Top Food and Beverage Companies for 2006: It's been a tough year

Energy, raw materials and employee benefits costs have weighed heavily on the food group, making for a lackluster 2005; things aren’t improving this year.

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While still No. 3 on the list, PepsiCo increased sales by nearly $1.8 billion, fueled by “profitable growth across all divisions, on every continent and across both convenient food and beverage categories,” bragged Steve Reinemund, chairman and CEO, in the annual report. No. 4 Nestle’s U.S. and Canadian operations were up by more than $2 billion.

While the top four names remain unchanged, last year’s No. 5, ConAgra Foods Inc., is undergoing some refocusing. As a result of selling off some product lines, it dropped to No. 9. Its placement on this chart also may be the victim of some changes in its own financial reporting, which has shifted some of its ingredients and more commodity-based products into a division that is easier for us to exclude.

Ditto for Sara Lee. As we went to press, it began the process of spinning off its apparel business into a new and public company, Hanesbrands Inc., and also selling off a European meats business (to No. 8 Smithfield Foods). While those operations have never been included in this listing, Sara Lee also sold off a few food businesses we do count, helping to drop it four places in the ranking.

Top 100 Food and Beverage Companies - Alphabetic Index
Alphabetic index of our Top 100. Click here for a larger version of this image.

A number of companies lost food-only sales in 2005, although that was as much the result of us sharpening our pencils and deducting more non-food revenues as to declining sales.

On the other hand, a couple of companies climbed the ladder on their own power. General Mills, last year’s No. 11, landed at No. 7 with a nearly $300 million increase in sales. Campbell Soup grew by more than $400 million and was the darling of financial analysts at the annual Consumer Analysts Group of New York meeting earlier this year.

When we add up the sales of all 100 companies ($305.5 billion), they collectively experienced a 3 percent increase in sales 2005 over 2004. However, in an ominous sign, six firms reported net losses in 2005, compared with four in our report last year.

Despite some clouds, 2006 is not all doom and gloom. Less than a month after getting its new CEO, Kraft reported in late July a 44 percent profit gain in its second quarter, and it raised its full-year earnings forecast. How’s that for a quick turnaround! And No. 32 Interstate Bakeries, the maker of Wonder Bread and Hostess Twinkies, reported just its second profitable month nearly two years into bankruptcy reorganization.

How we get our numbers

Admittedly, there’s a fair amount of subjectivity and hair-splitting that goes into this ranking. Despite financial accounting standards, every company does things a little differently. Sometimes we have to make an educated guess at what sales to include and which to exclude.

Our goal is a table that shows the 100 largest value-added food and beverage processors in the U.S. and Canada, the top producers (not necessarily marketers) of grocery store-ready packaged food products, as well as those products sold in semi-final – merely uncooked – form into the foodservice channel.

That means not counting the simple collection or transportation of agricultural commodities – which greatly reduces the figures of agrifood giants and dairy cooperatives such as Cargill and Dairy Farmers of America. That’s why you won’t even find Archer Daniels Midland on this chart. It also means focusing only on sales that come from U.S. and Canadian plants of multinationals – thus only the U.S. and Canadian operations of Nestle and Unilever are included.

That’s also why PepsiCo’s figure has been significantly cut from its worldwide total. On the other hand, we are forced to use net income figures from total operations, nonfood and worldwide sales included, because so few companies report profitability by segment or geography. We use the most recent fiscal years available. In all cases that was at least calendar 2005, although we were able to squeeze in some 2006 fiscal years before our deadline.

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