Kraft Heinz (NYSE:KHC) CEO Bernardo Hees, who gained notoriety on Wall Street as a cost-cutter, will now have to figure out how to invest money into the beleaguered packaged food company if its long-suffering shareholders ever hope to get any relief.
Unfortunately, Hees won’t be able to just write a check to make KHC’s problems go away. Like other packaged food companies, KHC has been hurt by the rising consumer demand for “fresh and healthy” ingredients at the expense of processed food. New York-based KHC made matters worse by making unrealistic forecasts for the savings of its 2015 merger, which loaded its balance sheet with more than $31 billion in debt.
Plunging Share Price
KHC stock has plunged more than 64% since Unilever (NYSE:UL) rejected the company’s unsolicited $143 billion offer. The stock was further bloodied by its recent announcement of disappointing earnings, a $15 billion write-down, a dividend cut and an SEC investigation into its accounting practices. S&P recently announced that it was reviewing KHC’s debt for a possible downgrade after the company missed the deadline to file its annual report (form 10-K) with the Securities & Exchange Commission.
During the company’s earnings conference call, Hees tried to reassure investors that he was willing to deploy capital where it’s needed. Hees is also is a partner with 3G Capital, the Brazilian private equity that owned Heinz and arranged with Warren Buffett for the merger with Kraft.
“In a nutshell, we plan to go to market in 2019 with a stronger innovation pipeline than we ever had, backed by more marketing dollars while leveraging advantaged category managed and go-to-market initiatives to win assortment and improve distribution across all channels, including e-commerce,” He said. “And we plan to do this while we maintain industry-leading margins.”
Easier said than done since KHC clearly fired too many workers and damaged its brands, damage which won’t be easy or cheap to fix.
The company is trying to clean up the mess Hees helped create. According to media reports, Kraft Heinz is reviewing strategic options for its Maxwell House Coffee business including a possible sale and may dispose of other well-known brands such as Breakstone’s Cottage Cheese and sour cream. Selling off poorly performing businesses is a step in the right direction though it isn’t a substitute for a business strategy.
The Oracle of Omaha
Indeed, the growth through acquisitions approach isn’t the answer for KHC. According to CNBC, the company passed on bidding for Pinnacle Foods and failed to make a compelling offer for Campbell Soup when it was being shopped around last year.
KHC stock deserves to be in Wall Street’s penalty box but it’s not going to be in their forever. The company has a major fan in Buffett, who recently described the company as a “fabulous” business though he admitted that Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A, NYSE:BRK.B) “overpaid” for Kraft. He has no plans to liquidate his position.
For investors with a large tolerance for risk, KHC is worth testing Buffett’s maxim to “be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.” However, there are better places for investors to put their money in the consumer sector, including Campbell, Chuch & Dwight (NYSE:CHL) and Clorox (NYSE:CLX).
As of this writing, Jonathan Berr did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.