Sysco (SYY) Easily Tops First Quarter EPS Estimates, Stock Soars

Sysco (SYY) posted a fiscal first quarter 2017 profit statement Monday that outstripped even the exuberant expectations established by its rock solid performance over the last year, a period that saw the food products distributor swing from milestone event to event without apparently losing focus on its fundamentals.

EPS jumped 20% year over year, and came in well ahead of Wall Street's forecasts of 58 cents a share at an adjusted 67 cents a share. As a result, the stock has climbed as much as 11% in Monday's afternoon trading to $53 a share. Sales next year are expected to grow to $54.7 billion from $50.4 billion in fiscal 2016, cementing Sysco's position as the leading national food products distributor by a wide margin.

The stock's forward valuation rings in at 20 times its multiple, actually something of a discount to the multiples it's commanded over the last several years. However, the stock's $53 price tag, including Monday's surge, easily tops the fair value estimated at about $45 a share, according to Morningstar. And it's tough to see what catalysts on the short term horizon are going to give the stock a further boost from the current valuation.

Fundamentally, there are a couple of knocks on the Sysco story. The overwhelming majority of its sales go to small restaurant customers. Not only do these enterprises multi-source their ingredients and supplies from a variety of vendors on a routine basis, but the restaurant economy tends to be rather lumpy. It could take an upswing assuming the economy continues to improve, and consumers feel comfortable returning to pre-financial crisis discretionary spending levels. But the opposite is just as likely true.

Further efforts to diversify into national food chains would extend Sysco's markets. But national chains tend to be more price sensitive, and, by nature, gain additional leverage in negotiating supply contracts.

There's also the issue of food disinflation, especially on protein products, an important source of revenue for a food distributor. The company also occasionally faces headwinds from fluctuations in the energy market, which can hurt its ability to manage costs.

The company has gotten more focused on growing its operating income, especially since activist Nelson Peltz took a position in the company in August 2015. Sysco said it hoped to grow its operating income by $500 million by fiscal 2018, up from previous forecasts of a $400 million bump.

It also throws off a yield of 2.5%, and has a $1.5 billion share repurchase initiative in place, both factors that play into investors' interests in companies that return capital to shareholders.

Sysco has endured its share of upheaval recently. In the summer of last year, the U.S. government blocked its efforts to merge with second-place food distributor US Foods (USFD) , with a judge citing competitive concerns. In February of this year, Sysco agreed to buy Brakes Group, its European counterpart, for $3.1 billion.

That it's been successful at navigating those shoals while continuing to focus on fundamentals and persistently beating its financial projections is a tribute to the management of Sysco. But there's legitimate questions as to whether there are catalysts on the horizon that could further advance the stock value appreciably.

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