'High Touch' Equals High Return (MON, MMM, ECL)

By Dean Lundell | September 20, 2007 AAA

At first there might not seem to be anything tying a agricultural seed producer, a technology company and a sanitation company, yet, as we'll learn, there is one aspect common to all - the fact that "high-touch", personalized sales coverage can convert anything into commercial success.

High-touch sales is a response to the overly automated and computer-driven style of sales and customer interaction (hi-tech) that has become common. Today many people feel the human touch is lacking, and that people respond better to face-to-face personal interaction. It may sound more expensive, but in the long run the theory is that it will make you money. In this article we'll look at three companies buying - and cashing - in.

Growing Sales Presence
Agricultural product company Monsanto (NYSE:MON) has certainly enjoyed the high correlation of commodity prices to its share price, as commodity prices have risen significantly in recent years. The efforts of its high-touch sales force in selling its products have amounted to over $8.4 billion in sales. That's a market-cap-to-sales ratio of 4.6 and a price/earnings multiple of 37-times. (To learn more, check out Analyze Investments Quickly With Ratios.)

Monsanto's core competency of research and development (R&D) is complimented by ongoing investment in expansion to accommodate capacity, leveraging its existing products into others and mostly, having its sales force foster close working relationships with the farming community to help create a more entrenched customer base.

When averaged over they last five years Monsanto's revenue growth is 5.3%. Over the three-year period it comes in at 13.1%, and it came in at 16.7% last year. Earnings growth has been equally impressive with 13.8%, 42.7% and 58.6% for the same periods. Monsanto has a net margin of 12.6% from a gross margin of 49.1% and finally this boils down to a 13.4% return on equity.

Selling Notepads - Lots and Lots of Notepads
How do you create a top selling product used in every office, from glue that failed to stick? Create Post-It note pads. 3M Company (NYSE:MMM) with a market cap of $66.4 billion is still regarded as a top R&D firm able to apply technology across multiple product lines. But it is 3M's 3,000-person sales force that makes that $23.7 billion in sales happen.

3M made a conscious effort to funnel research and development funds to its highest-margin and fastest growing segments. That policy decision has resulted in record margins for the firm as again, the sales force came through. The only thing holding 3M back is its potential liability to asbestos masks it manufactured between 1950 and 1970.

While 3M's revenue growth has hovered around 8% for years, its growth in earnings has gone somewhat south, averaging 23.1% over the last five years, 18.8% for the prior three, but rebounding to 21.6% last year. From a gross margin of 47.9% the firm sees an operating margin of 28%, a net margin of 18.4% and a very impressive 42.4% return on equity.

Highly Motivated Sales Force
Ecolab (NYSE:ECL) is cleaning up with its industrial and institutional sanitation-solutions businesses. With a market cap of $10.1 billion, Ecolab generates $5.1 billion in sales for just over a 10% market share. What separates Ecolab from its competition is its sales force, at least in the United States.

The U.S. sales force is highly motivated, as a large portion of their wages come in the form of incentive compensation. The sales force uses a high-touch approach that is appreciated by its customers and results in a good deal of repeat business. According to the company's Q2 earnings release for 2007, consolidated sales were up 11% compared to the year ago period. However, Europe is another story. International sales were only up 7%. My opinion is the sales force in Europe does not have the fire in the belly that its U.S. counterparts have, and it shows in the sales. The company is doing its best to remedy that situation as it is a drag on revenue and profitability.

Revenue growth, while averaging 15.8% over the prior five years has declined to 9.2% for the last three and 8.0% last year. Earnings have been more erratic, coming in at 14.6%, 10.5% and 16.3% for the same respective periods. Ecolab sees a net margin of 7.7% from a gross of 50.8% and an impressive 25% return on equity.

No Substitute for Sales
There is just no substitute for a well-trained and highly motivated sales force. While Monsanto and 3M devote considerable sums to their R&D efforts, and have succeeded to an extent, Ecolab focuses on its sales force, and this has propelled the company to success with relatively little R&D cost.

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