(Bloomberg) -- Nestle SA put its ailing Herta lunch-meat business up for sale as Chief Executive Officer Mark Schneider tries to spark faster sales growth by transforming the world’s largest food company through acquisitions and divestments.
The Swiss company’s shares rose as much as 3.7 percent to a record as it forecast improved sales and said that it expects to cede control of its dermatology unit by the middle of this year. After 14 billion francs ($14 billion) of deals in 2018, there’s no sign Schneider will stop nipping and tucking in an attempt to build a stronger Nestle.
The food company is “ticking all the boxes” with “improvement on all fronts,” wrote Jean-Philippe Bertschy, an analyst at Bank Vontobel.
Revenue accelerated for the first time in seven years in 2018. The food company has been gobbling up smaller, faster-growing brands such as Blue Bottle Coffee and Sweet Earth as health-conscious consumers switch to niche brands and forgo mainstream labels. Nestle, under pressure from activist shareholder Dan Loeb to boost returns, also forecast 700 million francs of restructuring costs this year amid the shake-up.
The company plans to push further into plant-based alternatives for meat as it considers selling Herta, a business with sales of 680 million francs.
“With these portfolio changes, the strategic picture of the group becomes much clearer than one to two years ago, with our focus on food and beverage and nutritional health,” Schneider told reporters at Nestle’s headquarters in Vevey.
One obstacle is deflation in Europe, Japan and Australia, which contributed to the weakest annual gain in pricing in more than a decade. Nestle will need to raise prices without turning off customers as Schneider seeks to return to mid-single-digit sales growth by next year. Growth was 3 percent in 2018.
Nestle also said it’s accelerating its buyback to complete the 20 billion-franc program six months early. Still, Schneider told reporters the company isn’t excluding further M&A.
“Acquisitions could easily be financed,” he said. “We have strong cash generation, and one of the strongest balance sheets in the industry.”
The CEO said portfolio adjustments aren’t over. Investors have called for the sale of Nestle’s U.S. frozen-food business, which had flat sales in 2018.
“Consumer behaviors change in food and beverage, and we want to bet on areas that are growing fast,” he said.
Following criticism by Loeb that the board lacks consumer-goods expertise, Nestle proposed Dick Boer, former CEO of Dutch grocer Ahold, and Dinesh Paliwal, CEO of Harman, the car-stereo maker that was sold to Samsung, as new directors.
(Updates share price in second paragraph.)
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