General Mills slips with packaged food market

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2013 - 5:49 AM

The Golden Valley giant’s sales and profits fell short.

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General Mills Inc. Cheerios cereals are displayed for sale at a supermarket in New York.

Photo: Scott Eells, Bloomberg

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The stock market is booming and by some measures the economy is perking up, but U.S. consumers aren’t opening their wallets in the grocery aisles — a notion General Mills Inc. reinforced Wednesday.

The Golden Valley-based packaged-food giant posted second-quarter earnings well below Wall Street expectations on softer-than-anticipated sales. General Mills’ showing follows anemic quarterly results last month from Kellogg and Campbell Soup, along with several months of lackluster sales for much of the packaged foods industry.

“Macroeconomic headwinds are challenging the consumer products space — it’s becoming a more common theme,” said Erin Lash, a stock analyst at Morningstar.

The issue is basic: Many shoppers’ finances are still battered.

“The middle- and low-end consumer I think continues to really struggle,” said Jack Russo, an analyst with Edward Jones. “I don’t think their real income has gone up a lot.”

General Mills, maker of a wide range of food products including Yoplait yogurt and Progresso soup, recorded fiscal second-quarter earnings of $550 million, or 84 cents per share, up 2 percent over a year ago. Adjusted for one-time occurrences, earnings per share were 83 cents for the quarter ended Nov. 24.

However, analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were forecasting adjusted net profits of 88 cents per share. And General Mills’ sales of $4.88 billion — while even with last year’s results — were short of analysts’ estimates of $4.94 billion. The company’s stock initially fell more than $1 Wednesday but closed up 15 cents at $49.73, rallying with the broad market.

“We are seeing economic and consumer headwinds in developed markets around the world,” General Mills CEO Ken Powell said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “The U.S. is getting a little better, but Europe is pretty tough.”

Broad consumer demand trends aren’t likely to change in the second half of General Mills’ fiscal year. But as economies improve and population grows, demand will pick up, Powell said. “The fundamentals will play our way.”

And even with the packaged-food funk, General Mills said it still expects earnings growth to accelerate during the year’s second half as input cost inflation eases and a “strong slate” of new products is introduced. The company reaffirmed its fiscal year 2014 profit guidance of $2.87 to $2.90 per share.

During the second quarter, sales in General Mills’ U.S. retail segment, its largest business, fell by 1 percent to $2.97 billion. This year’s late Thanksgiving — the holiday wasn’t included in General Mills’ second quarter as is normal — hurt U.S. sales.

General Mills’ snacks business, anchored in its Nature Valley and Fiber One bars, had another bang-up quarter with sales up 9 percent over a year ago. The company’s big cereal division managed to buck the cereal market’s general malaise, posting a 2 percent gain.

But the Yoplait division, which has been hammered over the past couple of years, saw sales slip 1 percent over a year ago.

And sales in General Mills’ meals division fell 5 percent, as several product lines were discontinued. Results were mixed for Mills’ relaunch of Hamburger Helper — now known as just Helper — a key brand in the meals division.

“Ultimate Helpers have done very well,” Ian Friendly, head of U.S. retail business, said in an interview with the Star Tribune. But the Helper line “is not all the way bright yet,” he said.

General Mills’ international sales grew 2 percent to $1.4 billion, though excluding negative currency effects they rose 5 percent over a year ago. Accounting for currency fluctuations, sales growth was solid in China, Canada and Latin America.

However, General Mills’ Häagen-Dazs ice cream sales in China — a key market for the brand — have been hampered somewhat by a Chinese government crackdown on “public sector gifting,” Powell told stock analysts in a conference call. Häagen-Dazs’ moon cakes are particularly popular gifts during China’s autumn festival season — including from public officials.

Also on the international front, General Mills took a $12 million hit related to fraud in its supply chain involving an “outside party,” Chief Financial Officer Don Mulligan said in a conference call with stock analysts. Mulligan said he expects the $12 million reserve to fully cover losses from the fraud.

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