Tobacco giant Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) has done a remarkable job of sustaining its growth even in the face of tough global macroeconomic conditions, but investors need to understand what the company sees as its best opportunities going forward. In mid-November, Philip Morris CFO Jacek Olczak spoke at an industry conference and answered some questions about the company's strategic vision. What he said is important to understand the former Altria (NYSE:MO) unit's current situation and where Philip Morris sees itself going in the years to come. Here are five specific things Olczak said that every Philip Morris investor needs to know about.
"This month, we are continuing the geographical expansion of iQOS with city launches in Moscow, Lisbon, and Bucharest."
The iQOS heat-not-burn system has been a cornerstone of Philip Morris' reduced-risk product strategy, with the company estimating that the product will become accretive to its bottom line by 2017. Based on favorable tests in areas like Japan and Italy, Philip Morris decided it could accelerate its rollout and expect customers to remain enthusiastic about the launch. As new tests begin, investors can expect some short-term hits to earnings based on increased spending on marketing. In the long run, though, the company is optimistic that such investments will more than pay for themselves.
"The Moscow [iQOS] launch will feature Parliament HeatSticks with a recessed filter. This will be the first launch that features a brand other than Marlboro, reinforcing HeatSticks' positioning as a premium product."
Philip Morris has consistently used the Marlboro brand as the centerpiece of its overall strategy, and its Marlboro 2.0 initiative to refresh and update the brand's image has succeeded in allowing Philip Morris to build market share in many key areas. Yet for iQOS, the tobacco giant thinks it's important to promote other brands as well, and the performance of the Parliament brand in certain regions has been strong enough to justify associating it with the iQOS product as well. The move could have the dual benefit of ramping up interest in iQOS as well as bolstering traditional cigarette sales associated with the brands as well.
"I think the pricing -- at least what we know today -- ... should come pretty strong."
2015 will be a banner year for Philip Morris, and strong pricing will be a big component of the company's growth. Net pricing realization could hit 7% according to Olczak, which is above the 5% to 6% range that Philip Morris has historically aimed for. The CFO did warn that one-time increases in Korea weren't likely to repeat, but after adjusting for those items, Philip Morris remains confident about its continuing capacity to push prices higher. Moreover, with only limited concerns about affordability, Philip Morris expects to benefit from further price increases in 2016 and beyond.
"The key reason why we have suspended share buybacks this year was the currency."
U.S. tobacco producers like Altria don't typically worry much about the impact of foreign currency fluctuations, as Altria's focus is on domestic customers, and Altria pays its expenses and reaps its revenue in dollar terms. By contrast, Philip Morris has seen its earnings growth slow as a result of the strong dollar, and as a result, it has returned less capital to shareholders. The dividend increase for the year was just 2%, down from the double-digit percentage increases that were commonplace in past years, and the company decided to stop spending money buying back shares. Nevertheless, Olczak believes that Philip Morris has made it clear that it intends to protect its dividend no matter what, using buybacks as the area that can adjust more easily to changing cash-flow conditions. When the dollar stops strengthening, investors can expect buybacks to come back.
"We always talk about the few places of the market, a few countries which are more openly talking about the potential for implementation of plain packaging. ... There are no new markets popping up on that list."
Concerns about the plain-packaging initiatives in Australia spreading to other countries have been a thorn in Philip Morris' side for a long time. Yet even though areas like New Zealand, the U.K., Ireland, and France could eventually join Australia, Olczak sees no cause for concern. With disputes playing out in the World Trade Organization concerning the Australian regulation, Philip Morris hopes that favorable results will help end the trend and give the tobacco giant the flexibility to market its products as it sees fit.
Philip Morris is dealing with some challenging conditions in its world markets, but it has thus far answered the call with smart strategic responses. As long as it continues to do so, Philip Morris has plenty of potential for future growth.