There's a new CEO at Altria (NYSE:MO), a development that isn't exactly a surprise after its previous helmsman took a medical leave last month. The tobacco giant is announcing on Friday morning that Billy Gifford is now serving as Altria's new CEO. He replaces Howard Willard, who has decided to retire as both chairman and CEO instead of returning from his break after contracting COVID-19 last month.
Gifford isn't a surprise. He was serving as Altria's CFO at the time of this week's promotion, and he has taken on several leadership roles since arriving at the company in 1994. Insiders don't usually shake things up, and bulls will argue that he doesn't need to. Altria is a steady grower that has rewarded its investors with 54 dividend hikes over the past 50 years. However, with a hazy future and some ill-advised recent acquisitions, it's not as if Altria is a company that can be run on cruise control. Gifford will have a lot to tackle at the top of this sin stock bellwether.
Up in smoke
There's a lot to like about Altria on the surface. Even though it seems as if everyone you may know has quit smoking given the rising social and health consciousness associated with tobacco, reality paints a much kinder portrait for Altria. Revenue has actually increased over the past eight years at Altria. Its dividend has also been a magnet for income investors, with a payout that has more than doubled over the past decade.
Altria gets it. The long-term trends are inescapable, and it does have a 10-year vision that entails leading the transition of adult smokers into what it recognizes will be a noncombustible future. But some of its recent moves haven't panned out. Altria decided to double down as a sin stock in 2018 by striking a $1.8 billion deal for a 45% stake in Canadian cannabis specialist Cronos Group (NASDAQ:CRON) and picking up a 35% stake in e-cigarette leader Juul Labs for $12.8 billion.
Cronos stock has plummeted in value over the past year along with many pot stocks, despite the growing trend of legalizing cannabis for recreational use around the world as well as on its home turf of Canada. The Juul deal is looking like an even bigger stinker. Altria has already had to write down some of the value in the vaping giant. And earlier this month, the already-growing list of legal actions directed at Juul related to teen vaping got more complicated with an amended complaint adding the enhanced health risks that young vapers face if they contract coronavirus into the liability mix.
If you think the situation at Disney with Bob Iger abruptly handing the CEO baton to Bob Chapek in late February -- just as the pandemic was starting to crater the global economy -- was a trial under fire, the rushed exchange here from Willard to Gifford is happening just as trials are heating up and fires need to be put out.
A big difference between Disney and Altria is that Altria's not expecting to take a top-line hit during the pandemic. Smokers aren't going to quit during the calamity, and if anything, they are probably lighting up even more now that they don't have to worry about being in the office or coping with social norms that frown on the taboo habit.
Altria isn't immune to the fallout of the new normal. It's not just the now-former CEO that had to take a medical leave last month. Altria had to temporarily shut down manufacturing facilities in response to the crisis, disrupting the supply chain beyond the existing finished inventory that should take it through the next couple of months.
However, bulls can continue to point to its growing streak of positive revenue growth -- and analysts see Altria's top-line growth inching higher again in 2020. Altria's 8.3% yield is certainly chunky, and there's no reason not to expect another dividend hike come August, the way it has come through every summer over the past decade. Gifford will have his hands full in the future, but with the stock hitting a seven-year low last month, there is plenty of upside in the present. Not everyone wants to invest in tobacco stocks these days, but don't let a CEO shift at Altria change your mind from taking a swing on the shares if you were thinking about going that route.