Kroger (KR 3.28%) last week posted fourth-quarter earnings results that beat Wall Street expectations. Comparable-store sales accelerated the grocery chain's fastest growth pace of the year, as it passed $108 billion of revenue in 2014.
Executives held a conference call with investors after the announcement to provide details on the results. Here are five key points CEO Rodney McMullen and his management team made on that call.
The growth plan we first outlined in October of 2012 includes four key performance indicators: positive [comps], slightly expanding operating margin, growing return on invested capital, and annual market share growth. In 2014, we met or exceeded each of these metrics. -- CEO McMullen
Kroger's fourth-quarter results capped an impressive year for the business. It logged its 45th straight quarter of comps growth, extending a streak that leads the grocery industry. Kroger also achieved growth in both profitability and return on invested capital: Operating margin ticked higher from 2.8% to 2.9%, while ROIC rose to 13.7% from 13.4% in 2013.
Beating out Wal-Mart
Kroger's overall market share of the products we sell in the markets where we operate grew approximately 60 basis points during fiscal 2014. -- Chief Operating Officer Mike Ellis
But Kroger's biggest achievement in 2014 was improving its market share for the 10th straight year. The company grew faster than almost all national grocery retailers, but executives singled out Wal-Mart as Kroger's main competition in most markets. Kroger stole share from the retailing giant in all of those major markets last year, according to executives. That stepped-up competition likely contributed to Wal-Mart's weak comps growth of less than 1% in 2014.
Aggressively cutting prices
We are currently investing $3.5 billion annually in lower prices. -- CEO McMullen
For the first time, management put an exact dollar figure on the price cuts that helped it stay ahead of competitors last year -- and it's huge. Kroger's $3.5 billion of price investments dwarfs its net earnings ($1.74 billion) and even beats its annual operating profit ($3.1 billion).
However, even with those price cuts, the company beat management's profit growth target in 2014: Earnings rose by 14% last year, ahead of Kroger's 8% to 11% long-term annual growth target.
Corporate brand wins
Our corporate brands team keeps pushing the boundaries on what customers can expect from store brands. Our leading natural and organics brand, Simple Truth, hit $1 billion in annual sales for the first time. -- CEO McMullen
Kroger's store brands were a big part of its success last year. Sales of those products rose to 28% of total volume, which set a seven-year high.
And the standout performer has been the Simple Truth organic and natural brand. It grew to $1.2 billion of annual sales from a standing start less than two years ago. Simple Truth is currently growing at a double-digit pace, which management sees continuing well into the future.
While fuel margins will be a headwind in 2015, we expect they will be offset by a lower LIFO charge, no planned contributions to the pension and our foundation, and the continued strength in our core business. -- Chief Financial Officer Mike Schlotman
Kroger's 2015 guidance calls for comps to grow at a 3.5% pace. That would be a significant slowdown from last year's 5.2% result. However, much of that pinch has to do with lower cost inflation.
Management is expecting its volume growth to continue at the strong pace it set last year. And executives see earnings improving by as much as 11% to $3.90 per share while the company extends its growth streak and expands into more digital sales this year. "Our 'to do' list remains longer than our 'done' list," CEO McMullen said.