those are good things. It'll definitely play into that returns projection over the course of the next three years. I mean, 15% annualized over the next three years -- oh, no, you're saying double over the next three years, it'd be more than that. 15% would be five years. That seems like a really high hurdle. A very high hurdle.

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