There has been a recent upturn in M&A activity, driven by a return of confidence, an appetite for brands and interest from private equity funds and trade buyers, especially from the Far East - as witnessed by Suntory Group’s deal to buy Beam Inc.
British heritage brands, in particular, have begun to court interest from Asian buyers. Previous deals such as Bright Food’s acquisition of Weetabix and the Suntory Group’s purchase of Ribena and Lucozade provide a blueprint for picking up heritage brands with global appeal.
For the acquired brand, international owners can open the door to a growing number of middle-class consumers in new markets - growing visibility, marketability and sales. But some peculiar issues are emerging, such as buyers meeting resistance at home from politicians, consumers, industry commentators and in some cases regulators, who are concerned about loss of knowhow, local decision-making and heritage.
The acquisition of Cadbury was a case in point in the UK, though the authorities did nothing to prevent the sale. Within food and drink, there is a growing realisation that what is being purchased is not only a household name, but also intellectual property and control of indigenous decision-making.
The recent scrutiny of China’s Shuanghui International’s bid for US pork producer Smithfield Foods is another example of this trend. The purchase was investigated by US authorities over concerns it was more about entry into US markets and IP than assets. The deal was eventually approved, but not without fear that the US pork industry could lose its competitive advantage.
Deals like this highlight anxieties that too much IP and control are being concentrated in too few hands, in this case the Chinese state, and could lead to a dramatic shift in power in the global food and beverage landscape.
With sales of companies like Beam Inc and Burton’s Biscuit Company, foreign purchases of heritage brands are showing no signs of slowing. Expect more public outcry - and perhaps authority intervention - as more brands are sold.
Craig Hodgson is head of food and beverage at Mills & Reeve