MINNEAPOLIS — General Mills, Inc. will only make acquisitions “at pricing that makes sense for our investors,” said Jeffrey L. Harmening, chairman and chief executive officer.
Mr. Harmening made the comment Sept. 16 in response to a question from an investment analyst noting General Mills had been cited as interested in acquiring a major snacking company, a clear but unstated reference to Hostess Brands, Inc. With J.M. Smucker Co. the winning suitor for Hostess (at a price of 3.3 times sales and 17 times EBITDA), the analyst asked whether snacking was a “key area” in which General Mills wanted to expand.
Declining to comment on “a rumor or what has or hasn’t transpired in the marketplace,” Mr. Harmening said General Mills’ merger and acquisitions objectives “really haven’t changed.”
“I will also remind you that we’ve also said we’ve been disciplined, and we are disciplined,” he said. “And so, to the extent we see something that we like on acquisitions, we’ll certainly do that, but only at pricing that makes sense for our investors. And so I want you to know that no matter what’s transpired over the last little while in M&A, our position hasn’t really changed. I’ve also read commentary, are food companies looking at M&A now because their volumes are down. The answer is no. I mean we don’t play the short-term game. We go get brands we like, we hold them for a long time. We grow, and we’ve been doing that for 165 years, and we’ll continue to do that. And so what isn’t going to be the case is that we see volumes going in a certain direction, therefore, we have to make up a gap. That’s really not part of our plan.”
Also during the call, the General Mills executives indirectly commented on another pending industry transaction — the separation of the Kellogg Co. breakfast cereal business from the snacking and other businesses into two companies. They were responding to a question of whether General Mills would be able to “continue to gain share” in the future in a category that is not generating much growth.
Mr. Harmening noted breakfast cereal is still the top choice for breakfast in the morning, accounting for about a fifth of breakfast sittings. Additionally, he said the company has gained share five years in a row, growing 20% over that period.
“We have almost 50% of the category’s new product volume, and I think it’s 47%,” he said. “And four of the last five big items are from General Mills. So we’re innovating well. We’re developing our equities well, we continue to grow. And so my expectation for our cereal business is that we grow a little bit every year and hopefully take a little bit of share every year.”
Regarding others’ views of the category, “You'll have to ask the rest of the competitors,” Mr. Harmening said.
“But we like cereal,” he said. “We like our brands. I love how we’ve been competing.”
Jonathon J. Nudi, president of North American Retail, called cereal a “great category” and promised General Mills will “keep investing.”He continued, “The other question we get a lot is, what happens if one of our major competitors gets more focused? And what we would tell you is that’s actually a good thing. If you go back through history when the two major competitors in the category are supporting the category with marketing as well as innovation, the category does better. So we hope that everyone comes to play, and we can continue to grow those categories as we move forward.”