Houses to highlighters: Pandemic reshapes Georgia company fortunes

Like many of the biggest public companies headquartered in Georgia, Atlanta-based Home Depot has seen its fortunes sharply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Some businesses have taken a financial hit: Annual revenues fell for seven of the state's 10 biggest publicly traded companies. But Home Depot's sales soared as people tackled more do-it-yourself projects. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Like many of the biggest public companies headquartered in Georgia, Atlanta-based Home Depot has seen its fortunes sharply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Some businesses have taken a financial hit: Annual revenues fell for seven of the state's 10 biggest publicly traded companies. But Home Depot's sales soared as people tackled more do-it-yourself projects. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

Credit: Matt Kempner

From Coke to UPS, big local losers, winners and everything between

The pandemic has both hurt and helped the fortunes of some of Georgia’s biggest businesses — sometimes within the same company.

Sandy Springs-based Newell Brands, with well-known brands such as Rubbermaid, Elmer’s glue, Coleman and Mr. Coffee, had been approaching nearly $10 billion in annual sales. Then the coronavirus hit.

As consumers cocooned at home, they bought bread makers, containers for leftovers, blenders and iced coffee makers. Newell’s FoodSaver vacuum packaging products became its fastest-growing brand. Sales also grew for cleaning products, including millions of soap and sanitizer dispensers.

Other parts of Newell’s business dipped. Outdoor apparel and beverage containers lost buyers. Sales at the writing unit — which includes Sharpie markers — dropped as corporate offices closed and schools shifted online.

Overall, Newell’s sales fell 3% and it reported a $770 million loss in 2020, a year like no other for consumers and the businesses that supply and employ them.

Like with Georgia families, the impacts of the pandemic have spread across the state’s corporate landscape unevenly, often dramatically so. Many businesses have been battered, while some have gone largely untouched or even flourished. The financial results, from sellers of cola to electricity, school buses to golf balls, and houses to highlighters, reveal not just a reshaped economy, but many divergent ones.

Seven of the 10 largest public companies headquartered in Georgia saw their revenue shrink last year. The same number reported profits either shriveled or they lost money after being profitable in 2019.

Combined, $22 billion in profits evaporated from the year before. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which endured what CEO Ed Bastian called the toughest year in its history, swung from a $4.8 billion profit to a $12.4 billion loss.

Beverage sales volumes at Coca-Cola shrank 6%, the steepest annual drop since just after World War II and only the second decline in nearly seven decades, as traffic plunged at restaurants, convenience stores, concert halls and sports arenas.

ORIGINAL CAPTION: November 28, 2014 Atlanta - Picture shows Coca-Cola Company Headquarters in Atlanta on Friday, November 28, 2014. Coca-Cola reported $233 million in tax breaks in 2011-2013 - almost 15% of its federal tax bill - related to giving its management stock options and restricted stock. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Coca-Cola, with its headquarters in Atlanta, last year suffered its steepest decline in volume of drinks sold since the 1940s, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered restaurants and other public gathering spots. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

But some local giants are thriving. Home Depot’s sales soared 20% last year as nesting consumers spent heavily on homes, a trend that also has benefited homebuilder PulteGroup.

UPS booked record revenue as it delivered an average of nearly three million more packages a day amid an e-commerce boom. Intercontinental Exchange, the owner of the New York Stock Exchange, enjoyed brisk business amid volatile trading.

Mirroring Georgia residents, though, many big publicly traded companies are unsure about how they will fare in 2021. Several have paused their practice of forecasting annual sales and profit, including those who had a great 2020.

That’s after last year turned out to be nothing like what anyone expected.

”At the beginning of the year, I would have never thought it possible for the business to grow over $20 billion in 2020,” Craig Menear, Home Depot’s CEO, said recently. “For context, it took us 19 years as a company to achieve the first $20 billion in total sales.”

The pandemic has been brutal for many businesses, particularly those involved in restaurants, travel, hotels, hospitality and personal services. Small businesses, often with thin profit margins and fewer ways to get funding, faced extra challenges.

But Bob Willis, the chief investment officer for Gainesville-based Willis Investment Counsel, said he has been struck by the overall strength of much of the marketplace.

“What I most misjudged looking back is how well people would adapt....The adaptability of people, their resilience, is inextricably tied to companies,” said Willis, whose clients include pension funds, companies and wealthy individuals.

When unemployment rates were still skyrocketing, he assumed consumers would retrench. “Are they going to spend money on a new garage? Hell no. But that’s what happened.”

Much of the buoyancy was tied to a massive infusion of federal dollars. About $2.2 trillion in federal aid early on helped consumers and businesses, followed by a more than $900 billion package in December and another $1.9 trillion being contemplated now in Washington.

Roger Tutterow, a Kennesaw State University economist, said many manufacturers figured out how to deal with new pandemic protections more quickly than expected. But he noted economic output and jobs have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

NCR, based in Atlanta, saw its financial results suffer amid the pandemic. (Andy Peters / andy.peters@ajc.com)
NCR, based in Atlanta, saw its financial results suffer amid the pandemic. (Andy Peters / andy.peters@ajc.com)

Credit: Andy Peters

Credit: Andy Peters

Macon-based Blue Bird Corporation sold fewer of its school buses as classrooms shut down. Southern Company, the parent of Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light, sold billions fewer kilowatt hours of electricity, particularly for commercial and industrial customers.

While Home Depot flourished, sales and profit fell sharply at kid clothing retailer Carter’s. Flooring maker Mohawk saw business improve as the year went on, with stronger residential purchases, but commercial activity remained weak. Sales declined at financial technology company NCR, which relies heavily on serving banks, retailers, restaurants and sports and entertainment venues.

Then there’s South Georgia bread baker Flowers Foods, which had weak sales connected to sit-down restaurants. But some of the fast-food chains it works with were closer to flat for the year, and business with grocers was strong. Overall, revenue rose 6%.

Consumers spending more time at home started buying more buns for burgers and hot dogs, said Brad Alexander, the company’s chief operating officer. They also beefed up on breakfast foods like English muffins and breads and started making sandwiches for lunch.

Also on the rise: Flowers’ Tastykake snack foods, with its sweet offerings of cupcakes, doughnuts and pies. Consumers “want to treat their families,” Alexander said.

Early last spring, Dan Murphy was convinced the golf ball business he leads was in for a rough year.

The chief executive of Covington-based Bridgestone Golf, a unit of the tire giant headquartered in Japan, saw retailers and golf courses shutting down and tournaments canceled. His Georgia plant closed for weeks. But slowly, and then dramatically, business more than rebounded as people scrambled for outdoor activities.

Recently, the company increased its production by 30%, grew its workforce by 20% and added shifts. It’s now operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Murphy calls it the “COVID Boom.”

Financial results of Georgia’s 10 largest publicly traded companies

Home Depot:

2020: $132.1 bln revenue, $12.9 bln profit

2019: $110.2 bln revenue, $11.2 bln profit

UPS:

2020: $84.6 bln revenue, $1.4 bln profit

2019: $74.1 bln revenue, $4.4 bln profit

Delta Air Lines:

2020: $17.1 bln revenue, $12.4 bln loss

2019: $47.0 bln revenue, $4.8 bln profit

Coca-Cola:

2020: $33.0 bln revenue, $7.7 bln profit

2019: $37.3 bln revenue, $8.9 bln profit

Aflac:

2020: $22.1 bln revenue, $4.8 bln profit

2019: $22.3 bln revenue, $3.3 bln profit

Southern Company:

2020: $20.4 bln revenue, $3.1 bln profit

2019: $21.4 bln revenue, $4.7 bln profit

Genuine Parts:

2020: $16.5 bln revenue, $29.1 mln loss

2019: $17.5 bln revenue, $621.1 mln profit

WestRock*:

2020: $17.6 bln revenue, $690.9 mln loss

2019: $18.3 bln revenue, $862.9 mln profit

PulteGroup:

2020: $11.0 bln revenue, $1.4 bln profit

2019: $10.2 bln revenue, $1.0 bln profit

Newell Brands:

2020: $9.4 bln revenue, $770 mln loss

2019: $9.7 bln revenue, $107 mln profit

*WestRock’s fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

In Other News