NEW ENTRY 1Lyndon Lea Partner co-founder, Lion Capital
English-born Lyndon Lea has been behind some of the food and drink sector's biggest private equity investments in recent times, including Premier Foods, Burton's Foods, Hillsdown, GH Mumm, Perrier-Jouët and Weetabix. He's also on the boards of Kettle Foods, Orangina, Wagamama and Yell Group.
new entry 2Akeel Sachak global co-head of consumer, Rothschild
If any audacious bids are launched over the coming year in the grocery sector, Sachak will have something to do with them.
Educated at Brighton College and Christ Church, Oxford, Sachak joined Rothschild's on leaving university and learned his trade working on deals for Lord Hanson, the acquisitive tycoon of the day.
Most recently the global co-head of Rothschild's consumer team led the defence on behalf of Scottish & Newcastle as it attempted to fight off last year's approach by new owners Carlsberg and Heineken, but he has had a finger in most M&A pies over the past decade.
Sachak has been the right-hand man of acquisitive Premier Foods chief Robert Schofield since 2004, when he was an adviser on the company's flotation following its purchase by Lion Capital.
Sachak also advised Premier on the spending spree that included buying RHM for £1.2bn and Campbell Soup's Irish and British businesses for £450m. While acquisitions aren't out of the question, it is more likely that forthcoming instructions from the debt-laden company may be disposals.
no change 3David Blitzer Senior managing director Blackstone Group
One of the few mega buyout players to survive the cull from last year's list, David Blitzer, MD at investment group Blackstone, joined the company in 1991.
Blitzer has demonstrated his expertise with deals such as United Biscuits, which the company bought with PAI Partners for £1.6bn. UB has since gone on to buy brands such as Jaffa Cakes. Blitzer also worked on the £2.5bn acquisition of Spirit and S&N's retail estate in 2003 - at the time one of the UK's largest-ever buyouts.
He has an unleveraged €20bn-plus to spend, so if there is the slightest possibility that one of the big grocers or large food assets needs to be sold, he will be around the bidding table.
new entry 4Martin Clarke partner, Head of Consumer Permira
Nobody has agitated for control of the big UK grocery players as much as Permira over the past 18 months, not least with its acquisitive joint bid to take Sainsbury's private.
And, as head of consumer investments at the mega buyout house, Clarke has been the brain behind many of the company's food and drink bids of recent years, including the acquisition of Birds Eye.
Known as 'The Sledgehammer', Clarke's most daring move was an aggressive bid last year for Britvic, in which Permira bought a 14% stake, though he failed to take the business private or agitate for any meaningful change.
While Permira is quiet for now, with more than €10bn to put to work, the private equity house - and Clarke -will be major players when new opportunities come up.
new entry 5Bert Wiegman partner, co-founder Langholm Capital
What Bert Wiegman lacks in firepower (compared with the larger buyout players on this list, at least) he makes up for in the ability to spot a promising brand.
He is head of consumer specialist investor Langholm Capital, overseeing a team he set up in 2002. Unilever provided cornerstone funding, from which the company invests in consumer-facing businesses, including food brands.
Last year Langholm demonstrated its money-making ability with the sale of Dorset Cereals to Wellness Foods, reaping a healthy £50m if speculation is to be believed - a return equating to four times Langholm's initial investment.
Most recently Langholm bought high-end crisp brand Tyrrells for close to £40m.
Langholm was bold enough to imply following the Tyrrells deal that its thirst for further M&A had not been quenched.
new entry 6 Alex Fortescue partner, head of retail and consumer, Apax Partners
As point man for buyout group Apax Partners' retail deals, Fortescue has considerable sway in grocery right now, most notably with Somerfield, which Apax acquired with Barclays Capital and Robert Tchenguiz in 2005 for £1.1bn.
A former strategy consultant at OC&C, Fortescue has a better operational understanding of businesses than many financiers.
However, like all private equity specialists, Fortescue will be judged on deals, and all eyes are on the outcome of the Somerfield exit.
Refusing to sell the business on the cheap, Fortescue, not Tchenguiz, is clearly in the driving seat, but the sales process appeared to have stalled after Somerfield was strangely put up for tender prior to the conclusion of the Competition Commission inquiry. The Co-operative Group is still in talks, but without yet matching the £2bn asking price. new entry new entry
new entry 7Archie Norman founder aurigo management
A former Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells and self-styled turnaround guru, Archie Norman is understood to be assessing grocery sector investments through his vehicle Aurigo Management.
Norman made his name when, as FD of Woolworths and still in his early 30s, he fought off a hostile bid from Dixons.
Since then, of course, his record in the sector has included rescuing Asda from near bankruptcy before selling it on to Wal-Mart for £6.7bn, so if anyone has the guts to pull off a big grocery deal in the current climate it is Norman.
He also has the right contacts in the world of finance. Last year he teamed up with US-based hedge fund Och-Ziff to take over tool rental chain HSS Hire and while other grocery-related deals, such as Brakes, escaped him, he's off the mark. He's also advising Wesfarmers following its acquisition of Coles, the Australian chain.
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8Seamus Fitzpatrick Founder, partner CapVest
Secretive, even by the standards of the buyout industry, Irish-born Seamus Fitzpatrick has still managed to become known as a key player in the food sector.
Fitzpatrick made his mark with the acquisition of Young's Bluecrest in 2002, followed by an aggressive bolt-on strategy with acquisitions including Macrae Food Group and Marr Foods. He is believed to be investing from a €500m fund raised from Irish high-net worths, and has funds under management of about €3bn.
new entry 9Clive Baker managing director, mcqueen
With deals few and far between, corporate finance boutiques could have a bigger say over the next few months, and not just because deals are likely to be smaller. We anticipate the nature of the deals will change, with fewer auctions and more 'off-market' transactions announced. Since food and drink specialists have stronger knowledge of the sector, they will be able to broker deals that few saw coming. Baker, who recently sold Dorset Cereals to Langholm Capital and also counts the £200m Burton's sale to Duke Street among his coups, shades rivals Stamfords and Spayne Lindsay because of his advisory work across both grocery retail and consumer goods, with clients including Dairy Crest, Marks & Spencer and Kerry Foods.
LAST YEAR: 1 10 Robert Tchenguiz Founder R20
Robert Tchenguiz, last year's champion, just scrapes in this year, and mostly on a sympathy vote.
When his acquisition vehicle R20 recently announced its economic interest in Whitbread, the share price moved, but barely perceptibly. As one analyst commented: "A Tchenguiz stake is probably not what it was."
Having lost more than £500m in bets on companies such as Sainsbury's and Mitchells & Butler, the property tycoon is hoping to claw back money from his co-investment in Somerfield (see Alex Fortescue above) but the stilted sales process means that may not be imminent.top money man Lyndon Lea, Lion Capital
Nobody combines serious financial muscle with a knowledge of and commitment to the food industry like Lyndon Lea and his team at Lion Capital.
Still in his 30s, Lea has 18 years experience of the food and drink business and has been behind some of the sector's most interesting private equity deals of recent times, including Premier Foods and Weetabix.
An Englishman by birth and a Canadian by citizenry, Lea graduated from the University of Western Ontario and joined the investment banking division of Schroders, before moving to Goldman Sachs' M&A team in New York. Between 1993 and 1998 he worked as a key principal at Glenisla, the European affiliate of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. At the age of 29 major US group Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst lured in the young deal-maker to set up its European operations.
The European business thrived under Lea on the back of profitable consumer sector deals. But in 2004, with the support of the company's institutional backers, he staged a coup, splitting from the US parent to set up Lion Capital.
His vision for Lion Capital was clear from the outset. Contrary to the popular perception of private equity, the focus is not on cost-cutting and high leverage, but on genuine business growth, for which he has assembled a team of financiers and food industry experts.
"We focus on building brands and think that is what differentiates us," says Lea.
The latest coup for Lea was the £640m acquisition of Weetabix. Its earnings have doubled in three years, achieved by boosting turnover through new products such as Oatibix rather than by cutting costs.
When it comes back to market - which could happen this year - it will be a much larger concern. It could float but it's far more likely that a large trade buyer will want to snap it up.