Senior food and beverage industry executives see improved revenue and profitability this year and next, but caution that the jobs outlook in their sector will only gradually improve in 2011 according to a recent survey conducted byKPMG LLP, a New York, N.Y., audit, tax and advisory firm.

KPMG said about two-thirds of executive survey respondents said their revenue and profitability were better now than a year ago, in marked contrast to KPMG's survey of the sector last summer when less than one-third thought these business measures were better than the previous year. 

Regarding jobs, 39 percent of respondents were more optimistic about employment in their sector over the next year, which is seven percentage points higher than last summer's survey.

When it came to their specific hiring plans, while 51 percent of the senior food and beverage executives said they expect to add headcount – most estimated only in the range of one to three percent.  Twenty-three percent of respondents thought they would cut headcount this year and 26 percent expected no change.

Product, merchandising innovations drive revenue growth

When asked to name the biggest drivers of their company's revenue growth in the next one to three years, the food and beverage execs most frequently cited product innovations (89 percent) and innovative merchandising strategies (82 percent) as their top two factors. 

"Food and beverage executives are seeing a better economic picture this year relating to their overall business," said Patrick Dolan, KPMG LLP national line of business leader – Consumer Markets, and U.S. sector leader – Food, Drink and Consumer Goods.  "However, significant concerns remain over the employment outlook and the continued challenges of heightened competition and aggressive pricing and discounting practices.

"The executives tell us they are also focusing on innovation -- in products, in services and in branding and promotions -- to drive growth," continued Dolan.  "A clear illustration of this is the skyrocketing use of mobile internet and online shopping.  Food and beverage executives will need to meet the challenge of marketing to a consumer base growing more technologically savvy every day."

U.S. economic recovery seen as two years away

Consistent with the results of last year's survey, the majority of food and beverage executives (59 percent) expect their sector to recover ahead of the U.S. economy as a whole.  And they believe the timeline for a full U.S. economic recovery, on average, is now 2.2 years away – which translates to June 2012.  In last year's survey, executives estimated 1.9 years for a U.S. economic recovery. 

When survey respondents were asked to identify the triggers they think will accelerate a U.S. economic recovery, the top two factors cited were increased hiring from improved business conditions (70 percent) and improved consumer confidence (66 percent). 

"While there is an uptick in the level of optimism this year from the food and beverage execs, they are pushing their recovery outlook even further out from last year's predictions," said Dolan.  "These results illustrate that the economy will most likely not recover as rapidly as hoped, placing additional emphasis on food and beverage companies to continue to employ strategies to manage costs and improve productivity.  Companies are trying to achieve sustainable margin improvement in the face of continuing challenging times."

Factors and triggers impacting sector recovery

Executives thought the increased use of mobile internet by consumers (39 percent) would most positively impact sector recovery followed by increased online shopping (34 percent) and increased outsourcing of technical/business procedures (28 percent).  Overcapacity of store space was cited by 30 percent of the respondents as having the most negative impact on sector recovery.

Factors most likely to hinder economic recovery in their sector include continuing high national unemployment (64 percent), decreased consumer confidence (49 percent) and increased government regulation (34 percent).

In a related question, when asked about their current biggest expected challenges, the execs cited discounts driven by market competition (46 percent), recognizing/responding to customer needs/trends (11 percent) and increase in private labels (11 percent).

Other major KPMG survey findings include:

    * Nearly half of the executives (49 percent) also say their company's ability to get financing and raise capital has improved in the past six months, with 44 percent saying it has stayed the same and 7 percent claiming it has gotten worse. 

    * Interestingly, 67 percent of the executives say perceived value is the most important factor in determining where customers will buy, followed by price which was cited by 20 percent of the respondents.

    * When asked about their company's global expansion efforts, 43 percent of respondents said they have already expanded into emerging markets.  Of those that have already entered emerging markets, the regions cited most often were Latin America (25 percent), China (23 percent) and Brazil (18 percent).

    * The KPMG survey also asked food and beverage executives to indicate if their strategic focus was now on investing for growth or cutting costs.  In line with last year's results, almost two-thirds (61 percent) chose the investment option, but 39 percent said they were still focused on cost cutting. 

The KPMG industry pulse survey

KPMG said it conducted its latest industry pulse survey during April and May 2010 and reflects the responses of 61 CEOs and other C-level suite executives in the food and beverage industry.  Approximately 21 percent of respondents work for food and beverage companies with annual revenues exceeding $1 billion; 46 percent represent companies with annual revenues in the $250 million-$1 billion range and 32 percent represent companies with annual revenue below $250 million.  Clarion Research Inc. conducted the survey and compiled the data.