Today, investors in Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN) are getting a holiday present from the company in the form of a raised dividend. Late last month, Tyson announced a 50% hike in the distribution, to $0.15 per share.
It goes without saying that this is a hefty increase, even if the difference between existing and new payouts is only $0.05. Which of course begs the question: can the company really afford to be so generous, and will it be able to at least sustain that new amount going forward?
Chirping all the way to the bank
Tyson Foods has had its struggles, but for the most part its bullishness is justified. Fiscal 2015 saw it break several of its all-time records, including adjusted sales and operating income (nearly $41 billion and $2.3 billion, respectively) and per-share earnings ($3.15). That top line represented growth of 4% from 2014, while EPS was 7% higher.
This bounty came despite a serious outbreak of bird flu early in the year and a stronger U.S. dollar (which is crimping sales for American multinationals). The company's also doing very well considering that prices in its key product categories -- chicken, pork, and beef -- declined.
Tyson Foods believes the good times are going to cluck happily along. The company is projecting another record-busting year for 2016, with adjusted EPS significantly higher at $3.50 to $3.65.
That's what the market likes to hear. On the back of its 2015 results, and the mouth-watering estimates for next year, investors recently bid up the stock price to -- yes -- a record high, at a shade above $54 per share. That's saying something for a company that's been on the market for over 50 years.
Farming for growth
The asterisk next to this success story is that a good part of it is due to a recent acquisition, namely Tyson Foods' 2014 purchase of packaged comestibles specialist Hillshire Farms.
As a result of integrating Hillshire, Tyson Foods reported a near-doubling of its sales from prepared foods, to $7.8 billion from the just-over-$3.9 billion of 2014. The only other product category to post growth during the year -- beef -- didn't come anywhere near that kind of improvement.
Tyson Foods isn't the only big food company utilizing the growth-through-complementary acquisition strategy to its advantage. Hormel Foods (NYSE:HRL) made a big-ticket buyout not long ago, nabbing organic-meats specialist Applegate Farms.
Like its rival, Hormel notched a record for profitability in its fiscal 2015, with net income rising 19% on a year-over-year basis to $714 million (albeit on a top line that was essentially flat). And, as with Tyson Foods, Hormel has become a darling of investors, recently peaking at an all-time high of nearly $79 per share.
This brings up a concern, however, regarding Tyson Foods' dividend. The Hillshire deal was the largest in its history, valued at roughly $7.7 billion. Borrowing money for it has stressed the finances, and by extension could put the dividend at risk. After all, in fiscal 2014 (the year the deal closed), long-term debt more than tripled to $7.5 billion.
But fear not -- the company's done a fine job so far of paying that down, quickly reducing it to just over $6 billion at the end of fiscal 2015. That still left a bit of free cash flow to pay dividends, which totaled $147 million -- a small amount compared to total FCF of over $1.7 billion.
So at the end of the day, I believe Tyson Foods will be more than able to sustain its dividend. Hillshire is an acquisition that's complimentary and successful, and will help its owner continue to grow. From that growth, the company will continue to reward its shareholders. This payout feels secure to me.
Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. Nor does The Motley Fool. 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.