Industry News

Heinz commits to frozen portfolio

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

H.J. Heinz Co. Chairman, President and CEO William R. Johnson said Tuesday that he has no interest in selling off his company's frozen food business, despite suggestions from analysts that the Pittsburgh ketchup maker might want to follow the lead of other food industry players in splitting its operations.

Kraft Foods is creating two public companies by breaking up its North American grocery lines and its snack foods even as Sara Lee divides its meats from its beverages. That doesn't make sense for Heinz, said Mr. Johnson, who noted the company just opened a new frozen foods plant in Florence, S.C., and who said he sees products such as Smart Ones and Ore-Ida as core to the company's U.S. business.

The comments came following the Heinz annual shareholders meeting held at the Fairmont Hotel, Downtown. The gathering drew a crowd of investors and they seemed to like what they heard about an increasingly global company that sells baby food in China, beans in the United Kingdom and ketchup just about everywhere.

Mr. Johnson noted the fiscal year that ended in April produced both record sales of $10.7 billion and record net income of $990 million. He described the U.S. and European economies as lethargic but said Heinz has benefited from increasing sales in emerging markets, and is pleased with recent acquisitions in Brazil and China.

He reaffirmed that Heinz is on track to produce earnings in the range of $3.24 to $3.32 per share on a constant currency basis this fiscal year, excluding special charges for one-time productivity investments.

The only comment when the company opened the floor for questions came from Philip Wiener, of Oakland, who said he was "going on 96."

"I'm glad to be here. I like the increase in the dividend and you're doing a swell job," said Mr. Wiener. Earlier this year, Heinz raised its annual dividend payout to $1.92 per share.

"You're obviously a very wise man," responded a smiling Mr. Johnson, who also noted that Heinz 57 sauce is 100 years old, just four years older than Mr. Wiener.

During the business portion of the meeting, shareholders re-elected all 12 board members to another year's term. The board includes members such as former Steelers star Lynn Swann, PPG Chairman and CEO Charles Bunch and activist investor Nelson Peltz.

In addition, investors approved Heinz executive compensation practices in a nonbinding vote, and gave their support to an annual "say-on-pay" vote.

After working his way through the line of shareholders who gathered after the meeting to talk with him personally, Mr. Johnson took a few questions from the media, including the one about splitting the company.

He also elaborated on a topic raised in last week's first quarter earnings discussion with analysts, in which Heinz management noted some consumers are now trying to feed their families on $40 to $50 a week.

In response, Heinz will begin to roll out more products in smaller sizes at lower entry-level price points in the next 90 days or so. "That's what the consumers said they wanted," Mr. Johnson said. Analysts have noted such packaging changes could also camouflage higher prices driven by rising commodity costs.

Heinz shares closed at $52.41, up 22 cents from the day before.

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