Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ron Burkle's Rather Excellent One Year Investment Adventure With Whole Foods Market

It's been just over a year since legendary supermarket industry magnate, investor, philanthropist and friend of Bill Clinton, Ron Burkle (pictured at left), acquired a 7% stake (9.8 million shares) in natural-organic foods grocery chain Whole Foods Market, Inc. Burkle reported his stake in a SEC regulatory filing on January 8, 2009.

During the about two month period from late November 2008 -to- early January 2009 in which Burkle made his investments in Whole Foods' common stock through his Yucaipa Companies' investment firm, the natural-organic foods grocer was aisle-deep in two key struggles: it's battle with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the acquisition of Wild Oats Markets Inc.; and a loss in sales due to the economic recession.

As a result of these two key factors, Whole Foods' stock share price ranged from $9.97 per share (November 24, 2008) to $10.01 per share (January 7, 2009) during the period when Burkle made his $98 million worth of stock purchases, resulting in the 7% total ownership stake in the company. We will call it an average of about $10 per share.

Today, a mere year later, Whole Foods Market. Inc. reported a whopping 79% increase in earnings for its first quarter fiscal year 2010 over the same period in 2009.

Additionally, first quarter 2010 sales increased 7% to $2.6 billion, compared to the same quarter last year. Further, same store sales, which are a key measure of a retailer's health, increased by 2.5%. Complete details are here.

Whole Foods' first quarter sales and profits report announcement today sent the natural-organic grocery chain's stock share price soaring. At the end of business today Whole Foods Market, Inc. stock was trading at $32.95 per share.

The stock has been growing like naturally-fertilized clover over the past 12 months. The 52- week low is $9.06. The 52-week average high is $34.40 per share.

Ron Burkle's excellent one year Whole Foods Market adventure

Speaking of naturally-fertilized clover, Ron Burkle is certainly waist deep in it in terms of his about 13 month profit in Whole Foods Market, Inc. stock.

Based on the average price of $10 per share he made from late November 2008 -to- early January 2009, the supermarket magnate and investor has more than tripled the value of his $98 million stake in Whole Foods in just slightly over a year.

Based on the $10 per share average purchase price, at today's $32.95 per share close, Burkle has seen a whopping per share increase of $22.95. Not bad for a one-year investment adventure.

Trust in Whole Foods board, senior management

In this story [Retail Memo - Exclusive: Supermarket Industry Investor Ron Burkle Looking For A Seat On Whole Foods Market's Board of Directors] on January 16, 2009, we reported that Ron Burkle was interested in seeking a seat on Whole Foods Market Inc.'s board, based on his 7% stake in the company.

However, to date Burkle has been satisfied to be a passive investor in the natural-organic grocery chain - a position that has obviously paid off for the supermarket industry investor.

We stick by the January 2009 report that Burkle did have an interest, however strong or weak, in possibly joining the board. But it obviously wasn't something he has pushed, since if he did we doubt Whole Foods would deny him a spot. And if the grocer did, we would have heard about it. We haven't.

Historically, Burkle has been what's referred to as an activist shareholder, an investor who buys a substantial stake in a company and then participates in some way in its operations, generally as a member of its board and often times operationally. This has been especially the case for Burkle regarding his numerous investments and acquisitions in the food and grocery retailing industry.

But it appears to date that Ron Burkle has trust in Whole Foods' current board and senior management - a trust well-founded based on the growth of the investor's just over one year investment - and as such sees no need to join the board.

Burkle hasn't been a traditional passive investor when it comes to Whole Foods Market though. In fact, we are aware that over the last year Burkle has offered numerous ideas and suggestions, including involving Whole Foods value strategy, to the grocer's board members and senior management.

But of course Burkle isn't merely a investor in supermarkets - he has extensive operations experience as an food and grocry retailing executive.

He started out in the grocery retailing business as a bag boy for the Los Angeles-based Stater Bros. supermarket chain, where he eventually became a vice president.

In addition, Burkle was the board chair of Wild Oats Markets Inc., and was instrumental in the natural grocer's merger with Whole Foods.

Ron Burkle also put together one of the biggest supermarket chain's in the U.S. - Ralphs/Food 4 Less - which he eventually sold to Kroger Co. This was what earned him the 'supermarket magnate" nickname.

Burkle focusing on books not groceries right now

Interestingly, today Yahoo, of which Burkle is an investor and has been a member of the board of directors since 2001, announced that the investor is stepping down from its board because he wants to "devote more time to his other business interests."

In the statement, Yahoo Chairman Roy Bostock said: "Yahoo and its stockholders have benefited greatly from the counsel, insights and objectivity Ron has brought to the company during his nine years on the board."

The key business interest we think Burkle wants to devote more time to is his current investment focus on the Barnes & Noble book store chain.

Burkle recently disclosed in an SEC regulatory filing that his Yucaipa Companies investment firm has acquired a 19% ownership stake in the bricks-and-mortar and online book retailer. Additionally, in that filing Burkle said he would like to own as much as 37% of Barnes & Noble.

Barnes & Noble has an anti-takeover provision which makes it difficult for investors like Burkle to acquire majority ownership in the company, something that's been suggested he would like to do. However, if he can acquire as much as 37% (and even a bit less) of the bookstore chain, Burkle will have significant influence, including a seat (and maybe even chair) on the retailer's board.

It sounds to us like we will see the "activist shareholder" Burkle rather than the more passive investor Burkle when it comes to his run on Barnes & Noble.

In fact, his profits so far in Whole Foods Market, Inc. could provide a nice cash cushion should he decide to sell some shares for his investment in Barnes & Noble.

We have no information however that Burkle plans on cashing-in any part of or all of his investment stake in Whole Foods.

Either way, it's been a rather excellent 'One Year Whole Foods Market Investment Adventure' for the supermarket magnate.

We even suppose it's been an excellent enough one year adventure to make the legendary investor willing to take a crack at one of the most difficult retailing segments in U.S. - book selling.

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