Big Tobacco’s Future Is Now

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Cars and cigarettes have at least one thing in common these days: They are both being disrupted by more modern alternatives. So Stefan Bomhard, the chief executive officer of car dealer Inchcape Plc, should have some idea of what he’ll face when he takes the reins at U.K. cigarette maker Imperial Brands Plc.

It isn’t easy to find executives willing to move to the much-aligned tobacco industry. But Bomhard looks a good  CEO choice for Imperial, which sells Lambert & Butler cigarettes and Blu vapes. The company had decided to part ways with Alison Cooper in October, a week after a profit warning. She will now step down as with immediate effect.

Bomhard did a solid job at Inchcape. While the shares are down about 18% since he became CEO in April 2015, underperforming the FTSE All-Share Index, conditions in car dealing haven’t been easy since Britain voted to leave the European Union and consumer confidence crumbled. It’s still a much better performance than the FTSE All-Share General Retailers Index.

Big Tobacco’s Future Is Now

The downside is that Bomhard doesn’t have any tobacco experience. But this is less of an issue than it would be in, say, general retailing. Imperial will have plenty of executives with many years’ worth of knowledge of the traditional cigarette business, still the biggest and most profitable part of the group. And he should be able to pull on his prior experience with big global brands in the race to grab market share for Imperial’s new products, whatever they may be.

The new chief executive spent his career in consumer goods before joining Inchcape, with roles at spirits company Bicardi, chocolate and candy maker Cadbury, and consumer-goods giant Unilever. That should put him in good stead as Imperial attempts to pivot to alternatives to traditional cigarettes, which could in turn, pave the way for it to diversify into dispensing other adult, highly regulated products, such as cannabis.

When Bomhard takes up the role at a yet to be determined date, his first task will be to get to grips with the crisis in the U.S. vaping industry. The company is evaluating the impact of the recent Food and Drug Administration ban on flavors aside from menthol and tobacco for pod-based electronic cigarettes, the type it makes.

Then Bomhard will have to work quickly to decide where best to focus Imperial’s attention, and investment. Although the group has strong positions in vaping and oral nicotine, it only entered the heat-not-burn market relatively recently. He must decide whether to expand in this category, which has not been drawn into the crisis in the U.S. vaping industry.

He could also look at reshaping other aspects of Imperial’s business, including traditional cigarettes. The company is already seeking to raise up to 2 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) through disposals, including a sale of its premium cigar business. But he could go further, say selling off parts of the portfolio in Asia and Africa, and returning the proceeds to shareholders, or investing more in tobacco alternatives.

Either way, Bomhard must take decisive action. Shares in Imperial have fallen more than 20% over the past year, and they trade at a 40% discount to Bloomberg Intelligence’s global tobacco manufacturing valuation peer group. The company even lags Altria Group Inc., which is reeling from its disastrous investment in vaping company Juul Labs Inc.

Big Tobacco’s Future Is Now

Imperial has long been seen as an acquisition target, with Japan Tobacco Inc. tipped as the most obvious contender. Another possibility would be for Japan Tobacco and British American Tobacco Plc to carve up Imperial’s empire between them along geographical lines. So if Bomhard doesn’t light up the Imperial share price, a bigger rival just might.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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