SunOpta Takes it on the Chin

The once-unstoppable organic food sector is in a slump, and it’s showing up in stock prices. Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFM), the largest natural and organic foods retailer, surrendered more than a third of its market value in the past few months. Two of the larger players in organic food production and distribution, United Natural Foods (Nasdaq: UNFI) and Hain Celestial Group (Nasdaq: HAIN), have also taken some lumps this year.

But none have been pummeled lately quite like SunOpta (Nasdaq: STKL), one of the organic food industry’s most established small caps. Shares of the Canadian firm dropped by nearly half in the past three months, carving a massive chunk out of their more than 12-fold rise from Great Recession depths.

Plain and simple, shareholders are losing faith in SunOpta because it hasn’t been able to turn impressive top-line gains into consistent profit growth. For example, the company posted back-to-back earnings declines in 2012 and 2013, followed by nearly a 13% increase in 2014. This year, analysts see profits plunging 26% to $0.28 a share. Net margins have become razor thin, averaging less than 1% over the past few years.

Investors may not want to bail on SunOpta just yet, though. Despite suspect profitability metrics, it’s an industry standout with leading organic consumer brands such as Nature’s Finest all-natural juices and Pure Nature frozen organic fruits and vegetables.

SunOpta also supplies raw organic ingredients to numerous retailers such as grocery stores, beverage producers and discount outlets. Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP) and Costco Wholesale (Nasdaq: COST) are among its major customers.

Plus, decisive plans to jumpstart expansion are already underway.

The biggest change: SunOpta has a new CEO, former COO Hendrik Jacobs, who succeeded the prior chief Steven Bromley last month. Yet well before stepping in as top dog, Jacobs was already a strong force in efforts to take SunOpta to the next level, including the recently completed $444-million buyout of frozen organic fruit supplier Sunrise Growers.

Jacobs stressed the importance of the acquisition in a recent press release:

We believe the acquisition of Sunrise Growers is transformative for our company as it provides us with the leading market position in conventional non-GMO and organic IQF [individually quick frozen] fruit in the United States, and is expected to enhance our product mix, increase our revenue growth and margin profile, provide multiple synergy opportunities and leverage our strategic focus on integrated consumer products.

SunOpta shareholders will need to muster up a bit more patience, though, as growth initiatives won’t have an immediate effect. But the company should begin to show dramatic improvement next year, when analysts predict revenue and earnings will jump 26% and 50%, respectively.