Once again, I have to hand it to the management team at Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation Unilever
Although "underlying sales" were up 6% for the first quarter, reported revenue was up about 2% for the quarter. Not a superb result, to be sure, but certainly better than the results from the prior quarter. Importantly, market share losses appear to have stopped and the company reported net market share gains in its top 20 geographies.
Operations in the quarter were challenging, but Unilever did all right. While margins continue to come under pressure from higher input costs related to transport, chemicals, and packaging, the company did manage to improve the operating margin by 80 basis points to 15.3%. This led to an 8% increase in operating profit and a 9% increase in pre-tax profit. Reported net profit increased by 22%, but because some one-time tax benefits swelled that figure, it is not a true measure of the company's growth.
The company's largest market, Europe, continues to be very challenging, with intense price competition across the board. Underlying sales in Europe were down 2% for the quarter; gains in many food categories were offset by weakness in home care and personal care products.
The Americas make up Unilever's second-largest market, and it performed better. Underlying sales ticked up by about 4%. Its Slim-Fast product continues to perform badly, but other foods and home/personal care products are doing well.
The company continues to see considerable success in developing markets. Eastern Europe and Russia were the stars of Europe, while Latin America and Southeast Asia were the major growers in their regions.
Over the long haul, success in these regions could be a significant competitive advantage for the company. While companies like Kraft
Investors can also take heart that Unilever is becoming more aggressive with its advertising and product development activities. It's certainly true that in consumer goods you need to spend money to make money, so this is an important part of Unilever's plan to rebuild market share and growth.
The story on Unilever seems to be slowly improving. The stock still looks attractively priced for investors who believe that business is going to continue to improve. What's more, patient investors will continue to get a nice dividend while they wait for business to pick up. Unilever may not be the most nimble or exciting company, but strong cash flow has an appeal all its own.
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).