5 Things Kroger Co's Management Wants You to Know

By Fool.com

Kroger last week posted surprisingly high second-quarter results that were powered by strong market share gains. The grocer beat almost all national food retailers as it extended its comparable-store sales growth streak to an awesome 47 straight quarters.

After the earnings announcement, CEO Rodney McMullen held a conference call with Wall Street analysts to put the results in greater context. Here are five key points from that presentation.

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Reason for optimism

All of Kroger's regions and supermarket departments logged comparable-store sales growth in the quarter, led by a double-digit improvement in the organic and natural foods section. Overall comps were 5.3%, which marked the second straight quarter of slowing growth. Yet that result was still far above the 1% that rivals Wal-Mart and Whole Foodsmanaged.

Quarterly comps growth. Source: Kroger financial filings.

Investing in corporate brands

Source: Kroger.

Kroger's store brands represent 25% of sales and are a growing competitive advantage for the grocer. That success has a lot to do with the blockbuster launch of organic and natural foods brand Simple Truth, which just surged past $1 billion of annual sales less than two years from launch.

Simple Truth is Kroger's most successful brand ever, and it's helping the companyput pressure on upscale grocers like Whole Foods. Management is hoping to build on that success with HemisFares, a new high-end brand composed of international foods that's set to launch this month.

Capital returns vs. capital spending

Management aims to send excess cash back to shareholders -- but only after meeting the needs of the business. This year, spending is tilting toward capital investments and away from straight cash returns: Kroger will spend as much as $3.3 billion investing in growth in 2015, because "we see a strong pipeline of high quality projects and we continue to be encouraged by the results from our new stores." The trade-off is lower stock repurchase spending, which is running at half the pace of last year through the past two quarters.

Maintaining debt

Kroger's debt level held constant at $11 billion. However, since earnings are up sharply this year, its debt leverage ratio dove from 2.32 times profit to 2.02 times. That level is important because it frees management up to pursue pricey new acquisitions like the recent $2 billion Harris Teeter buy.

Rising outlook

For the second time this year, management had to boost their 2015 sales outlook. Kroger started off expecting 3.5% growth, then raised it to 4%, and is now targeting 4.5% gains. Executives' profit forecast also got a boost, rising to as high as $1.98 per share. That guidance is above management's long-term goal of delivering between 8% and 11% annual profit gains, which is yet another piece of evidence that Kroger's operations are on a robust upswing right now.

The article 5 Things Kroger Co's Management Wants You to Know originally appeared on Fool.com.

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