The Motley Fool's readers have spoken, and I have heeded your cries. After months of pointing out CEO gaffes and faux pas, I've decided to make it a weekly tradition to also point out corporate leaders who are putting the interests of shareholders and the public first and are generally deserving of praise from investors. For reference, here's my previous selection.
This week, I'm going to stick with the food sector and turn your attention to General Mills' (NYSE:GIS) exceptional CEO, Ken Powell.
Kudos to you, Mr. Powell
Just as we saw when we highlighted Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB) two weeks ago, commodity price hikes are the single greatest threat to food producers. Both Campbell and General Mills are waging a constant war on rising costs while trying not to alienate their faithful customers and drive them to generic store-branded products.
For General Mills, wheat is its single greatest expense, comprising a big part of its granola bar and cereal line. Thankfully for shareholders -- and a big reason that General Mills' stock has rallied so voraciously of late -- wheat prices per bushel have fallen to the low $7-per-bushel range from more than $9 per bushel last year. Lower wheat prices will boost General Mills' margins and may even allow it to drop prices just long enough to lure shoppers away from competing brands.
Another factor that's front and center to General Mills' success has been its ability to make earnings-accretive acquisitions -- even overseas. Domestic growth -- and even growth in Europe -- has been relatively tame, causing companies to look to emerging markets for a bottom-line boost. As an example, alcoholic beverage maker Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD) is acquiring all of Grupo Modelo's non U.S. assets in order to take advantage of its global reach. Also in the food sector, Kellogg (NYSE:K) acquired Pringles for $2.7 billion from Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) in 2012. Pringles, which gets about two-thirds of its revenue overseas, was the component that helped boost Kellogg's results in its most recent quarter.
Last year alone, General Mills announced the acquisition of three domestic and overseas brands: a snack play from Brazil known as Yoki; a domestic chip maker, Food Should Taste Good; and a spice and sauce company in India known as Parampara Brands. The addition of these brands helped General Mills grow its net sales in the second quarter by 6%. What was most interesting about General Mills' sales growth was that 7 of those percentage points came from higher volume, while it received a -1 percentage point effect from pricing. My theory that it may be keeping prices low in order to attract consumers away from other brands, as well as lessen the burden of higher taxation on consumers domestically, may be spot-on!
A step above his peers
General Mills' growth and acquisition strategy is clearly working to benefit shareholders, but the underlying truth is that CEO Ken Powell has been a boost to more than just investors. Powell's policies have given a lift to employees, the company's surrounding communities, and to shareholders.
To begin with, shareholders should be thankful that Powell's capital plan often involves sizable dividend increases and reasonably large share repurchases. Through the first six months of 2013, General Mills had repurchased approximately 12 million shares of common stock. On top of these repurchases, the company announced just last week that it was going to boost its quarterly stipend by 15% to $0.38. This marked the 14th time in just the last nine years that it's raised its quarterly dividend, and places the new yield at a robust 3.3%.
Employees have been given their fair share of perks as well. In addition to the expected medical and dental benefits offered by most major corporations, General Mills will match a portion of 401(k) contributions, offer educational assistance in approved courses, and extend benefits to significant others in same-sex domestic partnerships. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of General Mills' benefits is the fact that it offers what it refers to as a Flexible User Shared Environment (FUSE). Very simply, FUSE allows employees to work from wherever they want inside the complex and, in some cases, actually allows for telecommuting.
General Mills' surrounding communities are also better off because of Ken Powell. Last year, the company donated $38 million in food to the Feeding America campaign and Global FoodBanking Network. The company's employees also did their part, collecting 3,000 pounds of food and $123,000 for its 30th annual food drive.
Two thumbs up
As I said about Campbell Soup, sometimes the most boring companies create the best investments if they're led by truly exceptional people. In the case of General Mills, investors have been privy to smart acquisitions and steady organic growth, plenty of healthy dividend increases, and consistent acts of charity from a company and CEO that clearly cares. With that in mind, I'd like to give Ken Powell two well-deserved thumbs up!
Do you have a CEO you'd like to nominate for this prestigious weekly honor? If so, head on over to the CEO of the Week board and chime in with your fellow Fools on who deserves some praise. If you don't have a nominee yet, don't worry -- you can still weigh in on other members' selections.
Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He loves giving credit when credit is due. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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