Monday, March 3, 2008

Analogy #161: Buy My Food

My daughter spent many years in the Girl Scouts. As a result, I have many years of experience helping to sell Girl Scout cookies.

Back when my daughter was very young and a Daisy/Brownie scout, it was easy to sell those cookies door to door. People would see that sweet little 6 year old girl and be more than willing to buy cookies from her.

However, it seemed that as my daughter got older, the door to door selling became less productive. By the time my daughter became a teenager, it became a waste of time to go door to door. Apparently, people would much rather buy cookies from a cute little 6 year old than a 15 year old.

Therefore, as she got older, my daughter turned to other activities in order to raise money for Girl Scouts.

Things change over time. Early successes do no imply that success will last forever. My daughter had early successes in selling Girl Scout cookies. However, over time, her success in selling cookies door to door diminished, until it was no longer worth doing.

Was it because my daughter became less capable of selling cookies? No. As she got older, she had more strength and stamina to walk to more doors. Also, she became less bashful and could make a better sales pitch.

Was her declining ability to sell door to door because nobody wanted to buy Girl Scout cookies anymore? No. The Girl Scouts still sell an enormous amount of cookies.

The problem was that my daughter matured from a little girl to a young woman. As it turns out, people are more sympathetic towards cute little girls and feel more inclined to buy from them. By contrast, it is easier to say no to a teenager.

Just as people mature, so do industries. Maturity/decline can reduce one’s potential. You may become more productive and more efficient over time (just as my daughter became better at selling skills over time). But being better at what you do does not automatically make your performance better. If the maturing industry is working against you, there is only so much you can do.

If you want growth, you may need to shift to a different (less mature) industry, just as my daughter had to shift to different fund raising strategies.

The key principle here goes back to a prior blog where I quoted a study from McKinsey. That study said that if you want to be a high profit, high growth company, the best thing to do is become a company which sells high profit, high growth products (see “Dip Your Ladle in the Right Stew”). In other words, if you want success as a growth company, keep adjusting your portfolio to have products in growth industries.

We can see this by comparing two companies: Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Kraft Foods. In recent years, the business press has been far more glowing about P&G and far more critical about Kraft. Now there are a lot of reasons for this, but one major reason is because P&G did a better job keeping its portfolio centered in growth.

Both companies have a long heritage in food processing, stretching back over most of the 20th century. Both companies created or acquired strong, well known food brands with a large following.

However, the problem was that by the end of the 20th century, the food processing business was becoming highly mature. Some of the problems in maturity were the following:

1. It was harder to differentiate name brand food products from each other or from private label products. As a result, they were becoming more like commodities, which squeezes profitability.

2. The rapid growth from consolidating the industry was pretty much over. Instead of the big companies growing at the expense of little firms, they now had to battle each other for tiny share gains.

3. Discretionary spending was moving away from processed food to the restaurant industry.

4. Innovations were harder to come by, more rapidly copied, and smaller in scope.

Proctor and Gamble could see this coming, so they decided to transfer the portfolio out of industries that were less mature (like food) and into industries that were less mature (cleaning products, health care and beauty care). The facts were on P&G’s side. According to the US Economic Census, between 1997 and 2002, the value of shipments in food manufacturing grew only 8.6%. By contrast, home cleaning products grew at 16.2% and pharmacy/medical products grew at 53.7%.

So here is what P&G did to reduce its food portfolio:

1. Sold Duncan Hines cake mixes to Aurora Foods in 1997.
2. Sold Jiff peanut butter and Crisco to J.M. Smucker Co. in 2002.
3. Sold Sunny Delight to Sunny Delight Beverages Company in 2005.
4. Announced the intention of getting out of the Folgers coffee business in January 2008.

To get stronger in health care and beauty care, P&G did the following:

1. Purchased Richardson Vicks in 1985 (obtaining Vicks healthcare brands and Oil of Olay beauty products)
2. Purchased Noxell in 1989 (Cover Girl cosmetics and Noxzema)
3. Purchased Max Factor in 1991
4. Opened a health care research center in 1995
5. Got US FDA approval for its prescription drug Actonel in 2000,
6. Purchased Clairol in 2001
7. Introduced ThermaCare heat wraps in 2002.

During this same time, Kraft stuck to having basically a portfolio of food products. Even then, it was late and slow in adapting to the few areas of growth in food processing, such as organic and low cal.

As a result of this one simple difference in strategy, there is a big difference in performance. As you can see in the chart below, over the last seven months Kraft has struggled to try to keep its stock price up with the S&P 500. By contrast, P&G is performing much better than the S&P 500.

So what have we learned?

1. Don’t Just Rely on Being Better
P&G was pretty darn good at running food processing businesses, but they realized that doing an excellent job in a slow growing mature business doesn’t get you very far. More could be gained by migrating to a better industry, like health care or beauty care. It’s important to do well, but a strategy which only looks at improving execution may miss a greater opportunity that could come from shifting the product mix.

2. Get The Facts
There are many independent sources of information for determining if your portfolio is entering maturity/decline as well as point to industries on the way up. Earlier, I quoted the US Economic Census. Another great source is all of the data accumulated by Stern School professor Aswath Damodaran (look here). Understanding trends will allow you to maximize your portfolio within those trends.

3. Make a Choice

If the trends point to a need to shift, then make the choice of what to let go of and what to add on. But choose carefully. Just because an industry is growing does not mean you will do well there. Move into areas where you can add significant value. For example, in the case of P&G, they were experts at building strong national brands through mass channels. They applied that skill to health care and beauty care.

4. Make the Move
Although it may be difficult to sell off a product core to your history when it is still making money, remember this. It is easier to sell off something when it still is seen as strong by the buyer. Early action will make the sale quicker, at a higher price. In addition, the sooner you start the transition, the less pressure there is to hold a fire sale to dump old things or pay way too much to quickly get into the new things. A moderate pace, started early, allows for more rational decision-making. Rash moves are minimized.

Because Kraft waited longer, it may be more desperate in trying to quickly fix its portfolio mix. This may create less value-added in the transition.

Being a good operator is nice, but operating in a good space may be even more important. The definition of what is a good space changes over time. Therefore, your portfolio may need to change over time.

My daughter couldn’t bring back the past make herself young again. She eventually had to leave the Girl Scouts and do what adults do. You cannot bring back the past, either. Get over it and move on.

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