Hormel Foods Corp. is heading into Thanksgiving Day thankful for the new federal tax law, which helped buoy quarterly earnings, and hopeful the holidays will kick off improvements in its turkey business that has languished for nearly two years.
The Austin, Minn.-based company is also grappling with international trade uncertainty, commodity price volatility and high transportation costs.
Hormel on Tuesday said it earned $261.4 million in its fiscal fourth quarter, a 20 percent increase shaped by the lower corporate tax rate and the addition of Columbus Craft Meats and Fontanini Italian Meats and Sausages. Revenue rose slightly to $2.52 billion.
The company's shares fell 1 percent in Tuesday trading but remain near an all-time high reached last week.
Hormel's Jennie-O Turkey Store subsidiary continues to grapple with an oversupply that has depressed prices since 2016 and saw its latest profit fall 31 percent. A decline in whole-bird sales, higher feed costs and increased freight expenses also contributed, Hormel Chief Executive Jim Snee said.
The company saw a double-digit increase in freight costs last quarter and expects another large increase in 2019. Hormel is working with contractors to reduce driving miles, but executives said they may be forced to raise prices to offset those costs. Meanwhile, turkey inventory started to decline last quarter but remained at historically high levels. "We are disappointed in the pace," Snee said.
Hormel forecasts modest growth in its turkey business for 2019, but "we have to continue to outperform the industry," Snee said. The company made significant investments this year in biosecurity measures in its turkey operation to better protect against future avian flu outbreaks. It's also investing in its antibiotic-free line of turkey products that it hopes makes it more competitive with consumers.
Hormel's refrigerated-foods segment was the star of the quarter. That business includes its branded products like Hormel pepperoni and Natural Choice lunch meats, as well as its Applegate natural and organic meats. The segment benefited from the recent Columbus Craft Meats and Fontanini acquisitions, which lifted sales. Refrigerated foods managed to post a 25 percent profit increase despite a 31 percent decline in commodity profits and double-digit increase in freight costs.
"I'm particularly proud of how the refrigerated-foods team continues to shift the portfolio toward branded, value-added products," Snee said.
This was the last quarterly report before a segment reorganization. Hormel is shifting all of its Jennie-O branded deli meat products into a newly created division of the refrigerated-foods segment that focuses solely on products sold at retail deli counters. The goal is to increase sales and help retailers rethink its deli case. Jennie-O will bring over $300 million in deli turkey sales to this $1 billion division within refrigerated foods.
Edward Jones food-industry analyst Brittany Weissman said quarterly earnings fail to show the full picture of Hormel's financial well-being as the company is structured to benefit from both high- and low-commodity markets. Weissman, who rates Hormel stock a "buy" and believes it is undervalued for its long-term growth potential, said the company's mix of businesses insulates it from catastrophe.
"Hormel has a strong track record of weathering through challenging market conditions and coming out stronger when conditions normalize," Weissman wrote. "We believe the investments Hormel is making in its manufacturing facilities to increase capacity for faster-growing, more profitable products, along with small acquisitions, should better position the company for growth once commodity markets normalize."
For the full fiscal year, Hormel posted a profit of $1.01 billion, or $1.86 per share, up 19.5 percent from last year. In fiscal 2018, Hormel made its largest acquisition in company history with the $857 million purchase of Columbus Craft Meats.
The company's profit growth was largely attributable to its tax rate dropping from 33.7 percent in 2017 to 14.3 percent in 2018. Its effective tax rate for fiscal 2019 is expected to be between 20.5 and 23 percent.
Hormel also announced an annual dividend of 84 cents, a 12 percent increase over last year. Hormel prides itself on its consistent dividend growth. This marks the company's 53rd straight year of increasing the shareholder payout.
Executives told analysts that they expect earnings per share of $1.77 to $1.91 for fiscal 2019, flat to down from the just-completed fiscal year. Weissman said Hormel executives appeared to be tempering their outlook to take into account the benefit of tax reform that padded the company's profit growth in 2018.
Hormel aims to cut $75 million in costs in 2019 to offset inflation and reinvest in key brands.