In the tobacco industry, Altria Group (NYSE:MO) has provided leadership for decades, rewarding those long-term shareholders who've stayed the course with the company throughout its long history. Altria continued its string of positive results in its third-quarter financial report last week, with the company overcoming the ongoing decline in cigarette sales volume by keeping prices up and making the most of its diverse set of businesses.
Altria's executive team remains confident about the tobacco giant's future prospects. Let's take a look at some of the most interesting things those executives said at Altria's conference call following the earnings release.
According to CEO Marty Barrington:
[W]e are very pleased with our year-to-date business performance and strong execution. Our core tobacco businesses are performing well, and we are making disciplined investments in innovation for the future.
Altria's earnings results continued to show the company's resilience to changing industry conditions. Cigarette volumes dropped 2.8%, as Altria's unit sales mix shifted away from its premium Marlboro brand toward greater sales of discount cigarettes; but higher prices helped boost overall margins for the smokeable products segment. Similarly, after adjusting for the fact that there was one less shipment week during the quarter, Altria's key smokeless tobacco lines posted reasonable growth.
Altria's willingness to consider new ways of doing business has also played in its favor. Whether it's considering minor changes in marketing strategies, or adding brand-new product lines, Altria remains committed to serving its customers' needs, and that has helped it maintain its leadership role in the industry.
Barrington also said:
While the U.S. economy was improving, we assumed that it was not going to show up quite as strongly for our adult tobacco consumers. ... [Unemployment rates and] underemployment is down, but it's not down to where it should be. And on those two measures in particular, our adult tobacco consumers over-index. ... [O]ur continuing assumption is that our adult content tobacco consumer is going to be under some pressure.
The tough economy has taken its toll on many consumer-products companies, and Altria, in particular, faces the challenges of having a customer demographic that skews heavily toward those hit hardest by the recession. Barrington noted that even though housing starts and consumer confidence are up, other signs of improving conditions haven't necessarily helped its customers as much as it's helped the broader public. By being conservative, though, Altria could stand to see surprisingly positive results if better overall conditions do eventually work their way into its target demographic.
In addition, Barrington said:
[With regard to the iQOS platform], we struck an arrangement with [Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM)] where we will sell them our e-vapor products for sale through their distribution network internationally. ... We are very excited to be working with PMI on that.
One of the concerns about Altria after a potential merger between Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI) and Lorillard (UNKNOWN:LO.DL) is that Altria could fall behind in the electronic-cigarette and e-vapor markets. Yet, Altria has pushed back with its MarkTen brand, and by capitalizing on a partnership with its former subsidiary, Philip Morris International, Altria thinks it can deliver customers the alternatives they want. With regulatory hurdles left to overcome, e-vapor products aren't a sure bet for future growth; but both Philip Morris and Altria see the value of pursuing the opportunity to its fullest.
According to CFO Howard Willard:
We continue to view the SABMiller asset as an attractive asset that has contributed strongly to our earnings growth and to cash flow through dividends. And at this point, our view hasn't changed, which is that we think it's in the best interest of our shareholders to retain that asset.
Traditionally, Altria's 30% stake in beer manufacturer SABMiller has often gone unnoticed by most tobacco investors; but the unit has performed quite well for Altria. In addition to giving Altria much-needed diversification, SABMiller has also successfully navigated the beer industry, and remains an important part of Altria's overall profit picture. As long as SABMiller remains a lucrative cash cow helping the overall business, it will be hard for Altria to justify letting it go without a very good reason.
Willard also said: "We are always looking at how best to manage our debt load, and I think we are opportunistic going forward."
Altria has a substantial amount of debt, and it has therefore done well in the low-interest rate environment the company has enjoyed in recent years. Specifically, by calling about $300 million in bonds that were outstanding from the UST acquisition, Altria was able to clean up its balance sheet and eliminate some overhanging compliance issues. With a single integrated capital structure now, Altria can better manage its debt, and ensure it keeps financing costs as low as possible well into the future.
Altria Group's stock responded favorably to its earnings report, and for now, the company looks poised to keep excelling despite lower unit volume trends. As long as its customers stay loyal, Altria has the potential to keep seeing its share price climb even from current lofty levels.