In the beer world, Constellation Brands’ reputation is relatively straightforward. Beyond its reported $1 billion acquisition of Ballast Point years ago, the company also owns Funky Buddha and acts as the importer for Corona, Modelo, and other Mexican brands.
But the Upstate New York-based company built its foundation off wine and spirits, a segment Constellation has grown somewhat wary of recently. In February, president and COO Bill Newlands announced the company would sell or discontinue as much as 40% of its wine and spirits portfolio, as first reported by Wine Enthusiast. That move was needed for the sake of “optimizing” those categories, focusing on brands with low growth rates and “30%-plus operating margins,” he said.
Fittingly, a chunk of that collection is made up of low-cost products, identified by Constellation—in the case of wine—as brands that retail for less than $11. Almost two-thirds of the company’s portfolio is above that threshold, a longtime business maneuver aimed to focus on the increasing premiumization of alcohol. This focus is what led Constellation to beer, where it bought into surging craft players at a time when shoppers are spending more on the beverage, but making fewer trips to do so.
“So everything that is not a ‘power brand,’ you can assume that we’re either going to sell it, discontinue it, or milk it very quickly over the next year or so,” David Klein, Constellation’s chief financial officer, told Wine Enthusiast.
WHY IT MATTERS
When it comes to the wine and spirits side of Constellation’s business, the company charted this course for investors not long after the close of 2018’s final quarter. In January, it revealed expectations for sales to continue to decline from 2018 into 2019, causing a brief bump in stock price based on proactivity. Looking back on the past 52 weeks, that stock price today (about $167) is still well below the past year's peak (almost $237), but still one of the highest prices it’s ever been.
Some of the overall trepidation has stemmed from Constellation’s buy-in with Canopy Growth Corporation, a Canadian marijuana company. An initial $191 million investment in late 2017 ballooned into $4 billion in 2018, causing some worry. But when it comes to the beer side of things, there’s still plenty of buzz—mostly from its import business.
That collection of brands grew 14% from 2017-2018 and amassed $4.5 billion last year. It's almost twice as much as what Constellation was moving in foreign brands in 2013. A large part of that was the wild success of Corona Premier, a Michelob Ultra competitor that had its first full year of sales in 2018 and brought in $155 million in IRI sales across grocery, convenience, and other stores. Even more excitement comes from Modelo: that family of brands grew 18% year-to-year in 2018 and accounted for just more than $1.2 billion.
Less exciting are Ballast Point’s returns, which declined in dollar sales in 2017 and 2018 after hitting a high of $63.6 million in 2016, a year after the brewery was acquired by Constellation. It sold just under $51 million in 2018. (Meanwhile, in news that will please beer drinkers looking to watch their caloric intake as much as the stakeholders watching these declining sales, the company announced Ballast Point Lager yesterday.) Funky Buddha, on the other hand, has made up for some of the loss with an increased distribution footprint. The brewery almost doubled its sales 2017-2018, selling $6.2 million last year.
Over on the New York Stock Exchange, Canopy Growth is mostly up right now after a rollercoaster past year. And by at least one analysis, it’s set up for "global domination." So while things may seem a little off for Constellation, which has experienced relatively unstoppable growth for years, the latest news may not be as bad as it seems.
The real focus going forward shouldn’t just be on the company’s wine and spirits portfolio as it works to “rightsize” any sales slumps, but should also include Ballast Point. That business, which was among the earliest adopters of IPA variants for its Sculpin brand, will need extra attention to turn things around. Bonito Blonde Ale doubled its volume last year, and Fathom IPA is rising fast, not too far off in package sales from the long-tenured Sculpin flagship.
Or maybe the solution will come from the aforementioned Ballast Point Lager, marketed specifically for its 99 calories at a time when “better for you” is hot, hoping to help the company complete a hat trick in a beer industry obsessed with the constant pursuit of novel.