Altria Group (NYSE:MO) lit up higher profits last quarter. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes and other vice products has a long and impressive history of rewarding shareholders. Altria has increased its dividend 48 times in the past 45 years thanks to Altria's strong, industry-leading brands.
Here are five notes from Altria's most recent quarterly conference call with analysts that investors should know about.
2015 is off to a good start
Altria is off to a strong start in 2015. Our core tobacco businesses continued to deliver on their strategies, backed by the strengths of their leading premium brands. -- Marty Barrington, CEO
Altria reported $0.63 per share in adjusted earnings, which strips out nonrecurring items such as litigation expenses, which represented 10.5% growth year over year. Altria managed this growth largely because of price increases and the benefit of share buybacks. The company's average price per pack of cigarette rose 2.5% last quarter to $6.06. In addition, Altria repurchased 3.6 million shares in the first quarter.
Dividend remains secure for now
Altria paid approximately $1 billion in dividends in the first quarter. -- Barrington
Since Altria offers a hefty 4.1% dividend yield, Altria's dividend is of paramount importance to shareholders. In fact, it's likely that many shareholders invested in Altria for its dividend alone. The good news is that the company generates enough cash flow to keep those dividends flowing.
Altria uses the vast majority of its annual free cash flow -- around 80% -- for dividend payments to shareholders. Last year, Altria generated $4.5 billion of free cash flow and paid $3.8 billion of dividends. These figures show that the company continues to generate more than enough free cash flow each year to sustain its high dividend.
Innovation is alive and well
Turning to innovative tobacco products, Nu Mark remains focused on building a robust portfolio of innovative tobacco products for adult smokers and vapors. -- Barrington
Altria's foray into e-cigarettes is its Nu Mark subsidiary, which operates the MarkTen brand. MarkTen is still in its infancy, so the company doesn't yet break out its sales figures, but the potential for the e-cigarette product is high. Altria tested its MarkTen products in Indiana and Arizona in 2013, achieved satisfactory rankings, and then rolled out the brand nationally. By the end of last year, MarkTen was ranked in the top three e-vapor brands in the western U.S. by retail market share.
The latest development for Altria is that its next-generation product, MarkTen XL, will be shipped into lead markets this month. MarkTen XL is a larger format that provides twice the liquid and battery life of previous MarkTen products. Investors should keep a close eye on next quarter's conference call for any updates.
SABMiller provides a boost
The investment continues to support our strong balance sheet and provides cash flow through its dividend. -- Barrington
Altria owns approximately 27% of brewing giant SABMiller. That stake provided Altria with $1 billion in dividends last year alone. This helps provide valuable support for Altria's own dividend, as well as meaningful diversification. Altria's portfolio spans a wide range of products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and wine. The investment in SABMiller provides Altria with a large stake in beer as well, giving Altria a powerful position in virtually every vice product, which is why the company has given no reason to think it's going to sell its stake any time soon.
Marlboro is still the king
For the quarter, PM USA grew Marlboro's retail share by three-tenths of a share point to 44%. -- Billy Gifford, CFO
Marlboro is the unquestioned industry leader. This brand itself has nearly half of the total retail share in the United States, which is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that despite the regular decline in smoking rates each year, Altria's smokable products segment produced 12% growth in adjusted operating profit last quarter. This was driven by both higher prices and higher volumes.
This is very important for Altria, as cigarettes still make up approximately 90% of the company's profit. If Altria continues to grab market share and pass along regular price increases, the company will do just fine.