After a tumultuous year, including a governance overhaul and a rejected $23 billion sale, Hershey (HSY - Get Report) will report one last batch of quarterly earnings before gaining its fourth CEO in 10 years.
The chocolate company is set to report its fourth-quarter earnings on Friday, Feb. 3. Analysts polled by FactSet expect Hershey to generate earnings of $4.32 per share, the top end of EPS guidance, on revenue of $7.457 billion, just below sales guidance of $7.46 billion.
On June 30, Hershey announced that its board had rejected a $107 per share, or $23 billion, bid from Mondelez (MDLZ - Get Report) to acquire the company; Mondelez formally ended its pursuit in August after reportedly upping its bid.
Hershey is controlled by the Hershey Trust, which uses its $12 billion endowment to fund the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania. Any potential sale must pass muster with the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, which can intercede to stop any transaction it deems "unnecessary for the future economic viability of the company" on behalf of the school. A former attorney general did just that when the trust planned to sell Hershey to Wrigley for $12.5 billion in 2002.
But accusations of graft and child abuse, coupled with an attorney general investigation, prompted a major overhaul of the Trust's board and its relationship with the company.
The new board, Susquehanna analyst Pablo Zuanic wrote on Dec. 9, will likely "be more insular, Pennsylvania-connected, and even closer to the school (more new alumni)," and thus possibly even less likely to sell its controlling stake in Hershey, which is based in Hershey, Penn.
And Pennsylvania's newest attorney general, Josh Shapiro, who assumed office less than three weeks ago, has vowed to "vigorously protect Hershey's continued success in Pennsylvania" from "multinational corporations and Wall Street investors willing to destroy Pennsylvania jobs for their own profit."
Hershey's CEO, J.P. Bilbrey, announced in October that he'll step down, but will remain as chairman. Bilbrey was said to have clashed with the Hershey Trust over the possibility of a sale to Mondelez.
On Dec. 21, Hershey announced that current COO Michele Buck will become CEO and president effective March 1. A Mondelez veteran who joined Hershey in 2005, she has experience with acquisitions, overseeing Hershey's 2015 purchase of Krave Pure Foods for about $250 million and its purchase last year of barkThins parent Ripple Brand Collective for an estimated $210 million.
There's strong potential for Buck to improve results, Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow wrote, including cost reductions, a strong product pipeline and falling cocoa prices, which he estimates could reduce Hershey's cost of goods sold by $200 million beginning in 2018.
"With the company now putting more focus on every line of the P&L to finish the year in a positive light, we think it will make a strong effort to hit the high end if not exceed its EPS guidance range," he wrote last month. "The guidance conservatively implies that EPS will decline in 4Q (due to higher spending on advertising and slotting fees) even though it grew at a 7% pace through the first three quarters."
Part of Bilbrey's job in his continuing role as chairman will be "better connecting with the Trust Board," Zuanic added. "We are told JP Bilbrey did not have any strong communication lines or relationships with the Trust Board...If this is all true, then Mr. Bilbrey will have his work cut out to build bridges with the new Trust Board. But this may be precisely one of the reason [sic] why he is stepping down as CEO, so he can spend more time in building these relationships."
Hershey shares were up 0.6% to $105.72 in late morning trading Thursday.