Altria Group Inc.'s Best Moves in 2016 So Far

By Markets Fool.com


Image source: Altria.

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Marlboro maker Altria Group (NYSE: MO) has shared its success with investors for decades. Overcoming countless obstacles, Altria has managed to produce consistent growth in its business and its stock price, paying dependable and growing dividends along the way. Altria has continued to make progress on its long-term strategy, and in early September, the company took time to share some of its recent accomplishments with its shareholders and the investing public. Let's take a look at what Altria sees as its best moves so far this year.

Taking full advantage of economic tailwinds

Altria recently boosted its growth rate expectations for 2016, with new guidance after its second-quarter earnings report showed expectations for a 7.5% to 9.5% rise in full-year earnings. CFO Billy Gifford reminded shareholders that the company has benefited greatly from favorable factors in the U.S. economy that have put customers in a better position to have the disposable income to spend on cigarettes and other Altria products. In particular, falling gasoline prices have been a huge contributor to revenue and earnings growth for Altria, especially since so much of the sales that the company generates come from gas stations and convenience stores at which gasoline prices are a central component of spending decisions. In addition, unemployment rates have continued to fall, and that has put more American workers in a position to spend some of their paychecks on tobacco products. Gifford also pointed to the rise in housing starts as a sign of greater construction activity and of more general prosperity throughout the economy.

Gifford did warn investors that the positive impacts from those macroeconomic trends have largely been integrated into expectations going forward. Altria therefore doesn't expect as much of a push forward from them in the coming year as it enjoyed in 2015 and early 2016. Nevertheless, gas prices are still down on a year-over-year basis, so Altria could continue to see benefits from the macroeconomic climate for the rest of the year and beyond.

Productivity enhancements

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Altria has also done a good job of finding ways to save money in its operations. The company has announced a $300 million productivity savings program, and Gifford said that it has progressed well so far. The CFO pointed to two main areas to cut costs: general overhead expenses and leaning down the size of the Altria organization to extend control and reduce the number of layers involved in decision-making. Altria expects to reach its $300 million goal by the end of 2017 but is already seeing some of the positive impacts.

At the same time, Altria has managed to sustain its productivity even in the face of renewed competition. The merger between Lorillard and Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI) changed the competitive landscape dramatically, and it forced Altria to take steps to defend its turf. Also, Reynolds American's required divestitures gave Imperial Tobacco a chance to play a bigger role in the U.S. market. In response, Altria has bolstered the Marlboro brand with new flavor families, including Red, Gold, Green, and Black. With consumers identifying with different sub-brands, Altria believes it can get the most out of Marlboro going forward.

Success beyond cigarettes

Finally, Altria has seen good results outside its smokeable products segment. Altria's smokeless division has boomed, growing at a faster rate than the cigarette business, largely because of the success of the Copenhagen brand. In particular, the introduction of Copenhagen Mint has helped accelerate interest in the category, and the launch is only now picking up momentum.

Altria also has high hopes for the innovation side of its business. The MarkTen XL e-vapor product has built up an impressive distribution network that incorporates 44,000 stores, and the company believes that its penetration will be the key to its long-term growth. At the same time, the iQOS heat-not-burn technology has gained a lot of attention, especially as partner Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM) continues to work alongside Altria in promoting and marketing iQOS HeatSticks in various markets across the globe. Regulatory frameworks will take time to navigate, but Gifford and his team are hopeful that the growth potential from the category will pan out in the long run.

Altria has made some smart moves so far in 2016, and investors have reaped the rewards. Despite the negative perception that the tobacco industry has among much of the American public, Altria stock has continued to perform well and has prospects for further growth in the future.

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