CHICAGO — Despite a complex operating situation, Conagra Brands Inc. delivered solid top-line performance during the first quarter driven by strong demand, robust brand-building investments and inflation-justified pricing actions.
Net income at Conagra Brands in the first quarter ended Aug. 29 totaled $235.4 million, equal to 49¢ per share on the common stock, down 29% from $329 million, or 67¢ per share, in the same quarter a year ago, but up 35% from $173.8 million, or 36¢ per share in the first quarter of fiscal 2020.
Net sales eased 1% in the first quarter, falling to $2.65 billion from $2.68 billion in the first quarter of fiscal 2021, but up 11% from $2.39 billion in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. The sales decline primarily reflected the divestitures of the H.K. Anderson business, the Peter Pan peanut butter business, and the Egg Beaters business.
“First, as everyone is aware, the external environment is incredibly dynamic right now, and we see many of these challenges persisting,” Sean M. Connolly, president and chief executive officer, said during an Oct. 7 conference call with analysts. “But despite the complex operating situation, the ongoing dedication, resilience and agility of our team enabled us to deliver solid Q1 results on the back of strong sales. We continue to benefit from our proven approach to brand building and the breadth of investments we're making to increase consumer demand. These efforts drive brand health, which is evidenced by the continued strength of our sales, share and repeat rates across the portfolio.
“As a result, we believe our brands are well positioned to continue managing through the current inflationary challenges and support ongoing inflation-justified pricing actions.”
Adjusted operating profit in the Grocery & Snacks unit totaled $220 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2022, down 26% from $297 million in the same period a year ago but up 5.8% from $207.8 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. Net sales totaled $1.08 billion, down 5% from $1.13 billion in the same period of fiscal 2021 but up 10% from the same period of fiscal 2020.
Conagra said it gained share during the quarter in staples categories such as canned tomatoes and chili, and snacking categories, including popcorn and pudding.
Commenting on the growth of snacking during the conference call, Connolly said it is an enduring trend that “has long been the fastest-growing occasion in food and shows no signs of slowing down.”
“We have a very strong $2 billion ready-to-eat snacks business that spans multiple subcategories where we either have the fastest-growing brand, the largest brand or both,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to accelerate these existing trends and create additional long-term growth drivers. One of the primary drivers for more at-home eating is the shifting workplace dynamics that are meaningfully changing weekday eating behavior. This includes both the contracting workforce and the rise of remote work.”
In the company’s Refrigerated & Frozen unit, adjusted operating profit in the first quarter of fiscal 2022 was $162.6 million, down 34% from $245.8 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2021 and down 5.5% from $172 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. Net sales totaled $1.11 billion, down 2.6% from $1.13 billion in the first quarter of fiscal 2021 but up 15% from $959.1 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2020.
Conagra said it gained share during the quarter in categories such as frozen single-serve meals, whipped topping and frozen handhelds.
“We know that annual frozen category spend per buyer increases in households with young kids, and it increases further as the kids grow up,” Connolly said. “Importantly, almost half of millennials have yet to begin having kids, and we fully expect their consumption of Conagra products will grow along with the growth of their families”
David S. Marberger, executive vice president and chief financial officer, said during the conference call that Conagra remains confident in its original adjusted earnings-per-share guidance of approximately $2.50 per share but expects the path to achieve that guidance to change.
Marberger said Conagra now expects organic net sales growth of approximately 1%, which compares with earlier expectations of approximately flat growth. Meanwhile, the company expects adjusted operating margin to continue to be approximately 16%, but sees some modest compression versus the original forecast, he said.
“We expect the increase in dollar profit from higher net sales together with incremental cost savings to offset the incremental net inflation dollars,” he said.
“Our ultimate performance will be highly dependent on multiple factors, including: first, how consumers purchase food as foodservice establishments continue to reopen and people return to in-office work and in-person school; second, the level of inflation we ultimately experienced; third, the elasticity of demand impact as consumers respond to higher prices; and finally, the ability of our end-to-end supply chain to continue to operate effectively as the pandemic continues to evolve.”