Growth. It's the siren song of investors. If you remember back to your school days, though, you might recall that the singers of those songs were a bad thing; they led sailors to their deaths.
What's the point of this little primer on Greek mythology? Well, simply to introduce my case that while H.J. Heinz
First-quarter results were pretty runny, but they beat analyst expectations. Total revenue increased 5.3% as reported, with an increase of 2.3% in volume, 0.2% in pricing, and 1.5% in currency. The remaining 1.4% of growth came courtesy of acquisitions.
Despite revenue growth, margins took a hit in the quarter. Gross margin fell about 110 basis points, and operating margin (excluding certain items) dropped more than 200 basis points. While some of this decline was due to higher fuel and freight costs domestically, much of the blame goes to the disappointing European food business.
These are tough days for companies trying to sell victuals to Europe, which makes up more than one-third of Heinz's sales. In Heinz's case, the British frozen-foods and European seafood businesses are underperforming. But given that Kellogg
Looking a bit ahead, Heinz seems to be on pace for low-single-digit sales growth and mid-single-digit earnings growth. So why, then, should I have anything nice to say about this company?
First of all, the company has historically produced a solid free cash flow yield (that is, free cash flow divided by sales). While the first quarter was a bit sluggish, I'm always skeptical of looking at only one quarter of cash flow data.
Second, management continues to fine-tune the business. Although you could make a credible argument that Heinz spent too much when it bought Danone's sauce business, it should prove to be worth the money. What's more, the company has made divestitures in the past -- including a sale to Del Monte Foods
Last and not least, Heinz has market-leading brands, generates a good return on assets, and pays out a healthy dividend -- three favorable marks.
That said, it's not my favorite stock idea. I think Heinz is a perfectly good income play for conservative investors, but my fancies lean more toward the likes of Unilever or Kellogg these days.
For more saucy financial commentary:
Mathew Emmert of Motley Fool Income Investor has recommended both Heinz and Unilever in past issues. To see his latest stock selections, click here.
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).