Canned soup is the consummate nutrition for the lazy (or utterly untalented) chef. Buy can, open can, pour in pan, heat, serve. Repeat as needed.
Although making soup is pretty simple, making a lot of money from soup seems to be a bit trickier. Perusing Campbell Soup's
Sales for the fiscal second quarter were up about 4% net of currency benefits, and net income was flat with the prior year period. While there were areas of strength -- baking and snack foods, international operations, and specialty goods such as Godiva chocolate -- the core U.S. soup, sauce, and beverage business was about as feeble as watery cafeteria chicken soup.
Margins continue to be problematic, as a nasty 3.3% decrease in operating margins for the U.S. soup business helped pave the way to an overall drop in operating margins of nearly 2%.
The company continues to be optimistic about margins and hopes to achieve "stabilization" with a price hike later this February. This looks like a risky move. Higher prices could certainly provide a much needed boost to margins, but the soup business is highly competitive and customers might migrate to other brands if they think the price hike is excessive.
As a lifelong addict of Campbell Soup's clam chowder, I wish I could be more positive on the stock. The company has a double-digit return on assets (on an annualized basis), good free cash flow, and invaluable brand value. But it also has low growth, very high debt, and shaky margins. What's more, while the dividend looks secure, the company's dividend growth history isn't anything to write home about.
With a rock-solid brand and industry-thumping returns on assets and capital, a turnaround in margins and overall earnings growth could make this a very interesting stock at the right price. Until then though, other food companies such as H.J. Heinz
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson, CFA, owns shares of Fresh Del Monte.