Bimbo sees complex impact on bread from gluten aversion

by Josh Sosland
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MEXICO CITY — While demand for gluten-free products is growing rapidly, the movement’s direct effects on the bread market to date have been limited, said Fred Penny, president of Bimbo Bakeries USA.

The market for gluten-free products, a secondary share offering and the integration of the Canada Bread business were among topics discussed by executives of Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V., in addition to the company’s financial results, during a Feb. 27 conference call with investment analysts.

Mr. Penny was responding to an analyst asking about the effect on gluten-free dieting on bread sales.

“Gluten-free is an interesting question,” he said. “There is still a lot of, I would say, momentum growth overall in gluten-free, less so in the bread category. The bigger challenge I think is that there is some pressure on bread consumption from people who are perceiving gluten-free as a diet, which it is not, as you know.

“But there are lots of opportunities. Daniel (Servitje, president and chief executive officer of Grupo Bimbo) made the point (Bimbo is moving) to take advantage of the health and wellness trends, whether it’d be whole grains, reduced fat, low sodium, et cetera. And we play in those spaces, and we’ll continue to look for opportunities to bring products to market that address those consumer needs.”

The executives also were asked about a charge against earnings in the United States related to liabilities associated with Bimbo’s participation in a multi-employer pension plan. Steven Mollick, senior vice-president and chief financial officer of B.B.U., pointed out that just as liabilities have grown because of depressed interest rates, the opposite result — reduced liabilities — may be expected if rates rise in the future.

Asked whether this interest rate sensitivity would result in earnings volatility for Bimbo, Mr. Mollick said the company has taken steps to avoid such volatility.

“In the U.S., we participate in 34 MEPPs,” he said. “The liability — the withdrawal liability has been stable. And we’ve reserved, based on Guillermo’s (Quiroz, c.f.o. of Grupo Bimbo) comments, we’ve reserved about 50% of the overall contingent withdrawal liability. I can’t speculate as to what the future liability movements will be, but I can say that they’ve been stable over the last few quarters. We’re taking a proactive stance in really trying to fix those liabilities for Grupo Bimbo so that we have a long-term view. We are going to fix those liabilities and have them be known. That’s what the reserve is for.”

While the integration of Canada Bread is generally going well, Mr. Servitje described challenges, such as an enterprise resource planning system change and the loss of a significant customer. Bimbo completed the acquisition of Canada Bread in May 2014 in a $1.7 billion transaction.

“We are still in our first year of integration into Canada,” he said. “I think that we have made a lot of progress on many fronts of the integration phase. We have an ERP change during the second to third quarter of the year and we are geared towards that very important milestone. We have also assessed the company in terms of the opportunities in all areas of the manufacturing, distribution and administration side and we are working towards that plan. All in all, I would say that volumes are soft on bread side. There was a loss of a larger account that we had, the Shoppers Drug chain that went into the western business due to the purchase of that chain (in March 2014) by Loblaws. So that was a major event we will be lapping in the latter part of the year.”

While Bimbo is not ruling out a stock offering in the future, none is pending. In October, amid volatile equity market conditions, the company stepped back from a plan to conduct a global $700 million stock offering.

“The idea is still on the table,” a Bimbo executive said during the call. “We won’t rush into a process like that. We have another phase of priorities on our minds. But the idea is still on the table. We are not currently actively meeting with many investors, with many colleagues of yours and many analysts.”
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