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Round up the usual suspects: Warren Buffett’s investment vehicle Berkshire Hathaway, in partnership with 3G Capital, has made two historic acquisitions in the packaged food industry in as many years. In 2013, the pair acquired global food manufacturer Heinz for a cool US$28 billion. The move raised eyebrows across the business world, largely for the sheer scale of the acquisition and the players involved. Seemingly willing to go one step further, the duo has now acquired US dairy and processed food manufacturer Kraft, in a deal worth US$40 billion, and have plans to merge the company with Heinz. Several questions stem from the eye-catching move.
The scope of the merger is plain to see. Kraft-Heinz will become the largest packaged food manufacturer operating in what is the world’s largest packaged food market: the US. Had it been around in 2014, the company would have achieved US$22 billion in sales, representing a 5.4% share of the US market and leapfrogging PepsiCo in the country. Globally, Kraft-Heinz would be competing with Danone for the title of the 5th biggest packaged food company, with 1.4% market share. Furthermore, the companies complement each other geographically. As the graph above shows, Kraft is weak outside North America, whilst Heinz has a strong global presence. Indeed, with typical American relish, Kraft’s Chairman John Cahill stated in the Financial Times that his company could “leverage the heck out of Heinz’s international platform.”
Yet in the US, which represents over two thirds of Kraft-Heinz’s combined sales, both companies have recently underperformed in growth terms. Heinz’s sales have declined by 4% since 2009 while Kraft has performed better, but still achieved just 1.3% growth per year since 2012.
Both companies specialise in different areas, which will prevent cannibalisation of sales. Heinz is strong in sauces, whereas Kraft’s Philadelphia and Oscar Mayer brands are present in dairy and processed meat respectively. Though different, they both share similarities in that their products are staples. Of late, it has become increasingly difficult to make people consume more of these goods, as illustrated by per capita volume consumption of chilled processed meat which was flat in the US from 2009 to 2014. Over the same time period, there has been a 1% reduction in the volume of sauces consumed. Minimal growth is expected to occur over the next five years, as consumers become more aware of the health costs related to overconsumption of meat. In terms of future growth prospects, Buffett and his Brazilian colleagues could have done better.
The motivation for this acquisition lies elsewhere. Both companies still achieve substantial revenues: last year, the combined total was close to US$33 billion. Despite the lack of dynamism in their respective markets, the acquirers are still obtaining a steady source of revenue which, due to the commoditised nature of their products, will not disappear overnight.
As with all private equity deals, the aim will be to increase the company’s profitability in a quick time frame. This will be through increasing cost efficiencies, which could take numerous forms. After the acquisition of Heinz, there were thousands of job cuts within the company’s management, and this could certainly be a possibility with Kraft. Elsewhere, as part of 3G’s infamous “zero-based budgeting” strategy, there will be efforts to reduce production costs, possibly resulting in the closure of underperforming manufacturing facilities. Finally, there is the strong possibility that the newly formed company will seek to make quick money by spinning off some of its businesses. A particularly suitable candidate would be Heinz’s baby food division which, whilst growing, does not fit in with the more commodity focused products of both companies. Selling off the baby business could generate enough money for the company to expand in emerging markets.
Ultimately, the move is widely indicative of the direction that the packaged food business has been taking in the last few years. With maintaining profit margins growing in difficulty, improving cost efficiencies has been very much a priority for companies, with rivals such as Mars, Hershey and Nestlé all adopting cost cutting measures. In addition, the acquisition is symptomatic of the increasing tension between manufacturers and retailers. As private label brands are growing in popularity, and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour increase their prevalence, companies need to consolidate in order to maintain their influence on the retail landscape. Rather than acting as the starting gun for a series of acquisitions, the takeover and subsequent merger are very much in vogue, and could be for some time.