Cereal, yogurt, snacking, and pet food multinational General Mills (NYSE:GIS) reveals results for the first quarter of its fiscal 2020 year on Sept. 18 before markets open for trading. The consumer staples investment has proved a winning stock idea in 2019, as shares have soared nearly 41% year to date.

To understand how markets may react to the company's report, let's dive into relevant numbers, followed by essential themes investors should be conversant in before results are issued.

The fiscal 2020 outlook and first-quarter benchmarks

General Mills completed fiscal 2019 sporting 7% annual revenue growth propelled by its $8 billion, April 2018 acquisition of premium pet food manufacturer Blue Buffalo. Organic sales growth, however, fell flat, something that management aims to rectify this year. In fiscal 2020, General Mills is shooting for organic revenue expansion of 1% to 2% over the 2019 year.

As for earnings, management has advised investors to expect an adjusted operating profit increase of 2% to 4% against the $2.86 billion notched in fiscal 2019. Adjusted diluted earnings per share for fiscal 2020 are projected to expand by 3% to 5% over the $3.22 the company earned last year.

Given this general framework, for reference, it's helpful to refresh our knowledge of first-quarter 2019 benchmarks. General Mills booked sales of $4.1 billion in the first quarter of fiscal 2019, while adjusted operating profit landed at $641.3 million during the quarter. The company reported adjusted diluted earnings per share (EPS) of $0.71 in the first quarter last year. Look for improvement in all three of these numbers within the expected growth parameters outlined above.

Close-up of colorful dry dog food in a porcelain bowl.

Image source: Getty Images.

Key themes to watch: Blue Buffalo growth, the "accelerate" platform, and free cash flow conversion

Given General Mill's massive investment in Blue Buffalo, scaling the pet enterprise will be one of management's focal points in fiscal 2020. The organization has the means to make this happen via its distribution network and marketing muscle. The company intends to increase U.S. pet food sales by 8%-10% in the coming year, with growth targeted in the food/drug/mass (FDM), specialty sales, and e-commerce channels. General Mills also expects to realize $50 million in cost synergies in fiscal 2020 from the Blue Buffalo acquisition.

Core growth outside of the pet food business will be achieved by shifting resources to a specific set of fast-growing brands with already-appreciable market share. General Mills groups its products into six platforms: pet foods, cereal, yogurt; regional snacks and meals; dough and baking mixes; and "accelerate." This last platform is further divided into four groups: snack bars, ice cream, Mexican food, and natural and organic products.

The accelerate platform contains select power brands with over $1 billion in annual sales, including Old El Paso Mexican foods and Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Accelerate houses an intriguing mix of wholesome, better-for-you items combined with what the packaged-food industry likes to call "core indulgent," or not-so-healthy treats. While General Mills will strive to incrementally expand market share in bedrock platforms like cereal and yogurt, the accelerate portfolio is pegged to provide the lion's share of organic revenue growth during the upcoming fiscal year.

Looking at financial operations, shareholders will be tuned into General Mill's cash flow generation and debt-reduction efforts. Extremely robust cash flow allowed the company to repay $1.1 billion in debt last year while providing a generous dividend payout of $1.1 billion (General Mill's dividend yields 3.6% on a per-share basis at the current share price). 

Management intends to engage in further debt in the coming quarters, with a goal of hitting a net-debt-to-EBITDA ratio of 3.5 times by the end of the year, which would indicate a moderate leverage level going forward. 

To meet its debt-reduction target, service its handsome dividend, and pay for fixed asset acquisitions, General Mills is planning for extremely effective free cash flow conversion this year. Executives have set a conversion target of 95%, meaning that the organization intends to generate free cash flow equal to 95% of adjusted net income.

Investors will look for the first-quarter conversion percentage on Sept. 18. The company's free cash flow prowess has proved one of the cornerstones of enthusiasm for "GIS" shares and will continue to be a closely watched metric throughout fiscal 2020. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.