Could A Takeover Be Next For Skinny Pop Maker?

Amplify Snack Brands (BETR)  put something of a floor on its valuation when it undertook an IPO in the summer of 2015 of $18 a share. It's a floor, though, that it's crashed through repeatedly in the roughly 15 months that it's existed as a public company, none more dramatically than it did Tuesday following a disappointing quarterly financial performance, prompting the stock to fall 24% in a single trading session.

The question becomes, unsurprisingly, where does Amplify, the maker of Skinny Pop brand of popcorn and other snacks, go from here, and—more critically—what can investors expect of a stock that's trading at a nearly 90% discount to the IPO it priced just 15 months ago?

The natural expectation: It's a takeover play. "I think it's definitely a candidate" for a takeout, Eric Gottlieb, an analyst at D.A. Davidson, said in an interview Wednesday. And given that it priced that not-very-long-ago IPO at $18 a share, that's probably the minimum that Amplify management and investors, including private equity firm TA Associates, is going to expect.

However, for individual investors who are maybe thinking that a potential 90% return looks more appetizing than an over-flowing bowl of popcorn, there's a caveat: that return won't be immediate. In fact, it could take quite a while.

The earnings shortfall probably caused more reputational damage to Amplify than genuine financial shortcomings. "I think people are going to put the company in the penalty box until management has proven it's fixed its problems," Gottlieb said.

Amplify's fiscal third quarter EPS, reported late Monday, came in at 12 cents a share, matching the performance from a year ago, and falling short of the 15 cents that analysts had been anticipating. Oppenheimer, which previewed the earnings in a report late last week, said in a report Tuesday, "We expected an earnings reset at BETR due primarily to a more difficult backdrop and aggressive Street forecasts."

The company effectively tripped itself up with some execution issues. It missed some of its retail partners' merchandising windows, a critical misstep given Amplify's attempts to expand its line of product offerings and geographic footprint.

Those foot faults are made more dramatic because Amplify has long had a reputation as a single product consumer brands company: it's Skinny Pop product is highly regarded, jumping to second place in the ready to eat popcorn market in relatively short order and neatly fitting the profile of the kind of healthier, less processed snacks that contemporary consumers are increasingly favoring.

But its brand extensions, including tortilla chips and snack bars, haven't significantly moved the needle on sales, and there's lingering uncertainty about its efforts to expand the Skinny Pop portfolio with versions of microwavable and popcorn chip products.

Amplify didn't help its own efforts with the recent filing of a shelf secondary that will allow the company to sell up to $100 million in a stock offering, with 45 million shares slated to be sold by its financial sponsor TA Associates. Which, by the way, has already taken two dividends out of a company that it acquired a little more than two years ago.

Selling the company, Gottlieb said, has probably been in TA's plans all along. As Oppenheimer said in its note, "M&A remains a pillar of support on the downside, in our view."

The list of potential buyers would figure to be ... well, almost anybody in consumer products. Existing snack makers such as the Frito-Lay operation of Pepsico  (PEP) , which is already among the healthy snacking popcorn leader with its Smart Food brands, would be a no-brainer. Snyder's-Lance (LNCE) could extend its brand portfolio of chips and pretzels. Even a Pinnacle Foods (PF) , which doesn't have a snacking portfolio, wouldn't be ruled out.

Davidson's Gottlieb said in a report that he continued to like the long term prospects for Amplify, adding that, "We also believe Amplify to be a target of larger packaged food names looking to acquire a top snack brand."

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