As a publisher of magazines and electronic media focused on food manufacturing, it is widely appreciated that news about mergers and acquisitions has a remarkable similarity to the lifeblood that propels humankind. That is especially the case when two companies seeking to merge on a friendly basis are interrupted by a third party entering the fray, or when two or more companies vie to buy another. The increase in such activity in the food business this year has been a welcome development for editors keen on publishing attention-grabbing news, including details about company’s finances and strategies that usually are omitted from conventional reports.
According to a compilation by Bloomberg, global food manufacturing M.&A. for the first five months of this year involves transactions totaling $66 billion. Based on this total being well ahead of the preceding year, it seems reasonable to assume that 2014 will close with a new record, well above the $97 billion peak achieved in 2013. Indeed, another source indicates that 2014 M.&A. in the global food and beverage industries thus far numbers 581 deals with value of $95.8 billion, against 1,340 transactions valued at $121.1 billion in all of 2013.
Accounting for this record pace is not all that easy. Some analysts point to a single trigger in the $28 billion acquisition of H.J. Heinz in February 2013 by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital, a private equity firm with Brazilian leadership. That transaction, which proved a total surprise to what had been a quiet food industry, prompted a spurt of acquisitions. This has continued with what might be called growing force into 2014. While the Heinz transaction did not involve one competitor buying another, most action has been between competitors in industries as varied as flour milling and coffee, meat processing and pickle making.
With several notable exceptions, M.&A. in food manufacturing has stemmed from the desire of the acquiring company to strengthen its consumer brands. In rare instances, moves have been aimed at eliminating a competitive brand; in many others, to acquire brands with superior power. Most observers agree that nothing is more important to this activity than the effort to strengthen brand leverage in order to deal with the increasingly tough retail food marketplace dominated by fewer and fewer companies. Retailers for the most part focus on maintaining or lowering prices by assuring that their supply chain offers the lowest costs. In that environment, the advantage of food manufacturers of great size is a spur to M.&A., including activity absorbing smaller companies as well as providing an outlet for conglomerates wanting to dispose of food ventures no longer fitting corporate strategy.
This retail price competition is usually attributed to consumer caution remaining from the recent economic recession. Retail food business has been far from ebullient, prompting the constant battle between food manufacturers and retailer to see who has pricing power. At one time, this price emphasis resulted in food manufacturers focusing on finding ways to reduce their own costs through production efficiencies that often resulted in plant closings, new emphasis on low-cost supply chains and finding ways to reduce labor numbers. Even as growth through acquisition has been added to the industry’s plate, spurred significantly by cheap money, there has been no let-up in finding ways to improve food manufacturing efficiency or to assure that product innovation has deserved attention.
While the columns of news prompted by M.&A. could make a casual reader believe that companies buying one another is one of the industry’s principal activities, it is important to point out that the operations and investment decisions of companies doing their regular business are what make the food manufacturing industry and the world go round. Sure, the excitement accompanying this activity may be beneficial to the entire industry, but it’s the skill and ingenuity of running each business that easily wins the day.