Consumers are becoming more and more socially conscious, and they want the goods and services they use to measure up. In truth, it really doesn't take much. A simple action that costs a company very little or nothing at all can make a real difference in the mind of the consumer.
Often, the added expenses a company incurs from paying workers a little more, monitoring resource sourcing, or going the extra ethical mile are small downsides when compared with the huge potential upside. And where there's company upside, there's investor upside.
Whole Foods Market (NAS: WFM) is just such a company. Let's dive deep into the organic-foods purveyor, evaluate its socially conscious policies and practices, and take a hard look at the numbers. We'll evaluate how it's performing as a business, an investment, and as a socially conscious enterprise.
Walking the ethical talk
You don't have to go any farther than the name "Whole Foods" to know the company has social responsibility at its core, but if you want to, just check out the website. The "Core Values" section contains a long list of socially conscious policies and practices the company follows, including:
Supporting organic farmers, growers, and the environment through a commitment to sustainable agriculture.
Recycling, reusing, and reducing waste whenever possible (visit any Whole Foods, and you'll be confronted with a dizzying array of recycling options).
Donating a minimum of 5% of profits every year to a wide variety of community and nonprofit organizations.
Supporting humane methods of meat and poultry production, even going so far as to not sell veal.
Taking a clear stance against any products that use animal testing, thereby helping to influence the marketplace in that direction, too.
A shared fate
And just as importantly, the company also shows great care and respect for its employees. As an example, no one in the company, including CEO John Mackey, makes more than 19 times the average total compensation of all employees. Whole Foods calls this "shared fate."
This is just a small sample of everything the company does in the effort to be socially responsible, and it clearly goes the distance in that regard. Now let's take a look at the numbers and see how the business and the stock are performing.
Crime may not pay, but the organic grocery business sure does
Whole Foods' fourth quarter ended Sept. 25, and as Mackey summed things up, "We are pleased to end the fiscal year on a high note." To that end, for the quarter:
Revenue increased a healthy 12% to $2.4 billion. In comparison, quarterly revenue for peer Ruddick (NYS: RDK) , which operates Harris Teeter, decreased 7.4%.
Comparable-store sales, an important number for any retailer, grew by a happy 8.7%.
Net income jumped 31% to $75.5 million, while earnings per share grew a very respectable 26% to $0.42.
The company raised its dividend a big 40% to $0.14 per share.
The balance sheet holds a hefty $746 million in cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities, and a reasonable $17 million in debt.
Finally, Whole Foods authorized the repurchase of up to an additional 200 million shares of the company's common stock through Nov. 1, 2013. Stock buybacks create real value for investors and are something all of us, socially responsible or not, love to see.
Who would have thought a supermarket that exclusively sells organic food could ever compete with the likes of traditional supermarket chains such as Safeway (NYS: SWY) and Kroger (NYS: KR) ? And let's not forget about Target (NYS: TGT) and Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) , two retailers that are making big moves into the grocery business, including organics.
Since 1980, still making money and a difference
Whole Foods' stock trades for $64 per share. The P/E of 33 may seem a little high, unless you consider that peer The Fresh Market (NAS: TFM) has a P/E of 65. Whole Foods is also giving you a lot of company for the multiple -- a company that's still growing and, after all these years, still trying to do the right thing. Are any companies perfect in this regard? No, but, to paraphrase Voltaire, it's important to never let the quest for the perfect drive out the good.
Whole Foods' fourth-quarter results are proof positive there's no inherent contradiction between making money and making a difference. Read about two more Motley Fool retail favorites that are healthy, wealthy, and making a difference in their own way in this special free report: "The Death of Wal-Mart: The Real Cash Kings Changing the Face of Retail." Get your copy while it's still available.
At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorJohn Grgurichjust loves to quote Voltaire, though his German shepherd prefers Nietzsche. Neither owns shares of any of the companies mentioned in this column. The Motley Fool, however, owns shares of Wal-Mart Stores and Whole Foods Market.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of The Fresh Market, Wal-Mart Stores, and Whole Foods Market and creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart Stores. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a scintillatingdisclosure policy.
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