5 Things Archer Daniels Midland Management Wants You to Know

By Markets Fool.com

After getting a little overweight in recent years, agricultural raw material processor Archer Daniels Midland is getting back into shape. The workout routine includes living without unnecessary businesses and investing in high margin businesses and growth projects. While that resulted in a nearly 10% drop in sales in 2014 compared to 2013, profits soared 23% and gross profit margins rocketed 37% higher compared to the same period. Investors can look at previous coverage of the company's earnings to view the financial details, but it helps to listen to the thoughts of top brass, too. Here are five things Archer Daniels Midland management wants you to know.

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Cost savings efforts give us more bang for our buck.
One way to increase profitability is to cut back on wasteful, redundant, or unnecessary costs. Archer Daniels Midland executed on its long-term goal to slash $400 million in run rate costs by the end of 2014 by tightening budgets, implementing process improvements at operating facilities, and optimizing purchasing decisions. As CEO and President Juan Luciano explained, investors can expect more of the same by the end of the decade:

We exceeded our target of $400 million in run rate cost savings by the end of 2014. During our December Investor Day, we outlined our target for $350 million in further cost savings related to operational excellence and process improvements. We also highlighted $200 million in incremental purchasing savings. So we are targeting a total of $550 million in additional run rate cost savings over the next five years.

This is important for investors because it translates into higher returns on invested capital, or ROIC, which allows each dollar of investment to work harder for the company and its shareholders. Archer Daniels Midland has set a goal to achieve a trailing twelve month ROIC of 10% -- and it's getting closer to the target.

Image source: Archer Daniels Midland 2014 presentation.

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We're (still) good to our shareholders.
When Archer Daniels Midland shareholders received their first dividend payment in 1988, they earned 1 cent per share. The first payment in 2015 will be a bit higher, at 28 cents per share, representing a 17% increase from 2014 payouts, which totaled $600 million. But Luciano wants to remind you about other efforts under way that created shareholder value.

In February 2014, our $1.15 billion convertible debt matured, we paid down this debt, contributing to our overall debt reduction. For the year, we spent about $1.2 billion to repurchase about 25 million shares and we paid out $0.6 billion in common dividends. So for the year, we returned about $1.8 billion to shareholders.

The debt payment helps to explain why the company ended the year with almost $2 billion less cash than it began the year with (growth investments explain the balance), although it's important to remember that debt was reduced by nearly $1.2 billion, too, so the balance sheet remains healthy.

For the year ahead management expects to return $2.2 billion to $2.7 billion to shareholders, which includes share buybacks of $1.5 billion to $2.0 billion and dividend payouts totaling $700 million. Fellow Fool Andres Cardenal recently explained why it's a good idea to focus on total shareholder return, not just dividends, when investing. By that logic, Archer Daniels Midland might be worth a look.

Ethanol production will be challenged in 2015
Archer Daniels Midland is the nation's largest ethanol producer, which was a huge catalyst for investors in 2014. Historically high ethanol margins allowed the company to generate $697 million in operating profits from ethanol alone, which accounted for roughly 15% of companywide profits. But Luciano cautioned not to expect an encore performance in 2015:

While U.S. ethanol demand was seasonally strong, boosted by the domestic response to lower gasoline prices, high industry production has built excess inventories. Margins in this industry should remain challenged until supplies are better aligned with demand.

Producers around the country operated at full capacity to take advantage of high margins in the last several months of 2014, but that has created more ethanol than demand and pushed stockpiles to recent highs. Potentially making the situation worse is the fact that, contrary to Luciano's explanation for increased demand, refiners have been blending record low volumes of ethanol into gasoline since oil prices began collapsing. It's too soon to say how the ethanol markets will perform in the year ahead, but it's obvious that producers won't enjoy the same profits as they did a year ago.

Get ready for a new business segment
For years, Archer Daniels Midland has conducted business with three business segments: oilseeds processing, corn processing, and agricultural services. Beginning in 2015 investors will need to keep track of a fourth, called "Wild and Specialty Ingredients". Luciano didn't go into too much detail on the recent earnings conference call (he's held separate calls and presented at conferences on the acquisitions), but the addition is worth the extra homework.

During the fourth quarter, we were busy preparing for the January 1 launch of the WILD Flavors and the Specialty Ingredients business unit, working on synergies, preparing to move businesses and aligning teams.

As part of its growth strategy and efforts to raise profits, the company acquired WILD Flavors and Specialty Commodities in 2014. The companies manufacture specialty food products including niche fruits, fragrances, and flavors that are accompanied by much higher gross profit margins than the commodity products Archer Daniels Midland typically deals in. There should be room for respectable sales growth, too, considering the new segment would have generated nearly $2.5 billion in revenue last year, which makes it by far the lowest of any segment. Nonetheless, combining synergies and complementary areas of expertise should allow the new segment to become an instant hit with investors.

Image source: Archer Daniels Midland.

Growth projects are coming online
Increasing the efficiency of existing operations has provided much of the momentum for the company's turnaround to date. As efforts continue through the end of the decade, Archer Daniels Midland will also churn out higher profits thanks to strategic growth projects scattered across the globe. Better yet, most new production assets will manufacture high margin food products with strong demand. Luciano summed it up for investors:

In November, we began production at our sweetener plant in Tianjin, China. Construction continues on our fiber plant in Tianjin, China, our feed premix plant in Nanjing, China and our specialty protein complex and Campo Grande, Brazil. The expansion of our Fibersol production capacity at Clinton, Iowa is on schedule to be operational mid-year. And our non-GMO lecithin projects in Hamburg, Germany and Latur, India should be operational in March and July, respectively.

That's an exciting paragraph for investors. Some of these products will be reported in the new Wild and Specialty Ingredientssegment, which could expedite the business' growth in its first several years of existence. It's also encouraging to see Archer Daniels Midland expanding into high growth markets such as China and India -- an area that could provide a big boost for shareholders for years into the future.

After digesting all of the news from the company, it's difficult to argue with management's execution and the company's performance since growth plans were announced in 2012. Costs are decreasing, invested dollars are going further, shareholders are on the receiving end of record high levels of capital returns, and the growth engine remains red hot. Ethanol may sour performance slightly in 2015 compared to last year, but investors have to be happy with the current state of the company and the opportunities that lie ahead.

The article 5 Things Archer Daniels Midland Management Wants You to Know originally appeared on Fool.com.

Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out hispersonal portfolio,CAPS page,previous writingfor The Motley Fool, and follow him on Twitter to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology field.The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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.