We welcome the overdue measures to leverage its wide economic moat and extract more cash from the business, and we think the new financial targets are, for the most part, achievable.
By Philip Gorham, CFA, FRM | 04-17-17 | 07:43 AM | Email Article

It took an approach from Kraft Heinz to spark management into life, but the results of  Unilever’s strategic review suggest that the company has finally got religion on the emerging competitive challenges it faces in its categories. We welcome the overdue measures to leverage its wide economic moat and extract more cash from the business, and we think the new financial targets are, for the most part, achievable. We are raising our fair value estimate by 25% to EUR 50 from EUR 40 for the Amsterdam-traded shares, and we think the shares offer modest upside.

Philip Gorham, CFA, FRM, is director of equity research for Ibbotson Associates Japan,subsidiary of Morningstar.

When Unilever announced that it was to undergo a strategic review in response to the acquisition attempt by Kraft Heinz, we said in a note on Feb. 22 that we would like to see three outcomes: 1) an acceleration in cost-reduction initiatives; 2) asset sales, particularly of the spreads business; and 3) increased shareholder returns. Unilever has delivered all three.

The most significant aspect of the review, in our opinion, is the new 2020 operating margin target of 20%, up from 15% in 2016. If achieved, this would go a long way to closing the profitability gap to Unilever’s best-in-class peers such as Reckitt Benckiser and Kraft Heinz, whose margins are in the mid-20% range. Management has also committed to achieving 100% cash conversion over the same time frame.

The second significant development is the intended disposal of the spreads business. This was the minimum course of action management could take, in our opinion, to satisfy investors’ expectations for portfolio optimisation. The business is strongly cash-generative, but has been declining at a mid-single-digit rate. We value the assets at around EUR 6 billion, and think Kraft Heinz and private equity players will likely show interest. Although this asset sale falls well short of a broader exit from food, we think more of Unilever’s food assets may ultimately be sold, particularly if the acquirer is a strategic one.

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Philip Gorham, CFA, FRM does not own shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar's editorial policies.
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