General Mills (NYSE:GIS) shares have jumped by 19% over the past 12 months, but when you factor in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) conglomerate's ample 3.6% dividend, shareholders have enjoyed a 24% total return over the one-year period. The company's rise partially reflects shareholders' endorsement of its $8 billion acquisition of Blue Buffalo Pet Products in late April 2018, by which it obtained depth in one of the faster-growing CPG product categories.
But investors have also warmed to the company's commitment to balanced top- and-bottom-line growth. General Mills closes out its fiscal 2019 year with a fourth-quarter report that will be released on June 26 before the markets open for trading. Below, we'll review three key themes investors should familiarize themselves with beforehand to provide context for the upcoming filing.
1. The numbers: closing out the year on moderate sales growth and rising profits
General Mills tweaked its full-year guidance on a number of fronts last quarter. The company projects that fiscal 2019 reported sales will finish at the lower end of a 9% to 10% year-over-year growth range, which includes the impact of the Blue Buffalo acquisition. Management has advised investors that organic sales will hit the low end of a 0% to 1% projected increase.
Adjusted operating profit on a constant currency basis is forecast to finish at the high end of a 6% to 9% band against the $2.6 billion in adjusted operating profit the company booked in fiscal 2018.
Adjusted diluted earnings per share (EPS), in constant currency, are forecast to grow 0% to 1% beyond the $3.11 earned in fiscal 2018. This expectation was revised upward last quarter from a previous target of negative 3% to flat growth against last year's EPS.
Given that General Mills adjusted its targets with just one quarter remaining in the fiscal year, there's a high probability that it will meet its guidance ranges. Earnings surprises, if any, will likely be weighted to the upside.
2. Will unexpected margin strength continue?
Last quarter, General Mills surprised investors with solidly improved profit margins. Gross margin jumped 200 basis points to 34.4% due to pricing power, cost-cutting initiatives, productivity improvements, and the addition of higher-margin sales from Blue Buffalo. While roughly 2 percentage points of profitability improvement may seem modest, it's a significant pop for a multinational CPG company.
Better margin performance is partially responsible for the higher expectations for full-year adjusted diluted EPS noted above. While management discussed gradual, and not dramatic, margin expansion in the coming fiscal year on last quarter's earnings conference call, that profits are growing in a competitive environment is in itself a positive development. It suggests that tinkering with product mix and ramping up product innovation to boost the top line, gaining a more substantial footprint in the pet category, and successfully implementing cost-cutting, together can sustain long-term earnings growth while also funding the company's rising, generous dividend.
In sum, while not expected, another upside surprise on gross margin may positively impact General Mills stock when earnings hit the newswires.
3. Pet foods segment acceleration
General Mills is set to report a strong fourth quarter in its pet foods segment. In the second fiscal quarter of 2019, pet sales decreased by 7% year over year, as Blue Buffalo faced a difficult comparison to the prior year, in which it launched broadly across the U.S. food, drug, and mass (FDM) channel. Last quarter, pet segment sales increased by 4% year over year, as expansion in the FDM and e-commerce channels offset weakness in the pet specialty category.
Management has advised investors to expect that pet segment growth will "accelerate rapidly" in the fourth quarter as it doubles pet food distribution and widens Blue Buffalo's FDM product assortment. In addition, management has pointed to both cost savings and acquisition synergies as potentially driving pet food margins higher in the final quarter of the year.
Essentially, the fourth quarter should push the pet segment into double-digit revenue and operating profit growth for the full year (exclusive of charges related to the Blue Buffalo acquisition). Investors will expect General Mills' newest growth driver, the pet segment, to follow through on the company's promised surge when results are released on Wednesday.