Wintergreen Advisers today issued a report on the Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) and called for forceful action to revitalize the company.
David J. Winters, CEO of Wintergreen Advisers, said: “Coca-Cola has serious problems but we believe they can be fixed. With the right management and a commitment to serving shareholders, we think Coca-Cola can thrive again.”
The report includes the following conclusions by Wintergreen:
- Pay for Coke’s top management has been excessive in light of the company’s performance. Annual equity grants to top management have risen steadily over the past four years while Coke’s profit growth has stalled.
- Rather than putting a brake on pay, Coca-Cola’s equity stewardship guidelines could continue to reward Coke’s top managers unjustly, and the guidelines’ emphasis on cash bonuses could cost shareholders as much as $10.20 of per-share value.
- Coke has been routinely outspending its cash flow in recent years and funding the gap with debt. Additional spending on executive bonuses and severance charges threatens to make this problem even worse. We believe excessive pay practices combined with slowing profit growth could threaten Coke’s 50-year record of dividend increases. Even today, Coke has a dividend-coverage ratio of just 1.4x, compared to an average of 5.0x for its peers in the S&P 500.
- The strategic investments made by CEO Muhtar Kent have destroyed shareholder value. His blunders on failed acquisitions alone have cost shareholders $16.3 billion. He is incapable of leading Coke’s turnaround and should be replaced.
- The recent election of two new directors to the Coca-Cola Board is a welcome sign of progress, yet we believe more needs to be done. Indeed, Coca-Cola’s Board has Directors who, in our view, have served for too long. Three members of the board have served for a combined 102 years. We believe such long tenures can make the board an insular club rather than a vigilant protector of shareholders’ interests.
Wintergreen estimates that the discount placed on Coke’s shares because of these issues is between $30 and $38 per share. Removing these discounts would put Coke’s share price at $74 to $82 per share, in line with the $90 per share Nomura Securities analyst Ian Shackleton believes Coke shares could be worth in an LBO scenario.1
Wintergreen believes resolving Coke’s issues is relatively easy and straightforward – get rid of bad compensation plans, bring in new and more capable management, get expenses and overhead under control, and replace the board with a shareholder-focused board.
About Wintergreen Advisers
Established in 2005, Wintergreen is an independent global money manager that employs a research-driven value style in managing global securities. As of September 30, 2014, Wintergreen Advisers had approximately $2.0 billion under management on behalf of individuals and institutions through its mutual fund and other clients, and is based in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. Wintergreen’s clients own over 2.5 million shares of The Coca-Cola Company, and have owned Coca-Cola shares for over five years.
For further information on Wintergreen Advisers, please call 973-263-4500 or visit www.wintergreenadvisers.com. Additional information regarding what we view as the issues at The Coca-Cola Company may be found at www.FixBigSoda.com. For information, forms and documents regarding our U.S. mutual fund, please visit www.wintergreenfund.com.
1 Source: Nomura Securities, October 29, 2014 report