Last week, we worked from the Fool's London bureau and had the opportunity to visit a U.K.-based multinational that is worthy of attention from U.S. investors: Diageo
Diageo is the world's leading spirits company, with a stable of powerhouse brands including Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray, Guinness, and Jose Cuervo. We met with Diageo's head of investor relations in London last Tuesday; our reflections from the meeting follow.
Owain Bennallack: The strength-in-depth of Diageo's brands in the territories where it has a leadership position and options in the marketplace is not to be underestimated. I'd tended (perhaps lazily) to see its many brands as simply catering to varied tastes. But talking with the company about how it responded to recent economic challenges across the globe brought home the advantage of being able to direct consumers to alternative products at lower price points, or in different formats, instead of just discounting its brands and trying to undo the damage later.
Anand Chokkavelu, CFA: Before meeting with Diageo, I saw it as a solid dividend-paying company that ably manages its world-class alcohol brands. After meeting with Diageo, that impression is only enhanced.
My fear with market-dominating moderate growers like Diageo (it's grown sales by an average of 8% over the last five years) is the temptation to grasp for growth. Many times this grasping leads to diworsification, overpaying for an empire, or increasing market share at the price of margins.
That doesn't seem to be the case here. Diageo knows what it is -- the premier high-end spirits company in the world; market share is great, but high margins are greater.
So when I see Diageo bidding $1.1 billion to increase its 40% stake to full ownership of Chinese white spirits company Shui Jing Fang (as it is doing), I make sure this remains the case. The price is small (about 2% of Diageo's market cap), the market potential is huge (further inroads into China!), and the product is well within Diageo's wheelhouse.
Diageo has been on my watchlist for quite a while and it's moved up a bit after visiting the company in person. It is up there with the likes of Procter & Gamble
Brian Richards: Diageo is as good as the power of its brands, so I found it refreshing to hear how intensely the company keeps watch on brand strength. Sales are a lagging indicator, so Diageo uses brand-monitor firm Millward Brown to keep tabs on its brand equity. On a frequent basis, customers are asked a series of questions (including, "Would you recommend this product to a friend?") and if the answers aren't satisfactory, Diageo will devote resources to fixing the problem.
It's no wonder that Interbrand, another brand-monitor company, rated Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker among its top 100 global brands this past year, in exclusive company among spirits. Aside from Diageo's two brands, only Brown-Forman's
Jordan DiPietro: For anyone that is knowledgeable about the alcohol industry, it's obvious that the major growth drivers are in emerging markets. In North America and Europe, volume is mostly flat or negative, and overall economic growth has slowed, which puts severe downward pressure on consumption. So it wasn't a surprise that Diageo is concentrating on expanding in places like Vietnam, China, India, and Nigeria.
However, what I found to be interesting was how it was handling the slowdown in mature markets such as the U.S. and southern Europe. Instead of lowering prices on its premium brands, Diageo is in the fortunate position to rely on the breadth of its brand portfolio and on internal innovation. For instance, when it comes to innovation, Diageo often finds that offering smaller bottles, premixed drinks, and line extensions can be an effective way to offset lower demand. In places like Spain and Greece, where discretionary income has dropped and excise taxes have risen, this is a crucial step in maintaining market presence.
In addition, since Diageo has multiple tiers of brands for most of its spirits, it can begin to offer a different, lower priced product as opposed to diluting the brand of a premium product by lowering the price. This is the greatest benefit of having an enormous arsenal of liquors in your portfolio, and I think that Diageo is utilizing all the tools it has in order to operate successfully in a very difficult, postrecessionary environment.
For insights from our visit with Pearson, click here.
Owain Bennallack owns shares of Diageo, but none of the other writers have a stake in any of the companies mentioned. Diageo and Procter & Gamble are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of and has written covered calls on Procter & Gamble. The Fool owns shares of Diageo. 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.