On the surface, Campbell Soup Company (NYSE:CPB) doesn't look like its flying high for dividend investors. An increase in sales hasn't translated to an equal increase in earnings per share, the company's free cash flow fell over the last fiscal year, and room for growth in the dividend seems limited. However, looking deeper, there are a few things that make this a "more than meets the eye" scenario.
Campbell has been working behind the scenes to make the most out of the cash it does have, giving investors the kind of foundation that solid investments are founded on. Here are two of the key elements to Campbell's dividend success that dividend investors should keep in mind when evaluating the stock.
Keeping that cash flowing
While it's pumping out the soup, Campbell is also taking in fistfuls of cash. Last fiscal year, the company had a free cash flow of $552 million. That was a drop from the previous year's $683 million, but that was at least partially due to Campbell's divestment of its European simple meals business, and the tax implications of that sale.
Campbell still had plenty on hand to issue its dividend to shareholders, spitting out $391 million over the fiscal year. It also spent over $150 million on share repurchases, buying back 2 million shares at $76, on average. That's part of Campbell's long term plan of share repurchases. The company authorized $1 billion for buybacks in 2011 and it still has $750 million available.
On its earnings conference call, CFO Anthony DiSilvestro confirmed that the company was going to get back on the repurchase train in 2015. That would drive some earnings per share benefit, he said, getting even more back into investors' hands.
Campbell has been a consistent dividend payer, but it has taken breaks from increasing its dividend in order to conserve its cash. Back in 2013, the company held off on an increase, giving it more capital to make acquisitions and flexibility to make other investments.
Of course, it also means that Campbell has felt the squeeze for cash in the past. The company has over $2.2 billion in long-term debt and just $232 million in cash on the balance sheet. Most of the Campbell's assets are found in its production equipment and its good name. Of its reported $8.1 billion in assets, Campbell lists goodwill as accounting for $2.4 billion.
Growth in food sales continues to be sluggish
Campbell only managed to increase revenue by 2.7% last year, as packaged food sales in the US grew slowly. The forecast for the future isn't bright either. According to Euromonitor, a market research company, packaged food sales in the US are going to be slow to grow over the next few years. The company cites a return to dining out and an increase in health conscious eating as drags on the industry.
Campbell has said that it plans to pay dividend and engage in buybacks in line with its earnings growth and the general trend of the food industry. If sales are slowing across the board, it points to difficulty ahead for dividend investors.
Right now, Campbell might be best served by focusing on acquisitions as a route to growth. The company has picked up a solid portfolio of brands over the years -- Pepperidge Farm, Bolthouse Farms, and Plum Organics, to name a few -- and adding to that line-up could help the business grow beyond its peers.
Of course, that puts us back in the capital squeeze position, where dividends and buybacks take a back seat to investments. The summary is, Campbell has a solid future, but it may not be a consistent future. Dividend investors looking for growth in their payments might be better served looking into other options, while investors looking for a smart company with consistent -- if not rapidly growing -- payments should be happy with Campbell's plans and future.
Andrew Marder has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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.