Investors in WhiteWave Foods (NYSE:WWAV) have seen fantastic results since the company spun off from parent Dean Foods, with the former up nearly 30% in slightly more than a year. WhiteWave is exactly in the right place at exactly the right time -- a health-oriented natural foods business with strong brand ID in a market that is increasingly interested in going healthy. The plant-based food company is an incredibly easy sell to investors, and thus the market has awarded it with a rich 25 times forward estimated earnings valuation. While such a number likely scares off value seekers, growth investors may still want to take a look at this fast growing play on the plant-based food boom.
It would be fair to think that some dairy drinkers are drifting away from animal milk and toward soy, which has long been the choice of lactose intolerants, animal rights activists, and healthy drinkers. Really, though, soy milk is passe in the world of alternative dairy. Driving WhiteWave's earnings higher in the recently ended quarter was demand for the company's higher margin, premium-priced almond milk products.
With volume growth in North America and Europe, WhiteWave grew net sales by 11% in the third quarter to $639 million. Operating income bumped up even higher, 19% to $54 million, while net income posted the biggest gain of the quarter, up 21% year over year to $0.19 per share. The attractive double-digit growth from the top of the income statement down is one that growth investors need to see when paying those meaty price premiums.
In the company's organic milk segment, including the Horizon brand, sales grew in line with the organic milk industry as a whole -- 3%. Horizon is the market share leader in the business. Coffee creamers actually grew much more, up 9% based on sales growth in wholesale stores and restaurants. Wisely, WhiteWave is looking to unload a dairy farm in Idaho to focus on the processing, marketing, and distribution end of the business. This will likely help the company as animal feed costs continue to drift higher, slimming margins for farmers and ranchers.
Europe sales grew more than 20%, with huge growth in volume of almond and hazelnut beverages.
Looking ahead, WhiteWave management expects continued growth across all segments. For the full year 2013, top-line sales should drive operating income up in the mid-to-high teens, while earnings per share is estimated to be a penny or two above $0.70.
A good pick
WhiteWave management is not mindlessly running toward sales growth, only to hit a wall if and when things slow down. Moves like selling off the dairy farm not only give a small cash boost, but make the business more efficient and will potentially boost margins. The industry at large gives the company fantastic tailwinds, so growth really shouldn't be an issue considering WhiteWave's considerable market share.
A conscious and shareholder-friendly management team in a great line of business gives growth-seeking investors a solid foundation for getting behind WhiteWave.
Fool contributor Michael Lewis has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Dean Foods Company and WhiteWave Foods. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.