On Tuesday, August Busch IV addressed investors at the biannual “Investor Day” and unsurprisingly recent company woes were played down and the future looked so bright they probably should have passed out sunglasses to investors to reinforce the point. Given the less than enthusiastic analysis by Wall Street the week before, it’s not a stretch to consider the rosy predictions to be pure spin to mollify jumpy investors.
As usual, the business press went along with it, mostly reporting the spin without questioning it or even analyzing it to much of a degree. As reported in the New York Times, Busch boldly told investors “that profit would rise more than forecast this year on higher sales of imported beers and fewer discounts of Bud Light and Michelob.” Despite dismal sales gains and worse profits, A-B told its investors that the 1% gain realized in the second quarter was proof enough that things were finally looking up.
More curiously, Busch IV told shareholders “the company [this February] started to import beverages, including Stella Artois and Bass from InBev, to fend off rivals like SABMiller.” What’s odd about that statement to investors is that most conventional wisdom, both internally and externally, doesn’t blame SABMiller at all for A-B’s troubles, but craft beer, wine and spirits.
Busch IV also stated that “Anheuser-Busch is much better positioned for growth than we were just eight months ago,” but neither he — nor the Times — offers any explanation as to why that might be. All A-B said was that “[p]rofit will increase slower than forecast in the second quarter but accelerate in the second half of the year” and “[e]arnings on a share basis will increase this year more than the long-term growth of 7 percent to 10 percent that the company targets.” To me that sounds like code for don’t sell now, don’t bail on us, things will get better … eventually.
CNN Money reported that A-B did indeed see a 1% rise in sales this month, calling that a “rebound” after a poor showing the previous month. That’s a far more optimistic connotation of the word “rebound” than my dictionary allows, but that’s spin for you. In a related CNN Money article, “Anheuser-Busch profit disappoints,” A-B CFO W. Randolph Baker further spins the reasons for poor sales and even blames the weather. It’s this last one that produced in me a rare guffaw. Certainly there is a close and well-documented correlation between the weather and beer sales. The warmer the weather, the better the sales — it’s hardly rocket science. But when I was the beer buyer at Beverages & more and was expected to hit sales targets it was the one excuse for falling short, no matter how legitimate, that I was all forbidden to use. Apparently, I was expected to predict the weather and plan for it — I never quite understood how I could be held responsible for factors outside my control but such was the pressure cooker of retail. Anyway, to hear the CFO of the biggest beer company in the world blame the weather for not hitting their own sales targets strikes me as pretty funny and suggests that A-B doesn’t really have a good idea as to what exactly is causing their sales to remain mostly flat. Baker claims to be “uncomfortable saying it’s only a weather story,” which says to me he’s not supposed to use that excuse any more than I was.
Dow Jones’ Marketwatch also predictably spins it A-B’s way, titling their take “Anheuser says back on growth track.” The MarketWatch take begins accepting Bud’s pronouncements. “Citing a bigger and better beer portfolio [the InBev imports – failing to mention distributor issues], favorable pricing trends [unilaterally deciding not to discount their own products hardly constitutes a trend], international opportunities [despite everyone saying it’s the core brands at home that are the issue] and a modest rebound in domestic sales [the 1% rise in the first half of May], Anheuser-Busch said Tuesday that it is back on a growth track, but perhaps not so much right away [yes, in the future, always the future].
“Busch said that consumers are increasingly ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ and added that ‘we have to evolve how we do business … to combine our supply-side strength with a new and equally powerful demand expertise.'” While that may be true, Bud.TV (rumored to be shut down shortly), MingleNow and even Here’s to Beer have not exactly taught A-B about the “powerful demand expertise” many consumers are looking for. They didn’t even mention Raymond Hill, their curious new venture with a faux or stealth “craft beer” that’s made by A-B.
MarketWatch lastly detailed A-B’s forays into making spirits, with mixed results:
But with beer continuing to lose share in the alcohol market, he said that the company needs to move beyond the category and into “high-margin segments with exceptional potential. … We will target products and categories where we can drive growth.” That is a not-so-veiled reference to hard liquor, which has been booming just as domestic brew fades. A-B has made some baby steps — and missteps — in that direction, developing both distilled spirits and higher-alcohol malt beverages in a small way.
Last year, the company launched “Jekyll & Hyde,” two “nesting” bottles of spirits meant to be mixed together and downed as a shot. It also rolled out Spykes, a 12% alcohol malt-based product sold in tiny perfume-like bottles. That experiment was a disaster and the company announced it would stop making the stuff last week due to poor sales and attacks by advocacy groups that claimed it appealed to underage drinkers.
It was a little strange that craft beer’s gains were not addressed — at least not by the media as far as I can tell — since they’re the only category of alcoholic beverages that’s showing significant growth at the present time. Perhaps we’re still too small to bring up at investor meetings.
All of this emphasis on international markets, non-beer products and their “packaging and entertainment businesses” as a way out of the morass seems odd given that everybody and their mother cites inattention to their core brands as the biggest problem A-B is facing. A-B’s Tuesday press release does mention the core brands, but it all sounds like doublespeak and gobbledegook to me. Here’s what they had to say about their core product lines:
Senior managers from Anheuser-Busch’s U.S. beer company presented their plans to grow the company’s core trademark brands and actively pursue high-end growth opportunities. The company is making good progress in digesting the series of new growth initiatives recently undertaken and managing the added complexity associated with an expanded portfolio. In citing incremental revenue growth as a key objective, the executives stated that the pricing environment in the U.S. beer industry is favorable.
Now I speak jargon, in fact I’m relatively fluent in it, but “actively pursue high-end growth opportunities,” “making good progress in digesting the series of new growth initiatives recently undertaken,” “managing the added complexity associated with an expanded portfolio,” and “the pricing environment in the U.S. beer industry is favorable” are tortuously vague and unnecessarily convoluted to me. They all sound impressive but don’t really seem to say very much. It’s the same old hackneyed platitudes gussied up in fancy dress words to confuse the hoi polloi. In English, all they’re planning is “to sell as much as they can,” “figure out which new brands are selling and which aren’t,” “rolling out the new import and domestic brands they gobbled up last year,” and “not discounting their prices to wholesalers and retailers as much as in previous years.” Now was that so hard to say?
At the same time Anheuser-Busch is trying to persuade shareholders that everything’s fine and that their stock will be up again, they’ve also announced that they’re “looking to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in costs over the next few years,” according to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That’s the sort of thing investors and Wall Street tends to applaud but generally isn’t too great for all the unemployed that such measures leave in their wake. A-B is looking to “trim $300 million to $400 million in costs over the next four years,” and you now that’s got to include layoffs. The increased high-tech robotics that A-B is using in its operations certainly doesn’t suggest more hirings, but less, despite the fact that they’re asking current employees to slash their own throats by submitting ” ideas under a productivity plan called ‘Project Blue Ocean.'”
Also somewhat scary for those of us who don’t relish the idea of A-B buying out craft brewers is the announcement that new guidelines A-B approved last year will allow them to take on more debt, with an eye toward getting “more involved in mergers and acquisitions.” So look for another round of rumors on who might be up for grabs later this year.
None of this spin doctoring is unique to A-B, of course, it’s the stock in trade of all large modern corporations. But this was Augie number IV’s first time in front of the investors since taking over the family business last year so it’s worth noting that things haven’t changed very much under his leadership. I’d say we’re in for more efforts at maintaining the status quo as the year continues to unfold. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.