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5 Things Altria Management Wants You to Know

Dan Caplinger, The Motley Fool

Shareholders in Altria Group (NYSE: MO) weren't entirely pleased with the underperformance in the stock in 2017, which lagged badly behind the broader market. The tobacco giant has had to deal with a number of difficult situations that have made it harder to sustain its impressive track record of profit and sales growth.

After Altria reported its fourth-quarter results, CEO Marty Barrington and his team of Altria executives discussed their thoughts about the future. Below are five key things Altria wants you to know.

1. Barrington is stepping down

Howard [Willard] and Billy [Gifford], with the other talented members of our leadership team, have been key contributors to the strategies that have delivered our strong results for the last several years. I firmly believe our business is well positioned for future success, and I'm confident we have the right leadership in Howard, Billy, and the team to deliver continuing winning results. -- CEO Marty Barrington

Barrington has been a key player in helping to support Altria's growth in recent years, finding the right mix of price increases, demand drivers, and innovation to help make the business more viable and forward-looking. The CEO is turning 65, though, and he said he'll step down following the annual shareholder meeting in May. Willard has a long history in serving with Altria, and Gifford will become vice chairman in addition to his current CFO role. Together, the two will have the chance to put their own stamp on Altria's future, which will likely look familiar but feature some distinctive elements.

Altria logo sign in front of a grass field with trees on a clear day.

Image source: Altria.

2. Altria deals with market share challenges

We look at [market] share performance over the long term, and from 2011 through 2017, Marlboro's share grew by an average of about 0.1 of a point annually. But there's no question that 2017 presented a share challenge to [the Philip Morris USA segment]. -- Barrington

Headwinds throughout the tobacco industry have affected Altria, but its leading Marlboro brand took a bigger hit than some of its rivals from other manufacturers. Altria has responded by rolling out a national expansion for the menthol-flavored Marlboro Ice, complementing a move earlier in the quarter to expand the Benson & Hedges menthol brand into various stores in the greater Washington, D.C., area. That's no guarantee Altria will be able to turn the tide, but it nevertheless hopes to keep itself in the commanding market share position for the foreseeable future.

3. A new approval request for Copenhagen

The [modified risk tobacco product] application for Copenhagen Snuff is on schedule to be submitted this quarter. -- Barrington

As you'll see below, most of the attention around modified risk products has centered on the iQOS heated tobacco product. Yet Altria is trying an interesting approach, looking to demonstrate the advantages of oral smokeless tobacco compared to traditional cigarettes. Executives for the smokeless tobacco division have said that the company has "been conducting the most comprehensive assessment of the health effects of smokeless tobacco in almost 30 years." If successful, the move could give Altria an interesting marketing hook to push Copenhagen's success even further.

4. Addressing iQOS regulation

I think the best way to see [the FDA advisory panel assessment] is it's an important step forward in the process that's required to get an MRTP approval, which we continue to believe will be the case. -- Barrington

Altria has a lot banking on being able to sell the iQOS heated tobacco system in the U.S., and partner Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM) got dealt a setback when an FDA advisory panel failed to support the company's argument that iQOS reduces harm and probabilities of cigarette-related diseases. Yet Barrington pointed to the fact that the panel did support Philip Morris' contention that iQOS reduces exposure to toxic chemicals, and he believes that in the long run, the scientific evidence will bear out iQOS's advantages.

5. Tax reform helps

The strong 2017 results from our operating businesses were complemented by tax reform. As a result of a one-time deemed repatriation tax related to the legislation, the dividends we received from [Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD)] last year were tax-free on an adjusted basis and lowered our 2017 adjusted tax rate. -- Barrington

Companies across the corporate spectrum have benefited from tax reform, and Altria saw three consequences. Revaluing deferred tax liabilities offset a one-time impact from deemed repatriation of Anheuser-Busch's earnings. Yet taxes on A-B InBev dividends will be lower going forward. Overall, Altria sees adjusted tax rates of about 23% to 24% on an effective basis, which will produce considerable savings.

Altria has had to work hard to keep moving forward, but it's in a good position starting 2018. As a new team of leaders takes shape, Altria will have the potential to build on its earlier gains.

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Dan Caplinger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Anheuser-Busch InBev NV. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.