McCormick (MKC) Q1 2019 Earnings Conference Call Transcript

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McCormick (NYSE: MKC) Q1 2019 Earnings Conference CallMarch 26, 2019 8:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

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  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Kasey Jenkins -- Vice President of Investor Relations

Good morning. This is Kasey Jenkins, vice president of McCormick investor relations. Thank you for joining today's first-quarter earnings call. To accompany this call, we posted a set of slides at ir.mccormick.com.

[Operator instructions] We'll begin with remarks from Lawrence Kurzius, chairman, president, and CEO; and Mike Smith, executive vice president, and CFO. During our remarks, we will refer to certain non-GAAP financial measures. These include information in constant currency as well as adjusted operating income, adjusted income tax rate and adjusted earnings per share that exclude the impact of special charges and for 2018, transaction and integration expenses related to the acquisition of our Frank's and French's brands as well as the net nonrecurring income tax benefit associated with the December 2017 U.S. tax reform legislation.

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Reconciliations to the GAAP results are included in this morning's press release and slides. In our comments, certain percentages are rounded. Please refer to our presentation, which includes the complete information. In addition, please note that all comparisons discussed today, both for results and outlook, are calculated from a 2018 date that had been recast for the two accounting standard updates we adopted on a retrospective basis in the first quarter of 2019 as well as for certain other reclassifications noted in this morning's first-quarter results press release.

Please refer to the recast 2018 financials section of the press release and the Form 8-K we furnished on March 11 for further detail as well as the filing of our Form 10-Q later today, which reflects all the changes to our previously reported 2018 results and the historical financial information that has been recast. As a reminder, today's presentation contains projections and other forward-looking statements. Actual results could differ materially from those projected. The company undertakes no obligation to update or revise publicly any forward-looking statement, whether because of new information, future events or other factors.

As seen on Slide 2, our forward-looking statement also provides information on risk factors that could affect our financial results. It is now my pleasure to turn the discussion over to Lawrence.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Kasey. Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us. Our first-quarter results were a great start to the year, delivering sales, operating income and adjusted earnings-per-share growth as well as margin expansion.

Our successful execution of our strategies and engagement of employees around the world has driven strong performance across both of our segments, and we're confident they will continue to drive our momentum and success as we go through the year. Starting on Slide 4. Our broad and advantaged global flavor portfolio continues to position us to meet the demand for flavor around the world and grow our business. Among our first-quarter highlights across our portfolio, we drove growth on our consumer segment with the strength particularly in the U.S.

spices and seasonings, recipe mixes and new Frank's and Zatarain's frozen products as well as in China sauces and chicken bouillon. In our flavor solutions segment, our Americas and EMEA regions drove significant growth in flavors, branded foodservice and condiments with strong contributions from both new products and the base business. We are confident our breadth and reach will continue to differentiate McCormick and be the foundation of our sales growth as consumer demand for flavor continues to rise. No matter where or what you choose to eat or drink, you will probably enjoy something flavored by McCormick every day.

Now let me go into more detail on our first-quarter performance, as seen on Slide 5, as well as provide some business comments before turning it over to Mike, who will go more in depth on the quarter-end results and the details of our 2019 outlook. As we said on our year-end earnings call in January and at CAGNY in February, we had confidence in our strategies and are well-positioned to deliver strong results in 2019. You can see this beginning with our first-quarter performance with the strong sales growth, operating profit growth, margin growth and EPS growth. Starting with our top line for the first quarter.

Versus the year-ago period, we grew sales 1%, and in constant currency, sales grew 4% for the total company with strength in both segments. This growth was due to higher volume and product mix and was entirely organic, driven by the base business and new products as we have no acquisition impact in the quarter. In our consumer segment, sales were flat, including an unfavorable impact from currency, and grew 3% in constant currency. In our flavor solutions segment, sales grew 3%, and in constant currency, grew 6%.

In addition to our top-line growth, we grew adjusted operating income and expanded our adjusted operating margin. With our higher sales and cost savings led by our Comprehensive Continuous Improvement Program, or CCI, we grew the first quarter's adjusted operating income 4%, or 6% in constant currency, and expanded our adjusted operating margin 40 basis points. At the bottom line, our first-quarter adjusted earnings per share of $1.12 was 12% higher than $1 in the first-quarter of 2018, driven primarily by our adjusted operating income growth and the lower adjusted tax rate. And this 12% adjusted earnings-per-share growth includes an unfavorable impact from currency.

Our solid first-quarter results were in line with our expectations and our outlook for our 2019 performance, which we shared on our January earnings call, continues to be strong. I'd like to turn now to a business update with a focus this morning on highlights from our consumer and flavor solutions segments, our exciting new products for the first half of 2019, and finally, touch on some of our recent announcements. Turning on Slide 6 with our consumer segment. As I just mentioned, we grew constant currency sales 3% with increases in each of our three regions.

In the Americas, we grew constant currency sales 3%, driven by higher volume and product mix. In the U.S., the unusual impacts we had in the fourth quarter, as we previously indicated on our January earnings call and at CAGNY, are behind us. Our IRI data indicates U.S. spice and seasonings scanner scales through multi-outlets grew 4% for the category and 5% for McCormick branded, reflecting a continuation of the strong consumption and share trend improvement realized in the fourth quarter.

In fact, we grew spice and seasoning share in the first quarter. Our performance on the market is being driven by new products and expanded distribution, together with our strong marketing programs and merchandising execution. Additionally, we again had strong growth in unmeasured channels, including club, e-commerce and Hispanic retail chains. Overall, combining strong consumption growth in other parts of our U.S.

branded portfolio with spices and seasonings, we continue to see an acceleration in our consumption trend, which shows we're winning with consumers across our portfolio. McCormick branded dry recipe mixes continued their momentum of consumption and share growth, and Stubb's barbecue sauce consumption growth again outpaced its category. Frank's RedHot sauce, Grill Mates and Lawry's marinades all grew consumption, partially driven by leveraging Super Bowl marketing and promotional programs across our condiment portfolio. New products, including Frank's RedHot frozen wings and Zatarain's frozen items, are also gaining momentum and contributed to first-quarter growth.

As I mentioned, our strong marketing programs contributed to driving our growth. We've also increased our effectiveness and are getting more value out of each marketing dollar. In the first quarter, we funded increases in our working media with decreases in our nonworking spend. Our newly formed marketing excellence organization, which I discussed at CAGNY, is optimizing our brand marketing spend and driving greater speed and effectiveness.

For instance, with our innovative approach for Frank's brand support, we had a big win on Super Bowl Sunday. We spent significantly less than the cost of a Super Bowl commercial and leveraged the power of social media with a strong creative idea. With our playful splat, Frank's garnered over 250 million consumer impressions and was awarded Twitter's brand interception award for driving the highest percentage of branded conversations during the big game without a national television ad. Not only did we win the award, we won with significant Frank's consumption growth.

Now turning to the Europe, Middle East and Africa, the EMEA region. Constant currency growth was driven by new products as well as expanded distribution and successful promotional activity. New product launches in the U.K. in the second half of the year, first choice, our brand renovation initiative, and Street Food Seasonings, which are adventurous flavors for millennials, continue to do well and we're excited to build on strong early results with continued expansion to additional markets in 2019.

In the Asia Pacific region, our constant currency growth was led by China, driven by new products as well as the base business growth due to successful merchandising execution and expanded distribution. We're also excited about the momentum we're gaining on Frank's and French's. At the end of the first quarter, products with localized Chinese labels are beginning to be listed in retail stores, and we expect distribution to build over the year. Turning now to Slide 7.

In our flavor solutions segment, our sales performance was excellent. Our constant currency sales growth was 6%, driven by higher volume and product mix on base business as well as new products in the Americas and EMEA regions. We're continuing to win with our customers through new products, expanded distribution and promotional activities. In the Americas, we drove constant currency sales growth of 7%.

We had strong sales growth to quick service restaurants as well as in our flavor product category. Our flavor sales were driven by snack seasonings, particularly due to new products and our customers' promotions, and by products that deliver the clean label and better-for-you attributes our customers are seeking. We also had strong branded food-service growth, driven by an increased distribution with national and regional customers, promotional activity with operators and expansion in emerging channels. In branded foodservice, we continue to realize the benefit of leveraging our full portfolio of McCormick spices and seasonings and Frank's, French's and Cattlemen's products across operators.

Our sales growth in EMEA was outstanding, 9% in constant currency. It was broad based across the portfolio, both from a product category and customer perspective. The momentum we built in this region last year carried into the first quarter. We drove sales growth to quick service restaurants, partially due to their strong promotional activities, and to packaged food companies with new products being a key driver.

Our new products are an important point to differentiate our brands and drive growth. Now I am happy to share with you our consumer segment's robust plans for new products in the first half of 2019 as seen on Slide 8. We're delivering against consumer demand for healthy options and transparency in the quality and source of ingredients. In the U.S., we have launched the Zatarain's Garden District Kitchen range.

These meal solutions, inspired by the rich culinary heritage of New Orleans, are plant based and high in both protein and fiber, and we continue to renovate our dry recipe mixes for simple and clean ingredient statements that still deliver delicious flavor. We are continually improving our portfolio to strengthen our relevance with consumers. In the U.S., we're expanding our McCormick Gourmet line with a range of premium salts and peppers. In France, we launched a range of Ducros, grown in France herbs for the French consumer who values provenance and local sourcing.

And in China, we are relaunching our packaging of new graphics that drive premium perception and better shelf visibility. With this inconvenience remaining a key driver of consumer trends, we are offering consumers convenience with flavor. In the U.S., we've launched new Grill Mates marinade flavors, which provide a convenient way to introduce bold flavors to grilling, and French's dipping sauces, which deliver fantastic taste with the convenience of ready to eat. We've also launched Zatarain's frozen entrees rice bowls, made with clean ingredients and leveraged the popularity of cilantro lime with shrimp and chicken.

And we'll be launching our ONE product platform, a set of one-dish recipe mix flavors to make dinners easy, which includes new flavors created using the combination of artificial intelligence and our consumer insights. And finally, we continue to introduce new flavors and varieties to drive flavor exploration and experimentation. In Canada, we're innovating our line of La Grille barbecue sauces with a new bottle and reformulated flavors. In the U.K., we're targeting the millennial consumer with the launch of a new range of rapid recipe mixes, which capitalize on the sandwich wraps trend at home and in restaurant menus.

And also targeting the millennial consumer, we're launching a new range of co-branded Tasty-McCormick recipe mix blends in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., which I will expand on further in a few minutes. Turning to flavor solutions on Slide 9. While we do not get specific with our product development in this segment, we're continuing to capitalize on our culinary foundation and customer collaboration, both of which differentiate us with customers. This unique combination allows us to continue our new product momentum as our customers continue to move their portfolios to on-trend flavors and more natural and better-for-you product, while ensuring that taste is not compromised.

We have a broad portfolio of product platforms and technologies to deliver a range of natural solutions for our customers. Along the natural flavor spectrum, clean flavor is the next emerging space. We're excited to have relaunched our new clean and natural platform, FlavorReal. McCormick is setting the benchmark for development of on-trend, organic, non-GMO and better-for-you products with our unparalleled natural ingredient supply chain and technologies enabling clean label transparency.

To support the consumer movement to healthier and more natural, our proprietary modulation technology called FlavorFull solves common flavor challenges, including masking bitter or sour notes and enhancing sweet, salt or fat. We can solve for any low or no challenge without sacrificing iconic flavor. And finally, our two flavor delivery technologies deliver optimal flavor experiences. Our patented FlavorCell is a controlled-release encapsulation technology designed to deliver flavor where and when and how you need it, while our FlavorSpice technology delivers flexible natural replacements for ground spices and herbs for increased concentration and solubility.

Our strategy to begin with understanding real food and beverage to create authentic flavors, combined with the breadth of our product platforms and technologies, is driving our new product wins with our customers with sales from product launches a key growth driver on our first-quarter results. Now I'd like to highlight some recent news on Slide 10. As announced in early February, McCormick has partnered with IBM to pioneer the application of artificial intelligence, or AI, for flavor and product development. We're entering in a new era of flavor innovation.

This proprietary cutting-edge technology, which we have previously discussed as computational creativity, sets McCormick apart across our consumer and flavor solutions segments. Our product developers are now able to explore flavor territories across the globe more quickly and efficiently, utilizing technology to extract key insights for millions of data points across sensory science, consumer preference and flavor palette. As we continue to expand the use of this system, we've launched our first AI-enabled consumer product platform, ONE, which I mentioned a few moments ago, in my new product comment. I also mentioned earlier a new range of co-branded Tasty products, which I'd like to expand on further.

During the first quarter, we launched a global partnership with BuzzFeed Tasty, the No. 1 cooking video website in the world for millennials and Gen Z with over 2 billion views a month. This partnership allows us to gain significant reach as we are now the official spice in the videos and recipes these generations use, while seeking recipe inspiration through social media. In the second quarter, we will be launching our Seasoning Blends range, which will be available both through the direct-to-consumer channel and retail.

We're thrilled with this new partnership, which will deliver substantial incremental impressions and reach to an audience primarily under 35 years of age and further accelerate our digital platform. In February, we were recognized on Barron's 2019 100 Most Sustainable Companies list for the second straight year. At McCormick, we're driven to do the right thing for people, communities and our planet and as such, we're recognized as a leader in sustainability. On a final note, I'd like to acknowledge Mike Fitzpatrick, who is retiring from our board of directors after serving as a director since 2001.

We sincerely appreciate Mike's contributions to our success over the last 18 years and thank him for his service. Now I'd like to provide a few summary comments, as seen on Slide 11, before turning it over to Mike. At the foundation of our sales growth is the rising consumer demand for flavor. We are aligned with the consumer's increased interest in bolder flavors, demand for convenience and focus on fresh, natural ingredients as well as with emerging purchase drivers such as greater transparency around the sourcing and quality of food.

With this increased interest, flavor continues to be an advantaged global category, which combined with our execution against effective strategies, will drive strong results. We have a solid foundation in an environment that continues to be dynamic and fast paced. We're ensuring we remain agile, relevant and focused on sustainable growth. Our experienced leaders and employees are executing against our strategies, which are designed to build long-term value for our shareholders.

Our first-quarter financial results across both our consumer and flavor solutions segments were a great start to the year. We delivered these results according to our plans and are excited by our momentum. Our fundamentals are strong and we're confident the initiatives we have under way position us to continue our growth trajectory. We're balancing our resources and efforts to drive sales with our work to lower cost to build fuel for growth and higher margins.

We have confidence in our fiscal-year outlook and are well-positioned to deliver another strong year in 2019. Around the world, McCormick employees are driving our momentum and our success, and I thank them for their efforts and engagement. Thank you for your attention, and it is now my pleasure to turn it over to Mike for additional remarks on our first-quarter financial results and 2019 outlook.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Lawrence, and good morning, everyone. As Lawrence indicated, we delivered strong growth with our first-quarter results. I'll begin with a discussion of our results and then follow with details of our full-year 2019 financial outlook. Turning on Slide 13.

We grew sales 4% in constant currency. And as Lawrence mentioned earlier, this was entirely organic growth driven by the base business and new products as we had no acquisition impact in the quarter. Both our consumer and flavor solutions segments delivered strong top-line constant currency growth driven by volume and product mix. The consumer segment grew sales 3% in constant currency with growth in all three regions.

On Slide 14, consumer segment sales in the Americas rose 3% in constant currency versus the first quarter of 2018. As Lawrence described earlier, this increase was primarily driven by higher volume and product mix across several product lines, spices and seasonings, dry recipe mixes and frozen products. Pricing related to the incremental impact of 2018 actions also contributed to the increase. In EMEA, constant currency consumer sales were up 1% from a year ago.

Higher volume and product mix were driven by new products, distribution gains and promotional activities. This growth was partially offset by pricing actions, including those related to planned trade promotional activity for new products and the holiday season. We grew consumer sales in the Asia Pacific region 4% in constant currency, led by China growth, with strength in new World Flavor sauces and chicken bouillon as well as herbs and spices. Turning to our flavor solutions segment in Slide 17.

We grew first-quarter constant currency sales 6%, attributable to a strong growth in the EMEA and Americas regions. In the Americas, flavor solutions constant currency sales increased 7% with broad-based growth across the portfolio, driven by quick service restaurants and continued flavors momentum. New products, expanded distribution and our customers' promotional activities all contributed to the sales increase. In EMEA, we grew flavor solutions sales 9% in constant currency, driven by new products and volume growth on the base business.

Sales increased to both packaged food companies and quick service restaurants, partially due to their promotional activity and spend across all categories. In the Asia Pacific region, flavor solutions sales in constant currency were flat to the year-ago period due to the timing of our quick service restaurant customers' promotional activities. Across both segments, adjusted operating income, which excludes special charges, and for 2018 the transaction and integration cost related to the acquisition of our Frank's and French's brands, rose 4% in the first quarter versus the year-ago period. Excluding the impact of unfavorable currency, rose 6%.

Adjusted operating income in the consumer segment rose to $135 million. And in the flavor solutions segment, we rose to $64 million, both of which were a 4% increase. In constant currency, adjusted operating income increased 6% in the consumer segment and 7% in the flavor solutions segment. For each segment, the increase was driven by higher sales and CCI-led cost savings.

As seen on Slide 22, in the first quarter, we expanded adjusted operating margin 40 basis points. This expansion was driven by leverage from sales growth, CCI-led cost savings and lower brand marketing, partially offset by investments to drive future growth. Turning to income taxes on Slide 23. Our first-quarter adjusted effective income tax rate was 13.9% as compared to 18.9% in the year-ago period.

Our first-quarter adjusted rate was favorably impacted by discrete tax items, primarily one related to our entity structure as we mentioned in our January earnings call. We continue to project our full-year 2019 adjusted effective tax rate to approximate 22%. Income from unconsolidated operations was $10 million compared to $8 million in the first quarter of 2018 with the increase led by our joint venture in Mexico. For 2019, we continue to expect a low single-digit increase in our income from unconsolidated operations.

At the bottom line, as shown on Slide 25, first-quarter 2019 adjusted earnings per share was $1.12, up 12% from $1 for the year-ago period, mainly due to higher adjusted operating income and the lower adjusted income tax rate. And this increase included an unfavorable impact from currency. On Slide 26, we summarized highlights for cash flow and the quarter-end balance sheet. Our cash flow provided from operations was $104 million in the first quarter of 2019 compared to an outflow of $21 million in the first quarter of 2018.

This increase was driven by higher operating income and working capital improvements. As we execute against programs to achieve working capital reductions such as extending supplier payment terms and inventory management programs, we continue to see improvements in our cash conversion cycle, finishing the first quarter down four days versus our fiscal year-end. We returned $75 million of cash to shareholders through dividends and used $25 million for capital expenditures this period. We expect 2019 to be another year of strong cash flow driven by profit and working capital initiatives.

And our priority is to continue to have a balanced use of cash, making investments to drive growth, returning a significant portion to our shareholders through dividends and to pay down debt. Let's now move to our current financial outlook for 2019 on Slide 27. We are reaffirming our 2019 outlook for another year of strong performance with our broad and advantaged flavor portfolio, effective growth strategies and focus on profit realization. We continue to estimate, based on prevailing rates, a 2-percentage-point unfavorable impact from currency rates on net sales, adjusted operating income and adjusted earnings per share.

We expect unfavorable currency impact will be greater in the first half of the year than in the second half. At the top line, we reaffirm our guidance to grow sales 1% to 3%, which in constant currency is a 3% to 5% projected growth rate. As a reminder, this will be entirely organic growth-driven, primarily by higher volumes and product mix as well as the impact of pricing to offset any anticipated low single-digit cost increase. We continue to project our 2019 gross profit margin to be 25 to 75-basis-point higher than in 2018, in part driven by our CCI-led cost savings.

We reaffirm our adjusted operating income growth of 7% to 9% from $930 million in 2018, which in constant currency is a 9% to 11% projected growth rate and reflects our continued focus on profit realization. Our cost-savings target is approximately $110 million, and we expect brand marketing to be comparable to 2018. As I previously mentioned, we continue to expect our 2019 adjusted effective income tax rate to approximate 22% based upon our estimated mix of earnings by country, in addition to our state tax rates. This projection is lower than our underlying effective tax rate of 24% due to the favorable first-quarter discrete impact I mentioned a few moments ago.

Our full-year 22% outlook versus our 2018 adjusted effective tax rate of 19.6% is approximately a 300-basis-point headwind to our 2019 adjusted earnings-per-share growth. We reaffirm our guidance for the adjusted earnings per share in 2019 of $5.17 to $5.27. This compares to $4.97 of adjusted earnings per share in 2018 and represents a 4% to 6% increase, which in constant currency is a 6% to 8% increase. This increase includes the expected tax headwind I just mentioned.

In summary, we are projecting strong growth in our 2019 constant currency outlook for sales, adjusted operating profit and adjusted earnings per share following record double-digit performance across each objective in 2018. I'd like to now turn it back to Lawrence for some additional remarks before we move to your questions.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Mike. Now that Mike has shared our financial results and outlook in more detail, I'd like to recap the key takeaways as seen on Slide 28. With our first-quarter results, we have a strong start to the year. We're delivering against our plans for both sales and profit realization and are confident in the momentum of our business.

We are reaffirming our strong 2019 outlook for sales, adjusted operating income and adjusted earnings-per-share growth. This outlook reflects strong operating performance, driven by our solid foundation and continued momentum. We are confident 2019 will be another successful year. We are sustainably positioned for growth and are continuing to deliver differentiated results, while also investing to build the McCormick of the future.

Now I'd like to turn to your questions.

Quetions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator instructions] Our first question is coming from the line of Andrew Lazar with Barclays. Please proceed with your question.

Andrew Lazar -- Barclays -- Analyst

Good morning, everybody.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning, Andrew.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Good morning.

Andrew Lazar -- Barclays -- Analyst

Hi. Lawrence, you mentioned that flavor solutions sales in EMEA benefited from new product activity from packaged food companies. And I'm curious if you've seen any of this trend develop yet in the U.S. as so many packaged food companies do seem more committed, at least versus the past few years, to getting back to top-line growth and seem to be, thus far, reinvesting to get there?

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Andrew. We have seen improvement in that part of our flavor solutions business in the U.S., really through the second half of last year even and continuing into this year. It's hard to tell whether it's their trends improving or whether it's us gaining share. One of our advantages is that we are very strong in the whole area of creating natural flavors, clean flavor systems and a huge amount of the work that we do with our customers involves kind of making their -- the ingredient statement more consumer friendly and more in line with the trend toward consumers not wanting to see anything unnatural or artificial sounding on the label.

So a lot of our work is in that area and we think we're advantaged there. So we actually think that part of the strength that we're having there is gaining share. I'll say the European part is also partially driven by that acquisition of Giotti a couple of years ago, which gave us some greater capabilities in the area of developing fresh and natural flavors in Europe, in particular.

Andrew Lazar -- Barclays -- Analyst

That's helpful. I appreciate that. And then just one last one would be typically in your fiscal first quarter, there's always a little bit of retail or inventory reduction that's typical that you typically even budget for each year. I'm curious if any of that sort of normal type of inventory reduction might have taken place such that maybe you expect your consumer Americas organic sales to perhaps accelerate more in keeping with what you see in terms of consumption maybe going forward.

Thanks so much.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

That's a great point, Andrew. If you look at the consumption data, you can see that we, although I'm certainly not going to apologize for the organic sales growth in the Americas on the consumer side, which is really strong, we did shift below consumption. Our consumption rate, as measured through the scan channels, was higher and we know that from unscanned and unmeasured channels, that they would have been additive, about another percentage point of growth over what the scanner would suggest. So our underlying consumption is quite a bit stronger than shipments.

We always see some inventory reduction in the first quarter. As we said, we plan for it. I'd say what happened in the first quarter was really in line with what would be normal activity, nothing like the extraordinary activity we saw in the fourth quarter of last year, which is well behind us. But yes, it was an impact in the first quarter.

Andrew Lazar -- Barclays -- Analyst

Yes. Thanks so much.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of David Driscoll with Citi. Please proceed with your question.

David Driscoll -- Citi -- Analyst

Thank you and good morning.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Hey, David.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Good morning.

David Driscoll -- Citi -- Analyst

So I had two flavor solution questions and just a little quick one on pricing. On flavor solutions, margins were flat in the quarter but there was a 6% increase in constant currency sales growth, a terrific number, and it's volume led. So I'm just curious about the effects of volume leverage due to facilities, and it was two of the bigger pieces of flavor solutions that seem to have it. So can you just maybe bridge the gap and maybe why we didn't see more margin expansion within the segments? And then just related to flavor solutions, is there anything to be learned about the very strong constant currency growth this quarter in terms of what it might mean for the next several quarters? Is there anything quirky in the year-ago comparison or -- I'm just asking questions like that so I can understand maybe the cadence of sales growth within flavor solutions.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Dave, this is Mike. I'll answer the margin question. I mean, we're really happy with the performance. I mean, this is the first quarter, which is the smallest quarter of the year for us, but 6% constant currency sales growth and 7% operating profit growth as you said.

So we're basically flat, slightly up on our margin. But we did -- we had some unfavorable product mix. If you look at -- we talked about this. Some of the QSR sales we had, we mentioned specifically regarding to Asia where the limited time offers, which we generally make higher margin on were a little bit down this quarter, a little bit similar to last quarter and the base business was up, that's how we're growing.

So little bit of a product mix within the segment for the first quarter. But for the full year, we feel real good about the margin opportunity there. And from a growth perspective, we've used the term lumpy for sales with flavor solutions because you're relying on promotions from new product launches from customers. But we're really happy after some of the -- if you remember in the fourth quarter, we got a lot of questions about the Americas sales growth, which I think in that quarter was 2%.

That rebounded nicely. So you're going to have some variability throughout the year but still comfortable with our general 4% to 6% -- or excuse me, 3% to 5% constant currency growth.

Overall.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Overall.

David Driscoll -- Citi -- Analyst

One quick follow-up on pricing. I think what you said is that you indicated in the sales guidance that it's also expected to include the impact of pricing would be taken to offset anticipated low single-digit increases in the cost. However, first-quarter pricing was flat. Does this mean that there is some more significant pricing coming later in the year? Can you give us any sense on scope or timing?

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

David, this is Mike again. You really got to look at the segment and the regional level. And while you're right for the total company, it was flat. If you look at it by region, for example, consumer Americas was up -- or almost 1%, which is the same as it was last year.

Same with flavor solutions. The other segments and regions were similar. The one area that was down was EMEA consumer where we had significant trade promotions around the holiday season and we've launched a lot of new products in the first quarter. And we see that moderating the rest of the year.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

We've got a complete relaunch of our core business over there behind the first choice initiative, and so there's some costs associated with that in terms of promotional dollars and listing fees that run through the difference between gross and net that's reflected as pricing.

David Driscoll -- Citi -- Analyst

Thank you so much.

Operator

The next question is from Alexia Howard with Alliance Bernstein. Please proceed with your question.

Alexia Howard -- Alliance Bernstein -- Analyst

Great to see the improvement in the consumer Americas business this quarter. I'm curious about the slowdown on the Asia Pacific side. It sounds as though China is still doing very strongly over there, but we did this see a slowdown in the constant currency sales growth, I think, from 10% to 4% this time around. Maybe a little bit of color on what are doing well in China? And can you quantify how quickly that segments or that country is growing? And then maybe what is slowing down elsewhere in there? Thank you.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Sure, Alexia. Well, first of all, I'm not going to apologize for the 4% sales growth in Asia Pacific, which I still think is pretty good. But China continues to be strong...

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, please stand by. We're experiencing technical difficulties.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Hello? Hello?

Kasey Jenkins -- Vice President of Investor Relations

I think you just come back but we lost you right at the beginning of the answer to that question.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Well, sorry about that. I'm not sure what you heard, so I'll just start from the beginning. China growth continues to be strong. We had some softness in a couple of the other minor markets around the region that dampened the results for overall Asia Pacific.

I think at 4%, it's a little bit lower than we've been reporting, but it's still pretty solid. We don't have any -- really don't have any concern over there, that there's a -- that there's any kind of meaningful change in the trend line for that region. If there's any part that might be a bit slow, it's the foodservice portion of the China business where there's some -- I think there is a bit of a slowdown in the economic growth in China. I think that that is impacting foodservice more than anything, but the pure consumer part of that business is still rock solid.

Alexia Howard -- Alliance Bernstein -- Analyst

Great. And then as a follow-up, can I just ask about where the leverage is at the moment? You're obviously paying down the debt from the RB Foods acquisition pretty quickly but wondering what the number is right there. And how actively are you looking out for other either bolt-ons or possibly, eventually broader M&A or larger scale M&A opportunities?

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Alexia, it's Mike. We're right now at four at the end of the first quarter and we still plan, as we said, to be at three times in 2020, so we're still very confident. And we had really strong cash flow in the first quarter and we think that's going to happen for the rest of the year. So we're still bullish on that.

And I'll turn it to Lawrence for the second part.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. So as we start to get below 4 and into the 3s, and we're pretty optimistic that we're going to be in the low 3s by the end of the year, it is time for us to start taking to look at opportunities again. So while I will continue to say that our priority is paying down debt, we are starting to look at some acquisition opportunities.

Alexia Howard -- Alliance Bernstein -- Analyst

Great. Thank you very much and I'll pass it on.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is from the line of Jonathan Feeney with Consumer Edge. Please proceed with your question.

Jonathan Feeney -- Consumer Edge Research -- Analyst

Good morning. Thanks very much. You commented about some low single-digit input cost pressure and, I guess, I'm wondering how those, beyond what you said, any detail you could give within the commodity, how that's trending and how that input pressure specifically has shaped over the course of the year? Because, obviously, there's some expectation for improved margin realization over the course of the year. I'd like to see how that plays in.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yes. I mean, obviously, we have a huge market basket of different commodities. Some of the major ones like pepper have come down. Vanilla stayed very high, we've talked about that in the past couple of years.

But there's a lot of other items that have gone up and that kind of builds into the low single-digit cost inflation. We also have in there freight costs, which, as you know, last year, for most of the industry were way up. We see those have stabilized to be up or to be up, but that's included within that low single-digit guidance. When I say from a margin perspective throughout the year, early in the year, and we've talked about this before with the first half of the year we're getting hit from a currency perspective and the first quarter was 3%.

If you look at last year, we were getting a benefit of foreign currency in that same range in the first half of the year. That drives some FX trend -- an FX translational impact on our P&Ls. If you look at the transactional cost, that is an underlying headwind early in the year for us, which we see reversing in the second half. So that's a little bit of the color why we think margins will improve throughout the year.

Jonathan Feeney -- Consumer Edge Research -- Analyst

OK. Thank you very much.

Operator

The next question is from the line of Robert Moskow with Crédit Suisse. Please proceed with your question.

Jake Nivasch -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Hi. Good morning. This is actually Jake Nivasch on for Rob. Just a couple of quick question for you guys.

One, do you -- due to the late Easter, is there going to be any impact for you guys this year?

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

If it is, it's going to be washed within the quarter because our second quarter is March, April, May. So as Easter moves around in there, I would expect -- there may be -- there's some impact on our month-to-month timing but within the quarter, it's not -- it's not going to matter. So whatever difference there is, it's not going to be material.

Jake Nivasch -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Got you, OK. And then just one more just quick one. For the margin expansion, I know -- is that going to be more 4Q loaded than 3Q? Or is it going to be evenly split in the back half and maybe the growth as well?

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

I mean, we're not going to get into kind of quarterly guidance or anything, but I would just kind of keep it in halves at this point.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

But that could be stronger in the second half, and again, one of the drivers is that transactional impact on our cost -- transactional FX impact on our cost, which we expect to moderate in the second half.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

And we also did see, as you know, some of the challenges we had in the fourth quarter in the consumer business of our high-margin products, that will reverse, hopefully, in the fourth quarter and be positive, too.

Jake Nivasch -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Gotcha. OK. Well, thank you very much. I'll pass it up.

Operator

The next question comes from the line of Adam Samuelson with Goldman Sachs. Please proceed with your question.

Adam Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Yes. Thanks. Good morning, everyone. Maybe going back into the flavor solutions side.

I just wanted to think about the organic growth side and the pieces there. It sounds like this quarter had some outside benefit, especially in Asia, from some of the lower-margin seasonings business. I mean, is there any way to characterize the growth by the different kind of businesses that you have, kind of where the legacy seasonings business versus the foodservice supply business versus the flavor side, just the growth between the different buckets?

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Well, I'm going to say that, in this quarter, we did have strong growth in some of our really quick service restaurant customers and on their core business side and less on their promotional items. And so that was the mix that Mike was talking about that had the impact on margins. So it wasn't consumer food manufacturers, it's really quick service restaurants. Those are general -- those are mostly condiment products, not seasonings.

We're a huge supplier of condiments globally to the restaurant industry, well beyond what we do on the consumer side of the business. But our performance on flavor solutions overall was pretty broad based with both branded foodservice and quick service restaurants showing strength. And the packaged food manufacturers, not just food, food and beverage manufacturers showing strength, I'd say it was pretty broad based. The margin story there was around a mix within U.S.

QS, quick service restaurants that drove -- was meaningful enough that it kept our margins flat during the quarter. Mike, do you want to add anything to that?

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I think it was broad based -- yes, when you get -- we had over 6% growth in flavor solutions in the U.S. and 9% almost in EMEA. So across all the categories, we were positive but there was a little bit of a mix issue as Lawrence said.

Adam Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

OK. And then just maybe more not...

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

I could almost not call it a mix issue, by the way.

Adam Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Taking a step back from this quarter specifically, though, I mean, I would look at the mix of businesses within the flavor solutions side, this opportunity in flavors, both from a margin opportunity as well as growth given kind of where you are and the evolution of that business. I mean, do you have a target on the long-term kind of opportunity or growth side on the flavors piece specifically versus branded foodservice and custom condiments and ingredients??

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Well, first of all, I completely agree with you that the opportunity is to increase the proportion of our business and to grow most quickly the most value-added parts of that portfolio. And that is, indeed, our strategy and has been over time that's generated both an improvement in operating margin for this part of our business over -- particularly over the last three years where the strategy has been in place and has enabled us to grow faster because the wins that we get tend to be stickier and longer-lasting. So that is our strategy. What you have not put a specific target out there for are kind of the final goal for margin but I will just -- but we have said, and I'll say again, that there's a very long runway for margin expansion.

Our margins for this segment of the business are quite a bit lower than some of the pure-play flavor companies. And within those segments, our margins are very comparable to theirs. So as that part of business comes to be a bigger portion of our flavor solutions business, I would expect to see our margins -- we not only expect, we're driving to have our margins move in that direction. So I think there's still quite a long runway of margin growth ahead of us, not just for this year but for years to come.

Adam Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

OK. I appreciate the color. I'll pass it on. Thanks.

Operator

The next question is from the line of Akshay Jagdale with Jefferies. Please proceed with your question.

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Good morning. I wanted to ask about the impact of retailer disruptions. Can you help quantify that with the top-line margin? Need to know what that was.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Akshay, I'm not sure I understand the question. When you talk about the impact of retailer disruption, I'm not...

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Yes. So I'm talking about -- yes, sorry, yes, so I'm talking about the issues that you had with one specific retailer on the inventory system, etc., that you talked about last quarter and you said it's behind you now, but it did have an impact on the quarter. That's what I'm asking about. Sorry, I wasn't more clear.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Well, it had an impact on our last quarter. I'm not -- I don't -- I will disagree that it had an impact on this quarter. We did get our customers back in stock and so the out-of-stock situations that occurred last quarter were resolved. But retailers don't need the same -- it's not as if we got it back.

Retailers don't need the same level of inventory in the first quarter, which is the lowest seasonality period, as they do in the fourth quarter, which is the highest. And the mix of products that they need on hand is different in the first quarter than the fourth quarter as well. The shelves are restocked but Thanksgiving isn't going to come again until fourth quarter. And so it's not -- so while the situation at retail has recovered, it really didn't have it -- all that meant was that we didn't have an ongoing impact from the out-of-stock situation into the fourth -- into the first quarter.

And you can see the underlying consumption was really strong.

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Yes. And then just to follow up on gross margin. So can you give us some sort of puts and takes? I know you said more stronger in the back half when you talked about the FX impact being less than the back half. But to get to 25 to 75, I think you start with this quarter was flat, right, with the accounting new statements.

So can you give us some sense, like what are the other big pieces that are going to accelerate in the back half and maybe how much of that is dependent on mix in the fourth quarter?

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

This is Mike, Akshay. I mean, at high level, our pricing and cost expectations are in line for the year is what we've said. So we're comfortable there. You highlighted some of the unfavorable transactional FX, which is going to be a timing issue as is a little bit of a recovery on some of that fourth quarter challenge we had.

We talked about some of the product mix. There was also in the first quarter a little bit of segment mix because as the flavor solutions segment grew, about 6% constant currency sales, and consumer was 3%, the margins are slightly higher within consumers. So you get some mix there. I will remind you though that the ROIC, return on invested capital, for flavor solutions is comparable to consumer.

So it's really just on the P&L, you see that impact. So those are kind of the factors I think about as you model.

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Great. I'll pass it on. Thank you.

Operator

The next question is from the line of Rob Dickerson with Deutsche Bank. Please proceed with your question.

Rob Dickerson -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Great. Thank you. So I just want to go back quickly to just the conversation around retail trends consumption, which continue to accelerate very strong, obviously, relative to what we saw in the reported results, just really more specifically to the Americas consumer division. And what I want to ask is not just the healthy shift in the inventory and what happened in Q1 relative to Q4, but really more specifically around pricing.

And it seems like the guidance for the year, total company is more volume driven. The results we saw in the quarter in that region were more volume driven, so that's very positive. But at the same time, we did see a little bit of a deceleration in the region, even relative to Q4, on a tier-stack basis because just comparing the year ago before relative to Q1 was massive. But what's been -- what's driving the deceleration is really pricing, right? So there's less pricing year over year.

So I'm just trying to get a sense as to like why is that pricing kind of a little bit softer than what we've seen before? And then why is the reported results more volume driven versus price driven, which is what we're seeing in the regional trends, if that makes sense?

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

OK. Well, those are the longest questions.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

So let me take the first point. I think on the -- you're focusing on Americas consumer and our pricing and I don't know that the numbers you're looking at reflects what we've actually reported because the first quarter of 2019, we've recorded about 1% pricing positive. In the first quarter of '18, it was the same number. So we're not seeing an increase in pricing activities year on year for the Americas...

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Or decrease.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Or decrease, yes. It's the same number. Now for...

Rob Dickerson -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Yes. No, I was referring to the compare. So in Q4 '17, you were at 3%. At Q4 '18, you're at 0.6%, that's 3.6%.

Q1 '18, you're at 1%, you're right. Q1 '19, you're at 0.9%. So it's 1.9% relative to 3.6%. So when I look at it, I have to compare -- I have to think about the year ago and that's a deceleration.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Are you going back to '17? So we had vanilla, there were some commodities I mentioned before that were really spiking up at that point. So as I mentioned, we will take pricing when we needed to cover commodity cost increases. The last two years, we've had low single-digit commodity cost inflation.

Rob Dickerson -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

OK. So there's nothing that's in there you're paying more to the retailers, etc.? Because, I mean, if I'm seeing 4-plus percent pricing in the scanner data, I'm seeing less than 1% in prior results...

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

We were troubled by this. Rob, we're a bit perplexed ourselves by what we're seeing in the scanner, which isn't -- which is a continuation of the disconnect that we've been experienced with the scanner data services in some regards. Clearly, we're reporting strong volume and mix with only 1% pricing, whereas some of the scanner services are reporting huge pricing increases and actually declining volume and mix. I can't reconcile what's in Nielsen, but I've seen the data.

I can safely say we did not take a 5% price increase, which is...

Rob Dickerson -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

OK, OK, OK. Fair enough. We all look at data, so I have to ask.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

No, no. We all look at it, too. But we do have really strong underlying volume growth and I think that's what we -- the key is. I mean, for the -- we've had strong consumption, as we talked about, across all of our brands.

Fourth quarter was very strong and strength has continued in Q1. We've focused on the dollar volume growth. But if you look at units on herbs and spices, we were up 4% as well and that's really solid growth.

Rob Dickerson -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Fair enough. Very good. Quick question, too, for Mike. Just in terms of the other income line this year, I don't think I may have missed it before or today, if there's guidance just given the recast is kind of what we saw last year, plus or minus about what you think you come in this year or just any incremental color would obviously be helpful.

That's it.

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

No, I'd say to all those other items below the line like interest expense and other income would, to your point, kind of mash together, it would be approximately the same at this point.

Rob Dickerson -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

OK. Great. Thanks a lot. Pass it on.

Operator

Thank you. Our final question this morning is from the line of Ken Goldman with JP Morgan. Please proceed with your question.

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

Hi. Good morning.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

One question for you. I don't know, I'll let it go. Some of your biggest customers, they're openly talking about their desire to drive revenue in alternative sources, right? They'll mention in-store advertising, data analytics, things like that. And I think the idea is from these retailers, they can convince vendors like McCormick, like other CPG companies, to spend more of their marketing budgets directly with their customers rather than on more traditional areas.

And I know, obviously, every CPG company is shifting away from traditional, but I'm just curious specifically what McCormick's appetite is to sort of meaningfully ramp up its marketing budget, directly spending with its customers to buy things like analytics or in-store advertising from them, or whether it's more a sort of share gain where you might say, we'll give a little bit here and take away a little bit there. I'm just trying to get a sense of how important that is to you because some of your customers are talking as though vendors will start spending a lot more with them over the next couple of years.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. So let me comment on that. I may ask Mike to join in as well. And we're hearing some funny noises.

So are we still connected?

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

I can still hear you.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

OK, that's great. OK. I'll ignore that. So as our -- we're -- in terms of our overall spending, first of all, we're comfortable with the overall level of A&P spend that we have as a business so we've guided to our spend being comparable.

And the last year, we're very comfortable with the overall level of support that we have behind the brands. We've been one of those companies that's never really disinvested in marketing. We've increased our A&P expenses year over year pretty consistently. And last year, with the tremendous growth that we experienced at the top and bottom line through RB, we took it as an opportunity to make a significant ramp-up of our expense of over 25% last year.

So we don't view the level of spending as an issue for us, as a core issue for us at all. The mix of that spending is driven more and more toward digital spending and the same is less visible but true on our trade promotional expenses as well. And so this is an area where we have done what I will call more advertising-like promotion activity with our customers, really repurposing funds that might have previously been spent on price promotion and such, the much more efficient vehicles -- efficient and effective vehicles that they offer, particular those customers who have developed strong omni-channel and digital marketing programs of their own. These programs, we've seen, have a tremendous -- can have a tremendous ROI, particularly compared to traditional trade promotion, which I think everybody knows is ROI-negative.

So we have made some of those changes. And some of the retailers do have programs that we believe are legitimate advertising vehicles. And I don't want to name names, but if you think about your pure-play e-commerce providers, I think that they make a pretty good case that consumers make some of the brand choices looking at their sites. So we do have some of that going on.

Generally, it's a shift from traditional trade promotion to digital and social programs that are offered by the customers. And all of that's in the context of us being comfortable with our overall spending models. Mike, do you want to...

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

No, I think -- I mean, I can tell you from a personal experience, we've been doing this a long time. Five years ago, in the EMEA, we're using trade funds to work with our brick-and-mortar customers to be more efficient on our trade spend. So I think you're right, Ken, it's continuing to move in that direction.

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

Great. Thanks so much.

Operator

Thank you. At this time, I'll turn the floor to Lawrence Kurzius for closing remarks.

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

So I just want to say, this was a solid no-drama quarter for us. We had good sales growth at over 4% that tracked a bit behind consumption and in line with our expectations. Our operating margin expansion is right in line with our algorithm. Our EPS growth of 12% included a tax benefit that we expected and signaled.

And the underlying EPS was strong, too. It's a solid start to 2019 and we're confident in our outlook. I'd like to thank you all for your questions and for participating in today's call. McCormick's a global leader in flavor and we're differentiated with a broad and advantaged portfolio, which continues to drive growth.

We have a growing and profitable business and operate in an environment that is changing in an ever-faster pace, responding readily to changes in our industry with new ideas, innovation and purpose. With our relentless focus on growth, performance and people, we continue to perform strong globally and build shareholder value. I am pleased with the strong results to start the year and confident in delivering our 2019 outlook, while continuing to make investments and fuel our growth to build both the McCormick of the future and shareholder value.

Kasey Jenkins -- Vice President of Investor Relations

Thank you, Lawrence, and thanks to all for joining today's call. If you have any further questions regarding today's information, you can reach us at (410) 771-7140. This concludes this morning's conference call. Have a good day.

Duration: 64 minutes

Call Participants:

Kasey Jenkins -- Vice President of Investor Relations

Lawrence Kurzius -- Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

Mike Smith -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Andrew Lazar -- Barclays -- Analyst

David Driscoll -- Citi -- Analyst

Alexia Howard -- Alliance Bernstein -- Analyst

Jonathan Feeney -- Consumer Edge Research -- Analyst

Jake Nivasch -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Adam Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Rob Dickerson -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

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