Consumers Mean Profits

Whether the economy is up or down, there are always items that consumers will buy — soap, diapers, food, and medicine among them. Vivian D. Hairston, assistant vice president and portfolio manager at Unizan Financial Services Group, tracks the companies that produce consumer staples and discretionary items and keeps careful watch for trends that may affect consumer spending. “My research focuses on those things that affect a consumer’s willingness to either purchase or not purchase particular products in the marketplace,” explains Hairston.

Tracking consumer staples is just one of Hairston’s responsibilities. She is primarily responsible for managing $94 million in assets at the Canton, Ohio-based financial management firm and selecting stocks for employee benefit programs, retirement plans, and high net-worth individuals. Hairston takes a “top-down approach to investing” that starts with determining which industries are strongest based on where the overall economy is going. “We are really looking at companies that have a solid track record of performing in various economic cycles; have a good management team; and are statistically cheap, which means that they are stocks that we believe are undervalued and have the potential to increase their value at a reasonable growth rate,” she says.

Using those parameters, Hairston compiles an annual buy list of 25 stocks that changes as some stocks become more attractive than others. Among the investment opportunities she believes will outperform during the next 12 to 18 months is PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE: PEP), a company that manufactures, markets, and sells snack foods, soft drinks, and other food items. Among the company’s more popular products are Lay’s potato chips, Pepsi, Quaker Oatmeal, and Rice-A-Roni. “I like Pepsi because the company has announced that they plan to introduce products that will focus on health and wellness,” says Hairston. “We anticipate that this is going to drive earnings in 2005.”

Another manufacturer of consumer products that Hairston likes is Procter & Gamble Co. (NYSE: PG), which operates in five business segments: baby and family care, beauty care, fabric and home care, healthcare, and snacks and beverages. “Procter & Gamble has done extremely well by adding to its cash flow and expanding its margins. The company does this by consistently developing innovative products,” says Hairston. “This year the company plans to focus on expanding its presence in emerging markets, where they believe there’s a lot of room for growth.”

On the retail side, Hairston picks Walgreen Co. (NYSE: WAG), operator of a chain of retail drugstores that sell prescription and nonprescription drugs as well as general merchandise. Hairston is encouraged by the company’s consumer-friendly approach that lets customers purchase their prescriptions via 24-hour drive-through facilities, mail, or the Internet. She also likes Walgreen’s management. “Not only is Walgreen focusing on convenience but in terms of their balance sheet, they don’t have any long-term debt,” Hairston explains.

Another retail store Hairston says will enjoy improved earnings is Lowes Cos. Inc. (NYSE: LOW), a company that sells products and services for home improvement and home décor, as well as commercial building maintenance and remodeling materials.