The folks at Kroger headquarters in Cincinnati are probably feeling pretty good about themselves these days. And with good reason.
- Kroger is the biggest supermarket company in the country, and the second-biggest food retailer in the nation (trailing only Wal-Mart).
- The company is a cash-flow machine—with $96.8 billion in revenue in 2012.
- Kroger's identical-store sales are rising, indicating the company is taking away market share from competitors.
- Shares in Kroger have soared 65% this year, giving the company "the best looking stock chart so far in 2013," according to Schaeffer's Investment Research.
And now, the company has announced that it plans to spend $150 million to bolster its operations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The company is clearly on a roll.
Kroger sits atop the supermarket world for a number of reasons. Chief among those is the company's chief executive officer, David Dillon. But Dillon is set to retire at the end of this year. His successor will be W. Rodney McMullen, the company's president and COO.
The upcoming succession begs a question: What's next for Kroger?
Here are four possible scenarios we see for the retailer:
1. It builds.
Kroger has been expanding aggressively in recent years. We see no reason why that won't continue under the McMullen regime. The company has the resources to add stores. Dillon recently suggested the company would take just such an approach. And that sentiment was echoed by Mike Ellis, the senior vice president of retail, who will become president and COO when McMullen moves up.
And as if to hammer home the point, Kroger announced in early November that it would spend $150 million to add stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
2. It buys.
Kroger is set to complete its all-cash, $2.5 billion acquisition of the Harris Teeter chain in early 2014. When the deal is done, the combined companies will operate 2,631 supermarkets. By all accounts, the purchase of Harris Teeter was applauded on Wall Street. And although Kroger is financing the deal with debt, there's been plenty of speculation that Kroger would return to the M&A market quickly in the McMullen era.
That's certainly possible, but not very likely.
Kroger's senior executives, including McMullen, recently told reporters the company was interested in entering new markets, but was picky about what it would buy. In addition, McMullen suggested Kroger needed some time to digest Harris Teeter's practices, particularly in fresh, which he said were better than those of Kroger.
All that suggests, at least to us, that Kroger will not make a play for the Dominick's stores now on sale in Chicago.
A few years down the road, however, we fully expect to see Kroger be in the running to buy the Jewel stores from Cerberus Capital Management when that private-equity firm decides to flip.
3. It gets bought.
We wouldn't want to say it's impossible that anyone would buy Kroger, but it sure is close to impossible.
When Kroger bought Harris Teeter it paid 7.9 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA.) Kroger's EBITDA number for fiscal year 2012 was $4.55 billion. For someone to buy Kroger at that same 7.9 multiple would cost $35.55 billion. When Whole Foods bought Wild Oats it paid a multiple of 15 times EBITDA. If Kroger fetched a multiple like that the deal would reach $68.25 billion—or roughly three times the biggest food deal of the year, Berkshire Hathaway's $23 billion buy of Heinz.
There just ain't a lot of folks out there with the money to pull off deals like that.
4. It goes online.
In a recent conversation with industry analysts, Dillon suggested he wasn't worried about the threat posed by online competitors offering home delivery of groceries. We think that's nuts. Dillon's comments about how people like the old-world way of shopping reminds us of every newspaper executive we ever knew who insisted there was something so wonderful about paper that customers wouldn't be lost to the Web.
This seems to be one area where McMullen is likely to take the company in a different direction than in the Dillon era. McMullen said he was interested in learning what Harris Teeter can teach the company about online ordering for pick-up, rather than for delivery.
Thus the most likely scenario for Kroger's near future appears to be a series of tweaks. We'll look for expansion in existing markets, a new Harris-Teeter style approach to the marketing of fresh products, and the arrival of call-to-pick-up services. But other than those small changes, the new Kroger is likely to look a lot like the old Kroger.
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