What McCormick Wants Investors to Know

McCormick (NYSE: MKC) has blazed its own path through the challenges facing the consumer foods industry. The spices and flavorings giant took on billions in new debt last year and suspended its stock buybacks -- all to fund a huge acquisition that management hoped would lay the groundwork for sustainable sales and profitability gains.

In its recently released fiscal third-quarter results, the company announced positive operating trends that met those broader goals. And in a conference call with investors following the report, CEO Lawrence Kurzius and his team explained why they have such a bright outlook for McCormick's portfolio of spices, flavorings, and condiments. Below are a few highlights from that discussion.

Big-picture progress

Just as it has in each of the last few quarters, McCormick announced positive results across its three main growth avenues: its core brands, its acquired franchises, and its new product releases. The biggest contributor was the addition of the French's and Frank's condiment brands, which were responsible for 10 percentage points of the company's 14% increase in revenue. Yet executives were even happier to see that sales growth sped up in the core brands and in the U.S market, in particular.

Making effective moves

McCormick had a busy quarter full of initiatives aimed at faster growth, higher profitability, and increased market share. These moves included aggressive cost cuts, negotiations with retailing partners to allocate more shelf space to its products, and the introduction of new product sizes. Not every project was a runaway success, but together the initiatives boosted profit margin and sped up McCormick's expansion pace. "Our base business and new product growth accelerated from our first-half sales growth," Kurzius explained, "as we said we would in our June [conference] call."

Acquiring strong brands

Investors had good reasons to be cautious about the $4 billion acquisition that McCormick closed just over a year ago. Such large mergers often come with surprising complications that get in the way of delivering the ambitious goals that management originally laid out.

However, this buyout is tracking better than executives had hoped. The hot sauce and mustard condiment products are helping push overall profit margins toward new highs, and the franchises are also benefiting from McCormick's larger distribution footprint. These successes suggest there's plenty of room for management to squeeze more synergies out of the pairing they've made by bringing condiments into their spice and flavoring empire.

Looking ahead

McCormick affirmed a full-year outlook that calls for sales to rise by about 13% while profits expand at a slightly faster pace. Initiatives for the coming quarters include new product releases, deeper distribution for both its core brands and the newly acquired franchises, and the company's first national advertising campaign in seven years.

These projects should help deliver healthy cash flow that the company can direct toward paying down its debt. In fact, management believes it can get its debt leverage down to three times adjusted earnings by 2020, compared to the five times multiple at the start of the year. Investors can expect McCormick to reinstate its stock buyback spending as it approaches that debt leverage target.

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Demitrios Kalogeropoulos has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends McCormick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.