Abbott (ABT) is a dividend aristocrat with excellent long-term growth potential. The company maintains a diversified mix of healthcare products that are sold around the world. Many of these products are recession-resistant and will enjoy more demand as consumer wealth increases in emerging markets, where ABT generates about half of its total sales.

The company’s dividend is extremely safe and appears to offer upper single-digit growth potential going forward. These are the types of companies we love to own in our Top 20 Dividend Stocks portfolio when they trade at a fair price. Let’s take a closer look at the business.

Business Overview

ABT has been in business for more than 125 years. The company spun off its research-based pharmaceuticals business (AbbVie) in the beginning of 2013, leaving it with four diversified healthcare segments – nutritionals, generic drugs, medical devices, and diagnostics. About half of the company’s sales are made directly to consumers and patients, and the company sells over 10,000 different products.

By geography, over 70% of ABT’s revenue is derived outside of the U.S., and about 50% of total sales come from emerging markets.

Segments

Nutrition (34% of 2015 sales through Q3): adult and pediatric nutrition products include formulas under the brands Similac, Isomil, Ensure, PediaSure, and ProSure. These products help people with special dietary needs and are sold directly to consumers.

Established Pharmaceuticals (19%): sells a broad line of branded generics – gastroenterology products, women’s health products, cardiovascular and metabolic products, pain and central nervous system products, and respiratory drugs and vaccines.

Diagnostic Products (23%): hospitals, blood banks, and labs use ABT’s products, which include screening tests for diseases, diagnostic instruments, hematology systems, pregnancy tests, and more.

Medical Devices (25%): products include stents, catheters, products used for surgical closure, diabetes monitoring systems, vision care (LASIK), and more.

Business Analysis

Each of ABT’s businesses has some unique competitive advantages. Around half of the company’s sales are made directly to consumers and patients. These products primarily reside in the company’s adult and pediatric nutrition segment and its branded generic drugs.

In some ways, these businesses are more like consumer packaged goods companies than traditional healthcare businesses. Their market positions benefit from decades of marketing campaigns to build up brand equity, research expenses to meet consumer tastes, and distribution relationships to maintain valuable shelf space.

With over 125 years of business history, ABT has built up leadership positions in many of these markets. The company is the global leader in adult nutrition and has the number one spot in U.S. pediatric nutrition. In total, the nutrition segment has 50 consumer brands and is #1 or #2 in 25 countries. Within branded generics, ABT holds top market positions in India, Russia, and several Latin American countries.

ABT’s medical devices and diagnostics businesses are a bit faster-moving, requiring constant R&D investments to generate profitable sales growth. Once again, however, ABT holds leading market share positions in several key categories – LASIK, cataract surgery, amino-acid diagnostics, blood screening, and more.

Breaking into these markets is a challenge for new entrants for several reasons. Some markets are heavily regulated by the government (e.g. medical devices, pharmaceuticals, nutritional products), require high investment costs (ABT invests 6-7% of sales in R&D, or about $1.3 billion last year), need global distribution, and face patent or trademark protection.

In addition to relatively high barriers to entry, ABT plays in markets where growth in healthcare has high demand. Consumers in emerging markets (50% of ABT’s sales) often pay out-of-pocket for medicine and can’t afford expensive brands, creating significant opportunity for ABT’s branded generics. As spending on healthcare in emerging markets continues to rise with economic growth, almost all of ABT’s product lines should benefit.

Many of ABT’s product categories are also recession-resistant. The company’s 2015 third quarter results were reported during a time where many other businesses were being adversely impacted by the slowdown in China. ABT, however, reported double-digit growth in each of its segment’s China operations. The company appears to be playing within healthcare areas with high demand.

Should ABT identify an emerging healthcare trend that it would like to participate more fully in, the company has the balance sheet to acquire its way into the market. We think the company’s balance sheet could enable it to easily pull off $10-20 billion in deals if it saw the right opportunities.

ABT has historically been acquisitive. The company purchased CFR Pharmaceuticals for $3.4 billion in September 2014 to double its branded generics presence in Latin America; bought Topera for $250 million in December 2014 to enter the electrophysiology market; and purchased Veropharm in December 2014 for $315 million to establish a pharmaceuticals manufacturing base in Russia.

Deals like these strengthen the company’s future growth prospects and help it further widen the moats of its existing businesses. Once ABT has developed or acquired new product offerings, it can take advantage of its strong brands and global distribution network to grow them quickly.

As long as ABT’s management team can continue generating results from the company’s R&D and acquire the right complementary businesses to remain in the right profitable niches abroad, the company’s future looks bright.

Key Risks

One of the things we like about ABT is its cash flow diversification. The company’s operations are balanced between four unique segments, which each have different risks and growth opportunities.

This is similar to owning a diversified portfolio of stocks rather than relying on just one for dividend income, reducing your risk. For example, when ABT’s pediatric nutrition business was dealing with product recalls in China two years ago, its other segments continued performing well and helped insulate the company’s overall earnings. The company sells over 10,000 different products and doesn’t depend on any single one for growth.

The same is true of ABT’s geographical mix. The company generates about 70% of its revenue from outside of the U.S. and sells its products in over 150 countries. This is important within healthcare because each country has a unique set of government regulations that can alter the profitability of different business lines.

In the U.S., for example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has meaningfully weighed on the medical device industry by subjecting them to a new 2.3% sales tax. Since ABT is in many different countries with diverse lines of products, it is better protected from unexpected regulatory or economic growth changes.

With that said, ABT’s concentration in emerging markets (50% of sales) is hurting the business today. The strong U.S. dollar is hurting reported sales and earnings growth and also slowing growth in some emerging markets. The recession-resistant nature of many of its healthcare products is helping, but the company is not out of the clear yet.

Another risk that could hurt near-term profits for several quarters is raw material cost inflation within ABT’s nutritional segment. The company has benefited from several years of lower priced commodities. However, even management notes that this tailwind could reverse course:

At some point that will turn, and we’ve tried to put plans in place to be able to mitigate that when the time comes, so I think that will be some pressure on us sometime in the future and we should probably anticipate that at some point.

We bring this up because ABT’s nutritional products business has improved its margins from 15.7% in 2012 to 21.0% in 2014,

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