Monday 10 December 2018

Can Diageo keep its head after losing global top spot?

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Last December 17 marked the 20th anniversary of the Guinness name being swallowed up in the great Diageo merger
Last December 17 marked the 20th anniversary of the Guinness name being swallowed up in the great Diageo merger

John Lynch

For those of us over a certain age, Arthur Guinness Son & Co held a special place in our hearts.

It was then as 'green' as the shamrock, as Irish as the harp and as reliable as Dublin or Kerry in the All-Ireland football finals.

There was a rumour (almost certainly apocryphal, but widely believed at the time) that during one of our frequent national financial crises, Guinness produced the cash to pay gardai's wages.

However, despite the fact that the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin remains one of the top tourist attractions in the country, the 'Irishness' of Guinness is fading fast.

Last December 17 marked the 20th anniversary of the Guinness name being swallowed up in the great Diageo merger that turned it into a broad-based drinks conglomerate at which 'Uncle Arthur' was an honoured guest at the party but no longer the host.

Diageo resides and has its HQ in the 'old' Guinness brewery at Park Royal, London, where it manages a vast portfolio of products, selling into 180 countries, with 143 production sites, 30,000 employees and is quoted in both London and New York.

In the last 20 years, the group has had an active concentration on the drinks business. It has bought famous alcohol peddlers from Canada to Turkey and from India to Brazil and Mexico.

It offloaded its wine business and famous names like Grand Marnier liquor and the Gleneagles Hotel (of golf fame). In spite of all this activity, over half of Diageo sales still come from its old reliables, scotch, beer and vodka.

Interestingly this year it lost the title of the world's biggest spirit company to a Chinese rice wine maker Kueichow Moutai.

Diageo is still a significant global operation with a portfolio of 200-plus brands across most drinks categories. It has 20 of the world's top 100 spirit brands and two of the top five; Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff. But the business is centred on six global brands: Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray, Baileys and Guinness.

While focused on whisky, it seems to have ignored the apparent boom in whiskey with an 'e'.

It traded Bushmills for a tequila brand while allowing Pernod to successfully develop its Jameson brand unhindered. Diageo has no less than 26 Scotch whisky brands and has invested over £1bn (€1.12bn) on its production facilities in the last five years.

In contrast, Diageo recently announced its plans to create an Irish whiskey distillery at a cost of €35m at St James's Gate, with the usual PR guff. The decision may be an after-thought, or a response to the opening by Pearse Lyons (ex-Irish Distillers) of an Irish whiskey visitors centre an embarrassing matter of metres from St James Gate.

Investors in Diageo (including yours truly) have had a number of difficult years, its share price improving only in the last 18 months.

Today the shares trade at around £27 (€30), a five-year high helped by a recent £1.5bn share buyback. Net sales have jumped 15pc to £12bn driven by North America's double-digit growth. Interestingly, in spite of all its activity, both North America and Europe account for half of Diageo sales and over three-quarters of its operating profit.

It's much-hyped £450m investment in the Brazilian sugar cane spirits, Cachaca, has been "challenging" and resulted in an impairment charge of £120m. However, net debt is under control and free cashflow has doubled putting the group in a good space.

Some recent developments must be of concern to the group. The huge acquisition by AB InBev of SABMiller sees it in a dominant position in most major beer markets and is now a formidable competitor. Another worry is the emergence of aggressive US active investors in Europe like Elliot and Daniel Loeb who are causing waves in larger entities than Diageo with its market value of £67bn. These investors could easily fund a strategic investment in Diageo and start bellowing outside the gates of Park Royal, which to the UK's most compliant company would be an appalling vista.

Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.

Irish Independent

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