Tobacco leader Altria Group (NYSE:MO) has gotten a lot of attention lately because of its extensive stake in beer-maker SABMiller, which is the target of a potential takeover bid from Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD). The agreement in principle that Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller have reached would give Altria an equity stake in the maker of Budweiser. Yet even though the parties have asked for more time to put together a firm offer, Altria hasn't seemed overly concerned about the status of the deal, and investors came into Thursday's third-quarter financial report thinking that Altria would show the same strength in its core tobacco business that it has recently. Altria exceeded expectations on that score, showing that it doesn't need Anheuser-Busch in order to generate impressive growth. Let's look more closely at Altria's latest results to see how it's moving forward throughout its numerous business segments.
Altria rides consumer strength to big gains
Altria's third-quarter results continued the favorable trend that we've seen from the company all year long. Revenue net of excise taxes rose 4.7% to $4.98 billion, which was a percentage point and a half higher than the growth rate that investors had expected. Net income climbed at double that growth rate, hitting $1.53 billion and working out to $0.78 per share, which was $0.03 per share greater than the consensus estimate among investors.
Looking at Altria's key smokeable products arena, revenue net of excise taxes matched the overall company's 4.7% growth rate for the quarter, with higher product prices helping to produce greater sales. Operating income for the segment jumped 15%, with stronger pricing driving gains despite higher pension and benefit costs, litigation expenses, and promotional investments. Cigarette shipment volume edged up 0.1% during the quarter, outpacing overall declines from the broader cigarette industry, but sales of the premium Marlboro brand fell 0.7% from year-ago levels as customers favored discount brands. Cigar shipments from the Middleton segment gained 1.2%.
Altria's smokeless products segment also grew, as revenue net of excise taxes rose 4.2%. Shipment volumes rose 0.9% for the quarter, as Copenhagen's gains overcame weakness from Skoal and other brands. Adjusted operating income rose at a slower 2.5% pace, as higher overhead costs ate into pricing gains. Finally, Altria's wine segment made its small contribution to the company's overall growth, with a nearly 9% rise in revenue net of excise taxes producing a 13% rise in operating income for the segment.
CEO Marty Barrington was pleased with Altria's results. "Once again, our businesses strengthened their market leadership, with strong income growth and solid retail share gains by the iconic Marlboro and Copenhagen brands," Barrington said. Barrington also lauded the potential combination of SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch InBev, citing it "as a compelling opportunity to strengthen for our shareholders our position in the global brewing business."
What's next for Altria?
Altria reaffirmed its previous guidance for 2015 earnings of between $2.76 and $2.81 per share. Still, the company expects to see growth in earnings moderate in the fourth quarter, largely because some of the favorable year-over-year factors that Altria has enjoyed in past quarters will give way to tougher comparisons. In particular, with lower gasoline prices fully integrated into year-earlier results going forward, it will be hard for Altria to repeat its past performance.
Interestingly, Altria's benefits from its investment in SABMiller actually fell sharply during the quarter. The tobacco giant reported earnings of $187 million attributable to the beer-maker in the third quarter of 2015, down sharply from the $328 million in the year-ago period. Nevertheless, Altria's comments about the opportunities in the global beer industry stress that maintaining that diversifying asset remains important to the company.
Altria's results show just how successful the company continues to be in making the most of all of its profit opportunities. Regardless of what happens with the Anheuser-Busch InBev deal, Altria has plenty of reason to be confident about its future.
Dan Caplinger 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.