Importance of international markets not lost on General Mills

by Eric Schroeder
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NEW YORK — Strong organic growth and select strategic acquisitions have pumped up the international portfolio at General Mills, Inc. Ten years ago, the Minneapolis-based company’s international business generated about $2.8 billion in sales. Today, it generates more than $6 billion, representing about 35% of total company sales.

While a majority of General Mills’ international sales come from developed markets, the company also has established a significant emerging market presence with $2 billion in sales between its Latin America and Asia-Pacific regions.

International segment net sales have grown at a 16% compound rate over the last five years. Segment operating profit has grown even faster, reaching $535 million in fiscal 2014.

Chris O’Leary, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of international at General Mills, told analysts participating in a July 8 investor day conference call at the New York Stock Exchange that General Mills is focusing on five global platforms to drive growth: yogurt, ready-to-eat cereal, convenient meals, super-premium ice cream and snacks. He said the company’s international portfolio is “tightly focused” on those platforms, with 82% of net sales outside the United States coming from those five platforms.

“Our consumer first mindset is just as important for our international business as it is for the U.S.,” Mr. O’Leary said. “We are focused on millennials, older adults and in emerging markets, the growing middle class. Between 2010 and 2020, Euromonitor estimates there will be an incremental 184 million new middle-class households in China, India, Brazil and Indonesia alone. This is a huge opportunity and a growing source of consumer buying power, and we’ve positioned our portfolio to tap this major opportunity.”

In fiscal 2015, Mr. O’Leary said General Mills will focus on three things to grow sales and profits for its international segment: Resourcing its emerging markets to lead top-line growth, delivering stable profitable growth from developed markets, and executing with excellence, whether it is in the supply chain with holistic margin management (HMM), in stores with category management and shopper insights, or with consumer-driven news and innovation.

Efforts in emerging markets

Several emerging markets stand out for General Mills, but Greater China is the largest, Mr. O’Leary said. Constant currency net sales for China have grown at a 15% compound rate over the past four years reaching over $700 million in 2014, and Mr. O’Leary said General Mills expects another year of double-digit growth in 2015. Häagen-Dazs makes up half of this business, while Wanchai Ferry frozen dim sum is another third and the remainder is snacks.

“Häagen-Dazs has delivered many years of profitable growth in China by maintaining laser focus on consumers’ desire for affordable luxury,” Mr. O’Leary said. “…We are launching new flavors like blueberries and cream and Belgian chocolate macadamia nut. We are expanding our geographic presence. We will open over 80 new shops in fiscal 2015, enter 16 new cities and install over 2,000 new freezers in retail stores so it will be a strong year for growth for Häagen-Dazs in Greater China.”

General Mills also plans to be active in entering the yogurt category in China.

“This is an $8 billion category today projected to more than double over the next five years,” Mr. O’Leary said. “Our plan starts with the consumer and specifically with the importance Chinese consumers place on dairy quality. We have leveraged the experience of our Yoplait joint venture partner, Sodiaal, the largest dairy cooperative in France, to secure a premium quality local milk supply. Construction of the plant is on schedule, and we will keep you updated as we get closer to market entry.”

Although a relatively small business with net sales approaching $300 million, the Asian, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region is a potential growth market as more middle-class consumers enter the market. General Mills’ product focus in the region primarily is on sweet snacking, either in the form of Betty Crocker cake mixes or Häagen-Dazs super-premium ice cream.

“We are launching three new Betty Crocker s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units) in the first half, including chocolate cheesecake and molten chocolate cake,” Mr. O’Leary said. “We are expanding our Häagen-Dazs product range with local relevant flavors like classic milk, and we are targeting the value-added segment in India with a new line of Pillsbury mixes. We are supporting all of this with a double-digit increase in consumer support in the Middle East, and we are doubling our consumer spending in India to accelerate growth next year. We continue to be on the lookout for acquisition targets across this region, particularly in India and Indonesia, where we have the desire to broaden our scale.”

Meanwhile, in Latin America, net sales have more than doubled during the past two years to more than $1 billion in 2014. General Mills’ acquisition of Yoki played a huge role in this transformation, giving the company a strong platform for growth in Brazil, Mr. O’Leary said.

He said the company’s Kitano seasonings brand is building on great consumer insights with a new clean plates campaign, and General Mills has leveraged its baking know-how to introduce a line of Yoki and Betty Crocker co-branded dessert mixes.

Don’t forget developed markets

In developed markets, General Mills is focused on delivering steady profitable growth. Mr. O’Leary said the company’s fiscal 2015 plans for Canada are centered on global platforms.

“First in cereal, we are targeting healthful foodie consumers within an ancient grain variety of multigrain Cheerios,” he said. “We will also launch Nature Valley protein granola. The innovation pipeline for our grain snacks business is very full. This year we are launching Nature Valley Breakfast Squares and peanut-free Nature Valley lunchbox chewy bars. We are bringing news to the Mexican aisle in Canada. Old El Paso Restaurante is a six s.k.u. line of high-quality restaurant inspired entrees and dips.

“In yogurt, we are a leader in Canada's Greek segment with a 35 share. We will grow in FY15 by introducing indulgent Liberte Greek flavors such as caramelized vanilla and banana and vanilla bean. We will also launch new varieties of Yoplait Source Greek, sweetened with stevia.”

Mr. O’Leary said General Mills also is leading the development of the Greek yogurt segment in key Western European markets. Last year the company launched Liberte Greek in the United Kingdom and Yopa high protein yogurt in France. Both launches are driving growth of the Greek style segment in their respective markets, he said. In France, Yopa has secured more than 50% market share in that segment, and this year General Mills is expanding both Liberte and Yopa with new flavors and formats.

Häagen-Dazs also is delivering “a luxurious experience” for European consumers with Triple Sensations, Mr. O’Leary said.

“This line of mini cups delivers three layers of indulgence in every bite,” he said. “We will continue to invest in brand building advertising across Europe with Bradley Cooper as our global spokesman.”

General Mills is looking to expand the Old El Paso brand by taking the leader in Mexican products across Europe. This year General Mills will expand distribution of Stand ‘N Stuff tortillas throughout the region and will launch new dinner kits, Mr. O’Leary said.

Executing at the highest level

A final priority for General Mills within its international business is achieving excellent execution. Although the company started its international HMM program a little later than it did in the United States, it has recently accelerated its progress.

Mr. O’Leary said General Mills is driving margin improvement on its Wanchai Ferry business through packaging automation and its global supply chain expertise is making an impact in Brazil. The company also has reengineered production at its factory in Pouso Alegre, harmonizing packaging formats, revamping production, scheduling and automating the mixing process.

“The result is a system that costs less, is safer for employees, is more reliable and flexible and makes higher quality products,” he said. “That is the true definition of HMM.”
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