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Raising A Glass To Profit


Size, diversification and marketing are keys to success.

The wine craze may be over and beer sales may be flat, but savvy investors are still lifting their glasses to steady profits in the booze sector.

The keys: Size, diversification and marketing clout.

Constellation Brands (STZ), the world's largest wine company by volume, reported a solid fiscal first-quarter jump in profits based on price increases and sales of higher-margin brands such as Clos du Bois and Wild Horse.

The company earned $44.6 million, or 20 cents per common share, in the quarter ending May 31 compared with $29.8 million, or 13 cents per share, for the same period a year ago. Sales rose 3% to $932 million from $901 million.

Excluding one-time restructuring charges, the company said net income increased to 34 cents a share, beating analysts' estimates of 31 cents.

Constellation Brands serves tastes and wallets across the board with about 300 brands ranging from jug wine to top-of-the-line California reds. It also offers imported beer along with Fleischmann's vodka and Black Velvet, a Canadian whiskey.

Last December, Constellation bought Fortune Brands' (FO) line of wines, including Robert Mondavi and cheaper labels such as Geyser Peak. Constellation then sold value brands Alamaden and Inglenook, along with the Paul Masson winery, to Wine Group LLC, a San Francisco buyout firm.

Shuffling product offerings has paid off in a sector where consumer tastes constantly change. Meanwhile, pure-play beer companies have struggled.

Craft beer such as Boston Beer Company's Sam Adams (SAM) has its fans and the company launched a rousing IPO in 1996, but investors ask: Where's the growth?

Colorado's Coors and Canadian brewer Molson merged in 2004 and became Molson Coors Brewing (TAP). The new company swallowed rival Miller in 2007. Good move, but Anheuser-Busch (BUD) still holds about half the domestic beer market.

Anheuser-Busch rejected an unsolicited $46.35 billion takeover bid from Belgium's InBev NV; it now looks like the European company is preparing to muscle up and attempt a hostile takeover.

For many, beer is just suds and selling a ho-hum product in a slow-growth industry won't generate heady returns. But a company with an edge can stand out in a staid sector without a broad array of products like Constellation Brands.

In 1998, Horizon Organic Holding went public at $11 a share, the high end of the price range, and ended the first day of trading at $15.06. The hook for investors is in the name: Consumers are willing to pay a premium for just about anything organic. In 2003, Dean Foods (DF) bought out Horizon Organic, raising howls that the integrity of the products would be diminished. The Horizon Organic label, complete with smiling cow, still exists, because Dean Foods didn't buy the company to lose money.

Bigfoot corporations snapping up bright little companies that exude health and wellness has a long history. In 2000, Unilever (UL) scooped up Ben & Jerry's ice cream. In 2005, Pepsico (PEP) bought P J Smoothies.

Remember: "healthy" companies bought by bigfoot merchandisers aren't any less healthy for the selling shareholders.

Now, if we could just prove that beer prevents tooth decay or hair loss…
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