The StockHouse powerhouse

Armed with nearly US$30 million in new capital from such backers as Hollinger and Liberty Media Group, a Vancouver-based Web site has launched its inaugural marketing campaign - an estimated US$5 million to US$10 million effort aimed at positioning itself as...

Armed with nearly US$30 million in new capital from such backers as Hollinger and Liberty Media Group, a Vancouver-based Web site has launched its inaugural marketing campaign – an estimated US$5 million to US$10 million effort aimed at positioning itself as the leading online destination for financial investors around the world.

In early February, StockHouse.com kicked off its global campaign in Canada with a series of humorous newspaper ads in the National Post promoting its Canadian site, StockHouse.ca (StockHouse also operates sites for the U.K., Australian, Hong Kong and U.S. markets). In the next few months, an even bigger campaign will break in the U.S., one that will include television spots to run on the financial network CNBC.

The Canadian ads, created by Vancouver ad shop Rethink, were designed to drum up awareness for the brand, and to communicate the site’s offerings, which include original editorial content, online discussion groups called ‘Bullboards’, and portfolio tracking.

So far, the creative has proved to be a success – almost too much of a success, explains Jeff Berwick, the company’s 29-year-old president and CEO.

‘Our traffic has actually doubled on the Canadian site in the last two weeks because of the marketing,’ he says, noting the increased traffic momentarily caused the site to crash. ‘But we’re back up again.’

Berwick actually chuckles when he describes the mini-meltdown. And why not?

A self-described computer junkie since the age of 12, Berwick left his native Edmonton in 1991 and moved to Vancouver, where he took a job as a teller at CIBC. By 1995, about the same time the Internet was starting to take off, Berwick had become an investment advisor at the bank, where he gained considerable knowledge of the financial markets. Seeing an immediate opportunity, he founded StockHouse, and began building the site by himself, handling everything from programming, to Web-page design, to sales and editorial.

Although StockHouse had never promoted itself prior to the current campaign, the site had already attracted a remarkable number of visitors, largely though word of mouth within the chatty online investment community. In fact, StockHouse may be the most popular Internet property you’ve never heard of – Berwick claims StockHouse, whose figures are audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers, gets more visitors than any other Web site in Canada.

As of mid-February, he says the site received 120 million page views per month (60 million on the StockHouse.ca site, 50 million on StockHouse.com and about 10 million on the Hong Kong and Australian sites) and close to three million unique visitors per month (although only 1.2 million were visitors to the Canadian site).

Activity on the site’s Bullboards has been equally impressive. Approximately 1,000 people are registering for the message boards each day, and daily postings are in the 10,000 range. That’s enough to make StockHouse the fourth most popular financial message board in the world, trailing only Yahoo!, Raging Bull and the Silicon Investor.

When you combine StockHouse’s traffic with its blue-chip demographics – 100% are investors, 84% have a university education, and the average user income is greater than $70,000 – you’d think advertisers would be tripping over each other to paste their banners on the site.

But so far, other than a handful of notable clients like E*Trade, Mercedes-Benz and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the stream of advertisers has looked more like a trickle – a circumstance Berwick attributes in part to the measurement methodology used by Web advertising measurement firm Media Metrix Canada (see story, page one).

The lack of third party audit numbers, however, hasn’t dissuaded some powerful backers from injecting significant capital into StockHouse. The site is currently valued at US$120 million, thanks largely to recent investments by Conrad Black-controlled Hollinger, which kicked in between US$5 million to US$10 million, AT&T programming arm Liberty Media, and China.com, which anted up US$20 million. Berwick is currently holding meetings with underwriters, and says he expects StockHouse will launch an initial public offering later this year.

In addition to funding its marketing push, the recent investments have allowed StockHouse to begin beefing up its site. The company just opened its broadband office in New York, and plans to add a live video component to its site in the next six months. A high-profile producer at CNBC has been lured away to head up StockHouse’s interactive television division, which will eventually be offered in Canada.

Although StockHouse doesn’t provide any e-commerce functions on its site (Berwick says he refuses to turn StockHouse into a mall), it does plan to move into the fast-growing online trading market. According to Toronto-based Investor Economics, Canadians had more than $70 billion worth of assets in discount brokerages after the third quarter of 1999, compared to only $15 billion in 1993. While Internet trading still accounted for only 19% of all trades, that figure was more than double the 8.5% of 1998.

Instead of setting up its own brokerage, however, StockHouse plans to integrate virtual brokers like E*Trade into its site, and collect a transaction fee.

Meat and plant-based sales are both strong at Maple Leaf

Both priority areas performed well in the company's full-year results, helped by a boost in marketing for new products.
Maples Leaf All Natural 4

Maple Leaf Foods reported higher Q4 and full-year 2020 sales, driven by its sustainable meats and plant-based proteins. 

The CPG co. reported quarterly sales of $1.13 billion, up from $1.02 billion for Q4 2019, as well as net earnings of $25.4 million, compared to $17.5 million for the same period the year prior (an increase of 45.2%).

For full fiscal 2020, the company reported a total increase of 9.2% in sales, driven by what it says is “strong growth in both the meat and plant protein groups.”

“We have repositioned our portfolio towards two high-growth categories now representing 20% of our annual sales generating a compounded growth rate in excess of 25% over the last three years,” says Michael McCain, the company’s president and CEO.

Meat protein group sales  comprised of prepared meats, ready-to-cook and ready-to-serve meals, snack kits, value-added fresh pork and poultry products that are sold to retail, foodservice and industrial channels, and agricultural operations  grew 11.3% for the quarter. 

Meanwhile, sales of plant protein products  refrigerated plant protein brands such as Lightlife and Field Roast, premium grain-based protein, and vegan cheese products sold to retail, foodservice and industrial channels  was up 5.5% over the same period. 

Sales growth for its meat portfolio was driven by “a favourable mix-shift towards sustainable meats and branded products,” but also growth in exports to Asian markets, and pricing actions implemented to mitigate inflation and other structural cost increases, according to the company. Strong demand in the retail channel was offset by lower volume in foodservice as a result of COVID-19.

For its plant-based offerings, sales for 2020 were $210.8 million compared to $176.4 million last year, representing a growth of 19.5%, or 18.1% after excluding the impacts of foreign exchange. The segment was driven by expanded distribution of new products, continued volume increases in its existing portfolio, and pricing actions implemented to mitigate inflation and other structural cost increases.

SG&A expenses totalled $144 million for the plant group alone in 2020, with investments focused on advertising, promotion and marketing to build awareness, as well as supporting brand renovation and new product innovation. SG&A for meat proteins were $346.6 million for the full year, and the company says it expects SG&A levels and marketing investment in 2021 to be largely in line with where they were in 2020.

The company, which in 2019 announced it had gone carbon neutral, says it’s amplifying this commitment while “focusing on eliminating waste in any resources it consumes, including food, energy, water, packaging, and time.”