Fish or fuel? Two key themes in grocery these past few months grew curiouser and curiouser this week.
It’s been a curious couple of years in the fishing business, that’s for sure. British Seafood’s implosion in 2010 was followed by a messy 2011 for Findus, in which Lion Capital has, on the one hand, been reportedly looking to build a £1bn war chest for acquisitions while propping up its former Foodvest acquisition on two separate occasions in the past 12 months, most recently this month.
In December Findus did find time to acquire stricken Cumbrian, for £1m, from administrators - presumably on the assumption that Cumbrian’s biggest customer, Morrisons, would stay on board. In the event, Morrisons has bought its own chilled facilities in Grimsby. And this week, in a further twist in the tail, The Grocer can reveal that Morrisons is working with Ranjit Boparan’s 2 Sisters Food Group on a £4m deal to supply chilled fish.
With Lion now openly touting its seafood business for sale (it’s conveniently filleted it into three country-based units), Birds Eye Iglo would ordinarily be interested in at least two of these operations, as it has a limited presence in France, and none whatsoever in Scandinavia.
The fact it hasn’t bitten may partly be the result of Lion asking too high a price but the prospect of a deal has unquestionably been complicated by Iglo’s private equity owner Permira - having opted to ‘buy and build’ with the addition of Unilever’s Italian operations in 2010 - no longer being in the mood to build further, as it wants something to show now for the progress Birds Eye has made.
That may be about to change. With the integration of Iglo’s Italian business ahead of plan, debts down from over €2bn to €1.2bn by the end of 2012 - and the debt markets themselves in a lot better shape - leading private equity groups have reportedly expressed an interest in a €2.5-€3bn secondary buyout. Trade buyers may also be interested.
But whatever the terms of the deal, Lion surely won’t be king of the frozen jungle for very much longer.