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A Lot of Potential Upside for Campbell Soup Company (CPB)

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Recently, Warren Buffett teamed up with 3G Capital, a Brazilian private equity firm, to acquire H. J. Heinz Company (NYSE:HNZ) at around $72.50 per share, with a total transaction value of $28 billion. After the deal’s announcement, CEO Denise Morrison of Heinz’s competitor Campbell Soup Company (NYSE:CPB) said that the company decided to take a closer look at its own cost structure. In the past 10 years, Campbell Soup has maintained quite a stable operating margin, one that has only fluctuated in the range of 13.9% – 17.6%. Let’s look closer to determine whether or not Campbell Soup is a buy at its current price.

Campbell Soup Company (NYSE:CPB)

Business Snapshot

Campbell Soup, founded in 1869, is a manufacturer of high quality, branded convenience food products with five main reportable business segments: US Simple Meals, Global Baking and Snacking, International Simple Meals and Beverages, US Beverages and North America Foodservice. The majority of its revenue, $2.73 billion, or 35% of the total revenue, was generated from the US Simple Meal segment. The second biggest revenue contributor was the Global Baking and Snacking segment, with more than $2.19 billion in revenue. The International Simple Meals and Beverages ranked third, with $1.4 billion in sales in 2012.

A Closer Look at the Operating Margin

The business segment that delivered the highest operating margin, at 24.1%, was the US Simple Meals. The US Beverages segment ranked second with 17.3% operating margin. The International Simple Meals and Beverages segment seemed to be the least profitable segment, with only a 10.9% operating margin.

Operating margin 2012
US Simple Meals 24.1%
Global Baking and Snacking 14.4%
International Simple Meals and Beverages 10.9%
US Beverages 17.3%
North America Foodservice 13.9%

Overall, Campbell Soup Company (NYSE:CPB)’s operating margin stayed at around 15.7% in 2012. Its operating margin was higher than Heinz’s operating margin at 12.5%. In 2012, Heinz experienced a nearly 30% drop compared to the operating margin in the past five years. The drop in its operating margin was mainly due to a lower gross margin and increasing admin costs.  The gross margin decline was due to the increase in industry-wide commodity cost, unfavorable sales mix, and a lower gross margin on its recent acquisitions.

Quality Should Always Come First!

Campbell Soup’s 2012 operating margin was also lower than its historical two year operating margin. The lower operating margin was also due to a lower gross margin that was the result of higher cost inflation, higher level of promotional spending, and a lower sales mix. Interestingly, the higher selling prices in the past two years have helped Campbell Soup’s gross margin not to drop lower. CEO Morrison commented that the company kept looking for different ways to have better productivity. However, the quality of the products should not be compromised when the company aggressively cuts costs. Several years ago, Kellogg Company (NYSE:K), another Campbell Soup’s peer, had implemented the K-LEAN initiative to significantly reduce its operating costs. The K-LEAN initiative didn’t work too well, as it cut too many people in the US plant network. In the summer of 2011, the FDA revealed traces of listeria bacteria in its Augusta plant. As a result, several cereal products had to be recalled due to packaging problems, and there was a shortage of Kellogg’s popular Eggo frozen waffles.

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