Is there a profitable future selling tobacco?
I've been inside or on the fringes of business for a long time now but some things leave me totally bewildered. The phenomenon of the New York Stock Exchange-listed Altria is one that has me scratching my head.
Twelve years ago the Philip Morris group changed its name to Altria. At the time the group generated revenues of more than $100bn, turned in profits of $18bn and had accumulated more than 200 food and beverage brands. In its field it was the world's biggest, most profitable enterprise.
But all has changed. It is claimed that Philip Morris embraced the name Altria to mask the negatives associated with the tobacco business, a manoeuvre, principally and perhaps only, admired by hotshot marketing consultants.
The name change has not prevented the company, in its various manifestations, being pursued by governmental agencies, who want to make it more and more difficult to flog cigarettes.
The fight against tobacco has assumed flagship prominence in many countries. Only this summer Uruguay and its oncologist president, Tabare Vazquez, won a landmark judgment against Philip Morris International in defence of its anti-smoking policies. Senor Vazquez has even managed to allow his campaign against tobacco to run in tandem with the legalisation of the sale and production of marijuana. Now there is an irony we can all digest this Monday morning.
Amid all this climate of disapproval it is hard to imagine Altria prospering. But it does. Interestingly, Altria had other elements to its business including the mighty Kraft Foods, the powerful cigarette operator Philip Morris International and the brewing giant Millar.
But these were ditched and the company has retreated to its tobacco niche, mainly in the US.
Altria's market value is $130bn. Its subsidiaries include Philip Morris USA, US Tobacco, John Middleton cigars and Michelle Wines.
It also has a 27pc interest in SAB Millar, following the merger of its Millar brewing concern with South African Brewery (SAB), currently a takeover target.
Last year, the group generated cigar, pipe smoking and cigarettes sales of $22.8bn or 87pc of total revenue. Altria's US wine operation, Michelle Estates, while not a threat to French wines, still had sales last year of $690m with operating profits of $152m.
Since its divestment of Kraft and Philip Morris International, most of Altria's revenues and assets are generated in the US. In spite of declining industry trends, Altria's financial performance is impressive.
Revenue in the last five years has increased a substantial $1.6bn to $25.4bn, driven mainly by price increases. Net profits of $5.3bn are up a significant 60pc over the last five years.
These results are reflected in the share price. Its 2011 Altria's shares traded as low as $24, today they are traded at $66.
For income investors, Altria is attractive as over the years the company has an outstanding dividend track record, increasing it 49 times in the last 46 years. Continuing its productivity drive, early this year the company confirmed it is planning a $300m cost savings programme for completion by the end of next year. Investors are also watching the sale of its shareholding in SAB Millar to its rival Anheuser Busch which will give the company $3bn in cash and 10pc shareholding in the new entity. Interestingly, the deal is structured to limit the tax obligations of Altria.
My problem with companies like Altria is how does it continue to face down the global clamour against tobacco? The Uruguay case and the worldwide fashion for banning smoking in public places spearheaded here in Ireland can only mean that tobacco is in the long run, a 'busted docket'.
That much of Altria's profit growth comes from price hikes is another ominous straw in the wind.
The problem for those investing in tobacco concerns is, can Altria continue to deliver the goods in a declining market; it has to date.
Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.