A remarkable string of advances in share prices of grain-based foods companies continued unabated in 2015. While modest compared with the averages of recent years, the Grain-Based Foods Share Index, calculated by Milling & Baking News, ended the year at a record 21225.54, up 4.3%.
It was the seventh straight year in which the G.B.F. index posted a gain, though it was the smallest advance during this stretch that began in 2009. The 4% advance compared with gains of 17% in 2014, 23% in 2013, 16% in 2012, 8% in 2011, 9% in 2010 and 13% in 2009.
The G.B.F. index advance stood in contrast with a 2.2% decline in the Dow Jones average of industrial shares and a 0.7% decline in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. The Nasdaq composite index was up 5.7%.
In addition to eclipsing the S.&P.500 overall, the G.B.F. index gain of 4.3% topped the 3.7% advance of the consumer staples sector within the S.&P.500. The grain-based index outgained all but two of the S.&P. sectors — consumer discretionary, which was up 8.4% and health care, up 5.2%. Most of the S.&P. sectors, like the G.B.F. index, posted single-digit gains or declines during the year. The only wide swings were energy, down 23.6% in 2015, and materials, down 10.4%. Six of the 10 S.&P. sectors lost ground over the course of last year.
Beneath the relatively modest overall change of the Grain-Based Foods Index in 2015 was considerable volatility among the individual stocks comprising the index. Of the 25 companies in the index throughout the year, only six posted annual percentage changes in the single digits (down from nine companies in 2014). Sixteen of the 25 companies scored gains during the year while eight sustained declines and one was unchanged.
One company in the index declared a stock dividend during the year — shares of Starbucks Corp., Seattle, split two-for-one in April.
An addition to the Grain-Based Foods Share Index took place at mid-year with the listing of the Kraft Heinz Co., Pittsburgh. Trading in Kraft Heinz opened July 6 at $71 per share. The company’s shares hit their 2015 peak that month at $81.20 and ended the year at $72.76.
MGP Ingredients, Inc., Atchison, Kas., led the index with the widest gain in 2015, 66%, marking the second consecutive year in which MGPI ranked first, coming on the heels of a 206% jump in 2014. Shares of MGPI surged nearly 20% in December alone, and the closing price for the year of $25.95 per share represented the highest closing price for the company since 2006, when the company’s share price surged briefly to a high of $36.08. In the intervening years, MGP Ingredients has been among the, if not the very most volatile stocks in the Grain-Based Foods Share Index. A little more than three years after hitting the 2006 peak, the company’s shares hit a low of 50c. The December 2015 close represented a 5,000% recovery from the 2009 trough.
The stock price gain for MGP Ingredients during 2015 more than eclipsed the company’s earnings gains — net income was up 21% in the first nine months of the year (period ended Sept. 30) and sales were up 3.8%.
Coming in second in gains among grain-based shares last year was Post Holdings, Inc., St. Louis. At $61.70 per share, the price of Post stock was up 47%, following a 15% decline in 2014, when Post was the second worst performer in the index. The year before, in 2013, Post shares jumped 44%. With the acquisitions of Michael Foods for $2.45 billion in 2014 and MOM Brands in 2015, Post Holdings has been aggressive in the merger and acquisitions arena and has hinted additional blockbuster transactions could be in the company’s future. After deciding in August to raise its earnings guidance for fiscal 2015 to an EBITDA range of $635 million to $650 million, the company in November announced actual EBITDA of $657 million, up 91% from the year before.
Shares of Starbucks Corp. surged 43% in 2015, versus a 4.7% gain in 2014 and a 46% advance in 2013. Food continued to become a greater area of focus for Starbucks in 2015. The company said its breakfast sandwich program has tripled in size over the last three years, and a lunch program — featuring paninis, salads and sandwiches — is growing too. On the other hand, Starbucks stepped back from its aggressive push into baking. The company announced plans to close its La Boulange retail bakeries and associated baking plants. Starbucks had acquired La Boulange in 2012.
Shares of Mondelez International Inc., after rising a weak 1.6% in 2014, jumped 23% in 2015. The company’s stock price improved in connection with major moves aimed at reducing costs and by a $7-billion-plus gain from coffee business transactions and divestitures.
With a gain of 22%, shares of J.M. Smucker Co., Orrville, Ohio, had the fifth highest advance within the grain-based foods group. A year earlier, Smucker shares fell 2.5%. Smucker earnings in the most recent quarter (ended Oct. 31) were up 11% and for the first half of the year were up 14%. Strong coffee sales were cited as a driver of the strong performance, but the company also enjoyed growth in certain other businesses, includes sales of the company’s Uncrustables products.
Ranking sixth in performance in 2015 was Campbell Soup Co., up 19%. The gain followed a lackluster share price advance of 1.7% in 2014. In 2015, most of the stock price advance occurred in the final weeks of the year. As recently as late November, Campbell Soup’s stock was up only 8.5%, for the year, but the price surged after the company announced better-than-expected earnings for the first quarter of fiscal 2016. Adjusted for the effects of new pension accounting, the company’s EBITDA in the first quarter ended Nov. 1 rose 23%. During the quarter, an increase in adjusted gross margin was driven by productivity improvements, higher selling prices, improved supply chain performance and lower promotional spending. During the year, several major moves intended to “unlock the value” of the company’s brands were announced, including the implementation of a new enterprise structure breaking the company into three divisions — Americas Simple Meals and Beverages, Global Biscuits and Snacks and Packaged Fresh. The company was fairly quiet in the mergers and acquisitions arena in 2015, following several years of aggressive buying in the fresh foods business, beginning with Bolthouse Farms in 2012, a $1.6 billion deal. Campbell Soup acquired Garden Fresh Gourmet, a refrigerated salsa maker, in 2015, for $231 million. Marketing was a major area of focus during the year, with a new advertising campaign targeting Latino households as well as segments largely or completely ignored in the past, including single-sex and single parent households.
An active player in the M.&A. space in 2015 was B&G Foods, Inc., and the company’s share price was up 17% during the year. The share price gain represented a reversal from the year before when B&G shares fell 12%. Already a significant niche player in the salty snacks business, B&G expanded in grain-based foods in 2015 with the acquisition of Mama Mary’s, a maker of shelf-stable pizza crusts. The company’s biggest acquisition during the year was the Green Giant and Le Sueur businesses from General Mills for $756 million, and more deals may be coming.
“We are always ready for the next acquisition,” said Bob Cantwell, president and chief executive officer, during an Oct. 27 earnings call with financial analysts. “We certainly want to absorb and transition Green Giant in over the next number of months, but we are not going to not look at something that comes to market that would make sense for B&G.”
ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, which ranked eighth in share price performance, reconfigured its business in a very different way in 2015. ConAgra shares during the year were up 16%, following an 8% gain the year before. Setting the stage for changes at the company was a transition at ConAgra’s helm — in February Sean M. Connolly was named as the successor to Gary M. Rodkin as chief executive officer at ConAgra, succeeding Gary M. Rodkin. Mr. Connolly was the former c.e.o. of Hillshire Brands and a longtime executive of Sara Lee Corp. and Campbell Soup. Two months after taking charge, Mr. Connolly said the company is “open to any actionable pathway that maximizes value for our shareholders.” Actions announced early in his tenure included a decision to sell its Private Brands business, move headquarters to Chicago and divide the company into two publicly traded businesses — Conagra Brands and Lamb Weston.
Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., ranked ninth among grain-based foods companies, rising 16% in 2015. A year earlier, the company’s shares gained 24%. In July, Ingredion acquired Kerr Concentrates, Inc., a producer of natural fruit and vegetable concentrates, purees and essences, for about $100 million. Four months earlier, Ingredion acquired Penford Corp., a supplier of specialty ingredients, including potato starch.
The ninth best share price performance in 2015 was the 12% gain in the stock price of Snyder’s-Lance, Inc., Charlotte, N.C. In October, the company announced plans to expand in the snacks business with the acquisition for $1.9 billion of Diamond Foods, San Francisco-based maker of brands that include Kettle Chips, Pop Secret popcorn and Diamond of California nuts. A little earlier in the year, an analyst with Credit Suisse published a research paper suggesting Snyder’s-Lance could be a takeover target, citing Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich.; Mondelez; and PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., as potential buyers. The 12% share price advance last year compared to a 6.6% jump in 2014.
Ranking eleventh among grain-based foods companies in 2015 was Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga., also up 12%. The share price gain largely retraced a decline of 11% the year before. In 2013, Flowers shares leapt upward by 39%. For much of 2015, Flowers appeared poised to be among the top two or three performers among grain-based foods companies. At its 52-week high of $27.31 per share, recorded in October, Flowers’ share price was up 42% on a year-to-date basis. The company’s shares tumbled in November when management lowered earnings guidance for the year. Having made a number of dramatic acquisitions in recent years, including Lepage Bakeries and the bread baking business of Hostess Brands, Flowers made strategic acquisitions in 2015 in the organic foods market, buying Dave’s Killer Bread and then Alpine Valley Bread.
Other companies scoring double-digit share price gains in 2015 were Panera Bread Co., St. Louis; Bridgford Foods Corp., Anaheim, Calif., up 11%; and Kellogg Co., up 10%.
The 11% gain of Panera compared with a 1% decline in 2014 and an 11% gain in 2013. In October, the company said its initiatives to expand in catering, delivery and consumer packaged goods are gaining traction, boosting sales at the St. Louis-based bakery-cafe chain.
At Bridgford, net income in the first three quarters of fiscal 2015 was $4,524,000, versus a loss of $3,429,000 during the same period in 2014.
At Kellogg, chairman and c.e.o. John Bryant in November hailed momentum the company showed over the course of the year. Investors appeared to agree. From a June 8 low of $61.13, Kellogg shares rallied 17% by the end of the year.
Of the seven companies in the grain-based index to sustain share price declines in 2015, five fell by at least 20%.
Seaboard Corp., Merriam, Kas., endured the largest decline during the year, falling by 31%. Closing at $2,894.74, the Seaboard share price was down $1,306 from Dec. 31, 2014. The drop nearly reversed the $1,402.98 advance posted by Seaboard shares in 2014, when the company’s stock rose 50%. The company’s earnings were under severe pressure in 2015. In the first nine months of the year (period ended Oct. 3), Seaboard earnings equaled $57.73 per share on the common stock, down 72% from $209.91 during the same period in 2014. In 2015, profits were under pressure in the company’s Pork, Commodity Trading and Milling and Sugar segments.
The second widest decline in 2015 was sustained by an another company that enjoyed a share price jump the year before — Hain Celestial Group, Inc., Lake Success, N.Y. The 31% decline in Hain shares represented a major interruption of a pattern established in recent years — up 28% in 2014, 67% in 2013, 46% in 2012, 36% in 2011 and 59% in 2010. For most of 2015, Hain shares appeared poised for another 12-month gain but began spiraling downward in mid-September. Days earlier the company announced Stephen J. Smith, the company’s chief financial officer, was leaving the company. He was replaced by Pasquale (Pat) Conte. In November, Hain said North American sales were under pressure on a number of fronts, beginning with pressure in the natural channel. “Unprofitable year-ago baby and nut butter club programs” the company exited and the effects of distributor and account shifts also played a role, the company said.
Archer Daniels Midland Co., Chicago, sustained the third widest decline in 2015, slumping 30%. The steep drop followed an advance of 20% in 2014 and a 59% surge in 2013. While “very weak” industrial ethanol margins were a principal factor severely pressuring earnings in the company’s most recent quarter, other parts of the business struggled as well. Agricultural Services profits were halved in the third quarter ended Sept. 30. Operating profit for Wild Flavors and Specialty Ingredients were up during the third quarter, but Wild sales were soft.
Bunge Ltd. shares slid 25% in 2015. The drop followed an 11% gain in 2014. In 2015, the Bunge stock price fell sharply in February after the White Plains, N.Y.-based company announced fourth-quarter financial results. The company’s profits came under pressure during the year, but fairly optimistic guidance was issued for 2015 and beyond.
Declining 24% in 2015 was the share price of Krispy Kreme Donuts, Inc., Winston-Salem, N.C., following a gain of 2% in fiscal 2014. Krispy Kreme shares drifted lower fairly gradually over much of the year but then fell sharply in September when the company announced disappointing results for the second quarter ended Aug. 2. The company cited softness in the consumer packaged goods channel as less profitable door count and product mix combined with smaller-than-anticipated volume. The company also was experiencing a higher-than-anticipated return rate. While adjustments have been made to address the issue, the company said it expected continued softness to continue for a while.
After a modest advance of 1% in 2014, shares of Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V., Mexico City, were very strong in 2015, up 12%. Year-to-date earnings of Grupo Bimbo were up 30% in the first three quarters of 2015, versus the same period the year before. Operating income of the U.S. business of Bimbo was up 58% in the third quarter.
Shares of George Weston Ltd., Toronto, closed 2015 with a gain of 8%, which compared with a gain of 29% in 2014. Third quarter earnings at Weston were up sharply from the same period a year earlier, and the company’s top executive said the food business was performing in line with management expectations.