Sometimes the best offense during tough economic times is a strong defense. That is exactly the strategy Mondelez International (NASDAQ:MDLZ) is undertaking and it's starting to pay off in spades. The company reported its fiscal third quarter results on Nov. 7 with an adjusted earnings per share explosion of 32.5% despite only a modest 2.7% bump in sales. Mondelez isn't done growing earnings, and here are five reasons I've taken from the company's most recent conference call.
Cost cuts are here to stay
Sometimes when a company trims fat off its expenses it does so at a risk. For example, cutting back on advertising may save some money in the near term but often sacrifices sales and profits in the long term. This hasn't been the case at Mondelez, where management says cost cutting has been due to investments and efficiency in its supply chain.
"This is the third consecutive quarter that we've expanded margins by at least 100 basis points and posted double digit EPS growth," stated CEO Irene Rosenfeld during the call. "We delivered this by successfully executing our productivity and supply chain initiatives and through early wins from our zero based budgeting program."
An example of this is the company's decision to invest in factories and distribution points closer to its customers to save on shipping costs. The end result is a cost savings per unit without any negative effect on revenue.
Costs down; prices up
While Mondelez is busy shedding its input expense, the company has been raising the prices for its products. Commodity costs particularly for cocoa and coffee have been climbing so Mondelez decided to pass those particular costs and then some onto its customers. Initially, being first among its competitors to do so caused some backlash.
That backlash is now starting to ease. Rosenfeld explained:
As we discussed in our last earnings call, in the short term, this will temper revenue growth until gaps narrow and customers and consumers adapt to the higher prices. Fortunately, toward the end of the quarter, conditions started to improve. Most of the customer disputes have now been resolved and price gaps have begun to narrow, especially in emerging markets.
Not just old-fashioned Oreos
Cost cutting and price increases aren't the only things on the minds of management. At the same time, they are innovating and getting base hits with new products. For example, in Russia the Marvellous Creation platform captured 1% of the chocolate bar market in the first month. In India, new pack sizes and formats caused a double-digit growth in sales of the Cadbury Dairy Milk line. In China, Oreo thins and Oreo mints are proving to be a big score.
"Our innovation programs [have been a] key driver of our ability to outgrow the markets," noted Rosenfeld during the Q&A session of the call. She later added, "Our focus is going to be continuing to innovate."
What if cocoa and coffee keep escalating?
In case you're worried what will happen if commodity prices keep soaring -- don't sweat it. CFO Dave Brearton reassured: "I think it's fair to say that for this year we are 100% locked in, there is really not much exposure."
Here he was referring to hedging commodity prices or essentially betting against itself by betting that commodity prices will go up. Doing so locks in essentially fixed costs for its commodity inputs and makes planning and profits more predictable.
Value coming to a shareholder near you
Above all, Rosenfeld and the management team want you to know that they have your back. "Near term, leveraging this approach through 2015, we'll deliver value to our shareholders regardless of the macro environment," Rosenfeld said. "And over the long term, this will enable us to deliver sustainable top tier performance on both the top and bottom lines."
We have also returned over $1.9 billion for our shareholders [in the first nine months of the year] including repurchasing $1.2 billion of stock or about 34 million shares. Based on this, we now expect our total share repurchases for 2014 to be between $1.2 billion and $2 billion. Additionally, we paid out little over $700 million in dividends.
All of this together suggests the dividend is reasonably secure. Mondelez may not pay much in the way of dividend now -- $0.60 per share annually, yielding 1.6% at recent prices -- but with earnings growing so nicely and predictably and the common theme throughout the call being "Mondelez is in control of its own destiny," don't be surprised if the per-share dividend goes up substantially from here.