- Coca Cola has gone into reverse the last two years under Muktar Kent.
- It still does a good job at what it does, but the global appetite for fizzy soda is declining.
- Can COO James Quincey get Coca Cola stock out of the mud, maybe with a big acquisition?
It has been quite a while since I drank a Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), the beverage that built my hometown of Atlanta, and I haven’t owned Coca Cola stock since February, when I sold out a position at $42.09. Nearly a year later, the stock is at $43.09. I don’t think I missed anything. Sales have been declining slowly for the last few years, from $48 billion to short of $45 billion, with the bottom line slowly slipping as well over that time, from $9 billion to $7 billion.
Most people think of Coca Cola as a maker of fizzy sugared water that makes people fat, but it was also a pioneer in water purification, in order to make each bottle of the soda uniform. Coca Cola even invented the modern conception of Santa Claus, in the 1930s, with his coat a rich Coca Cola red.
Coca Cola has doubled its value in the last 10 years, and continues to pay a nice dividend, now worth a 3.06% yield. If you have been in the stock all that time, double that effective yield. It has generally done better than Pepsico (NYSE:PEP), and the major averages, but if you were in Pepsi 20 years ago and got in on its spin-off of what is now Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM) you’re soaking in gains – YUM is up 200% in the last 10 years. (Every story about Coke eventually becomes a debate about it and Pepsi.)
But back to Coke. The company has insisted that it will not go outside what it knows, after what was thought a disastrous time owning Columbia Pictures from 1982-1987 (it thought about buying Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) during that time). The company has not made any acquisitions since 2007, and despite going into juices and energy drinks it remains wedded to the name brand – 78% of its sales come from products labeled Coca-Cola or just Coke.
Instead, Coca-Cola has mainly played footsie with its bottlers, spinning some off into Coca Cola Enterprise (NYSE:CCE), buying some back, watching other bottlers grow into Coca Cola Bottling Co. (NASDAQ:COKE). The business remains essentially what it was when Robert Woodruff became CEO in 1923 – syrup is sold to bottlers, who produce the product under license, with most of the profits going to Atlanta. Their main office on North Avenue, opposite Georgia Tech, is a noted Atlanta landmark, but separated full mile from downtown and, increasingly, irrelevant to the city’s continuing growth.
CEO Muktar Kent, a Turkish native, is now 63 and nearing retirement. (The only CEO ranked near Woodruff in company lure was Roberto Guizueta, a native of Cuba.) Kent's likely successor, James Quincey, 50, is an Englishman best known within the company for uniting European bottling operations into yet-another new company, and who has spent most of his Coca Cola career outside Atlanta.
Can Quincey get growth re-started? A recent move into the dairy business in India has Quincey’s mark all over it and it is trying hard to use technology in order to “disrupt itself” by funding start-ups.
But there is nothing there which, as yet, will move the needle, such as a play for chocolates with Hershey (NYSE:HSY) or into anything that isn’t non-alcoholic and drunk out of a bottle. Once he moves up Quincey needs to do something. I would wait for an official promotion date before considering a move back into the company, but since the company is worth nearly $200 billion and can buy what it wants in the food business, since it has a need to make a big move, and since it has a solid technology platform fully adapted to grocery retail, I would expect Quincey to do something big.
That’s when you want to be in.