General Mills (NYSE: GIS) investors have seen signs of a growth rebound over the last few years, but each time, that encouraging potential was followed by disappointment. After initially predicting a slight increase in fiscal 2019, the packaged food giant closed out its second consecutive year of flat organic sales for the year.
The company is again predicting only the slightest uptick in growth for the new fiscal year, which will kick off with General Mills' earnings announcement on Wednesday. But, while expectations should be modest, there are reasons to expect firming operating and financial trends this year.
Let's take a closer look.
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Focusing on the core
At a glance, General Mills' last fiscal year looks a lot like the disappointing one that preceded it. Organic sales were flat, a slight miss from the 1% uptick management had predicted. Lower sales volumes, especially in the core U.S. market, reflected continued challenges at marketing sugary, salty snacks and meals at a time when consumers are shifting demand toward healthier options.
Yet fiscal 2019 had a few important operating wins, too. General Mills managed to boost market share in its key yogurt category after two years of stagnation. Cereal also gained share with help from innovations like the cinnamon oat crunch Cheerios launch. The company's lower sales volumes, meanwhile, were pressured from price increases that might lesson over the next year.
A sustained rebound in the core food portfolio would show up in better organic sales growth that's powered by a balance between higher prices and rising (or at least flat) volumes.
Pet food wins
General Mills' recently acquired Blue Buffalo franchise ensured that reported sales and profits rose last year despite flat results in its core consumer portfolio. The growth comparisons will get harder now that the company is passing the first anniversary of that huge purchase.
It would be a mistake to shrug off the potential for this brand to contribute to faster overall sales gains, though. The franchise just found its way onto shelves at Walmart, for example, and the 22% digital sales spike suggests there's more room for growth in the e-commerce channel.
Put it all together, and it's likely investors will hear a lot about Blue Buffalo from CEO Jeff Harmening and his team as the new fiscal year progresses.
Cost and returns
Finally, keep an eye on operating margins, which have been a bright spot in recent reports. General Mills has been aggressive in its cost-cutting programs, and those wins, combined with price increases, helped operating margin land at an impressive 17% of sales, unchanged over the past two years.
Investors would love to see that figure begin inching higher again, but recent results show that the company can generate robust earnings gains even in a weak selling environment characterized by near-flat market share. The profit piece of the puzzle is falling into place, and that's a key reason General Mills stock has outperformed the market so far this year.
But now it's up to the company to make that rally stick by showing it can actually achieve the low single-digit organic sales growth that forms the foundation for all of its other long-term financial objectives.
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