Sara Lee works to fit its leaner look

Can I expect my shares of Sara Lee Corp. to show improvement in the near future?

- R.F., via the Internet


The global food, beverage and household products company, which spun off its Hanesbrands division to shareholders nearly a year ago, is still adapting to its makeover.

Because it also shed a number of businesses in its international apparel, snack brands, domestic coffee and meat snack operations, it must convince investors that this smaller, more-centralized look suits it.


At issue is whether everything is coming together quickly and effectively enough to merit the current stock price. Amid volatile commodity prices and a continuing need to spend on marketing and product development, investors are looking for it to prove it is becoming more efficient.

Shares of Sara Lee (SLE) are down 9 percent this year after a gain of 6 percent last year, a drop of 22 percent in 2005 and a 10 percent gain in 2004. Its dividend yield of about 2.6 percent lags behind most rivals.

Sara Lee frozen and baked goods, Earth Grains breads, Hillshire Farm packaged meats, Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park hot dogs are among the company's food products. It also makes specialty teas. Its household products include Ambi Pur air fresheners and Kiwi shoe-care products. Its Sanex body care products sold overseas represent a profitable and promising segment.

Some of its brands, while well-known for generations, face such intense price competition that customer loyalty can't be taken for granted. But it has introduced a variety of new products, among them whole-grain white bread, mini air fresheners and the Senseo single-cup coffee system.

International markets are expected to be a primary driver in its growth, but that also means currency risk.

The consensus Wall Street rating of the stock is a "hold," according to Thomson Financial, consisting of one "strong buy," one "buy," 10 "holds," two "sells" and one "strong sell."

Though Sara Lee is now a smaller company, Brenda Barnes, chief executive since February 2005, hasn't accelerated its stock buyback program as a means to ward off a potential takeover. She says she is instead focused on delivering on existing plans.

Sara Lee earnings are expected to decline 30 percent in this fiscal year ending in June, with a gain of 7 percent in the next fiscal year. The firm's projected five-year annualized projection of 8 percent is in line with the processed and packaged goods industry.


I am impressed with the results of Janus Orion Fund. Would you recommend it?

- F.M., via the Internet

It goes wherever it wants to go.

That can mean anything from small-cap to blue-chip stocks. It also invests across different sectors and regions, with foreign stocks now comprising one-third of portfolio.

This aggressive growth fund holds only a few dozen stock names. Like other Janus funds, it did not fare well in the 2000 to 2002 bear market and could run into trouble in another down market.

The $4 billion Janus Orion Fund (JORNX) is up 39 percent over the past 12 months to rank in the top 2 percent of midcap growth funds. Its three-year annualized return of 26 percent also places it in the top 2 percent of its peers.


"We recommend Janus Orion because it has a good manager with stock-picking skills and a handful of unique stocks," said Karen Dolan, analyst with Morningstar Inc. "It doesn't look like a benchmark or like its peers, making it a nice fund to have around the edges of your portfolio, adding some oomph to it."

Janus Orion grew in size when Janus Olympus was merged into it in November. It has been managed by Ron Sachs since its 2000 inception. He seeks companies with pricing power that can grow and generate strong cash flow. Most important to him is assembling a collection of fine businesses.

"Sachs knows his stocks inside and out and knows what their drivers are," said Dolan, who notes that Janus has also significantly improved its research and understanding of risk since its bear market problems. "The fund has had some wind at its back due to its foreign stake and exposure to companies of all sizes."

More than 20 percent of the Janus Orion's assets are in health care, with financial services, technology hardware, business services and telecommunications other significant concentrations.

Its recent top holdings were Dade Behring Holdings Inc., ABB Ltd., Celgene Corp., America Movil, Sony Corp., CapitalSource Inc., Apple Inc., Campari, Roche Holding Ltd. and Crown Castle International Corp.

This "no-load" (no sales charge) fund requires a $2,500 minimum initial investment. Annual expense ratio is 0.99 percent.


I would like to know the difference between "A" and "B" shares of a mutual fund.

- M.P., via the Internet

Mutual funds may offer a number of share classes indicating the type and number of fees charged for a fund's shares. This is disclosed in the fund prospectus.

Those who prefer to invest on their own rather than through a broker or adviser may decide to avoid funds that require sales charges.

The A shares subtract the sales charge from your original investment, which means your full investment doesn't immediately go to work. You don't want to buy and sell quickly.

The B shares have you pay a sales charge when you sell. The longer you hold your shares, the lower that charge will be. Although it varies among firms, at some point most B shares convert to A shares.


"You have to do the math and figure out how long you think you may own the shares if you're deciding between A or B shares," said Chris Wloszczyna, spokesman for the Investment Company Institute in Washington, D.C. "The B shares also tend to have a higher 12b-1 fee, which is an annual charge to cover marketing and distribution costs."

Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.