By Sergei Klebnikov
April 30, 2019

The stock market recently hit a record high – but this year’s top performer isn’t Google or Facebook. It’s a 115-year-old beauty company that was shunned by investors just months ago.

The stock market is off to a great start in 2019, with the S&P 500 hitting a record intra-day high on Tuesday, up 17% through Friday.

Far from a hot tech name, the market’s best performer, up nearly 72% since the start of the year, is beauty and fragrance company Coty Inc.

Founded 115 years ago by French perfumer and businessman François Coty, the company owns brands that include CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and Clairol. It also licenses others, including Adidas and Gucci.

The stock’s big 2019 gain is something of a comeback story. During 2018, Coty was actually the worst performer in the S&P 500 – its stock was down 67% for the year. During the fourth quarter alone, the $8 billion company’s stock fell almost 50%.

(Coty didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.)

“Over the course of last year, they had a lot of challenges to the business,” says Morningstar analyst Sonia Vora, pointing to supply-chain disruptions that resulted in a steeper-than-expected drop in its quarterly sales last fall. There was also a management change that month, with a new chief executive, food industry veteran Pierre Laubies, taking the helm.

What’s more, the company is also loaded with debt: In 2016, Coty spent $12.5 billion to buy Procter & Gamble’s specialty beauty business, acquiring some 40-plus brands in the process. While it doubled the company’s revenue base to $9 billion last year, Coty struggled to integrate these new assets. To help pay down substantial debt from the deal, the firm offloaded 14 non-core brands in fiscal 2018.

Coty stock price was below $7 at the start of January, 2019, but jumped to $11 in early February. That was in part thanks to stronger quarterly earnings reported that month, as well as the company’s promise to return to profitability by the second half of 2019. “But some of that is also a correction from last year,” says Vora.

The company also has the backing of its parent company, JAB Holdings. The German investment firm doubled down to support Coty in April, successfully boosting its stake to 60% by buying back 150 million more shares from investors. JAB also owns Keurig Dr. Pepper, Pret A Manger, and Panera Bread, among other brands.

The stock currently sits at around $11 per share, but still remains well below its IPO price of $17.50. It has a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 14.7.

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