The Emergence of Big Yogurt

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Yogurt as a product category has been one of the consumer staple industry’s fastest-growing segment in recent years. Popular for decades in Europe (where the annual yogurt consumption in some countries is about 70 pounds per person!), yogurt has newfound growth away from Europe as Americans, Canadians and those in the emerging markets have embraced this traditionally European food staple. The US yogurt market in particular has very favorable customer demographics, being primarily driven by 18-34-year-olds.

A fast growing product category being bought by young Americans with many decades of repeat purchases ahead of them, you say? What is not to like about yogurt in the United States and elsewhere in the world? That is exactly what food companies are thinking. Many of them have recently acquired their way into this huge growth opportunity.

The All-Natural Upstart
Hain Celestial (NASDAQ: HAIN) has been a particular favorite for investors, with shares up nearly 200% since 2009. This organic and natural food company is best known for its organic potato chips, all-natural teas and organic personal care products. The company has used its checkbook to great effect in the past, acquiring many of the brands now under its corporate umbrella.

In 2010, Hain pulled out its checkbook once again to buy its way into the yogurt segment with the acquisition of 3 Greek Gods (renamed to The Greek Gods). Since this acquisition, Hain has transformed a yogurt business that did $12 million annually into a division that now contributes about $100 million to Hain’s balance sheet. Not too shabby.

The Blue Chip Champion
Although General Mills (NYSE: GIS) has successfully been in the yogurt game for nearly 35 years, it was only a year and a half ago that the company really made its big move into this high-growth area. Since the 1970s, General Mills has licensed the Yoplait brand, selling the product in the United States. Business was going very well for both Yoplait and General Mills until Sodiaal (the French owner of Yoplait) threatened to end the partnership.

General Mills responded the way any large multinational company settles disputes: It threw money at it! So in March of 2011, General Mills announced that it would buy a 51% controlling interest in Yoplait. With the dispute ended, General Mills instantly acquired its way into the enviable No. 1 market share position in the United States, and No. 2 elsewhere in the world. Great deal on their part.

The Junk Food Junkie
PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP) became the most recent big-name company to enter the yogurt space a few months ago. Seeing the healthy writing on the wall, PepsiCo had been exploring its options to diversify some of its business away from its unhealthy core profit-generators of sugar water and salted potato pressings. Instead, the company had been looking toward healthier foods to better complement its Quaker line of products.

In July 2012, PepsiCo entered into a joint venture with the German dairy company, Theo Muller Group. The joint venture, called Muller Quaker Dairy, will involve Pepsi marketing, distributing, and eventually domestically producing Muller’s various brands of yogurt. Although this joint venture currently comprises a relatively tiny part of PepsiCo (with an initial investment of just $206 million from both companies), look for PepsiCo to use its immense size and distribution power to turn this small investment into something much larger.

The Wise Old Timer
Groupe Danone (NASDAQOTH: DANOY) is a company uniquely positioned to capitalize on the ultra-fast-growing yogurt market. Based in France, Danone (known as Dannon in the US) is the closest thing to a pure-play yogurt company you can find in the public markets. While the other companies mentioned above acquired their way into the yogurt business over the past three years, Danone has made yogurt its primary business since 1919.

Although General Mills’ 51% of Yoplait possesses the No. 1 market position in the United States, Danone holds the No. 1 position throughout the world overall, with operations in about 40 countries (as well as the No. 2 position in the United States). Danone also has made a huge push into the emerging markets as well, which now make up 52% of sales. Only a handful of the multinational consumer staple companies can claim an emerging market sales percentage over 50%.

A Healthy Investment Opportunity
Health-conscious investments have been one of the best investing opportunities in recent years. With awareness about the dangers of unhealthy eating coming from doctors, advocacy groups, local governments, and even the White House, healthier eating is a thread that will remain with us for the extreme long term. Increasingly health-conscious consumers are looking for food that is not only nutritious, low-fat and low-calorie, but also actually tastes good. Yogurt certainly fulfills all four of those requirements. These four companies have realized this fact more quickly than most.

The US yogurt market grew from about $2.5 billion in 2008 to $5.7 billion in 2011. And that growth will continue, with the US yogurt market expected to expand to $9 billion by 2016. As customers continue to make smarter eating decisions for themselves and their families, these companies that sell healthier products, such as yogurt, will be rewarded with those customers’ long-term patronage and brand loyalty. And ith the introduction of new products in the Unites States and the emerging markets, and a turnaround year expected for its European business, Danone might be the best bet on a yogurt-flavored future.

WhichStocksWork owns shares of Groupe Danone. The Motley Fool recommends Hain Celestial and PepsiCo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Hain Celestial and PepsiCo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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