Just who are Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst? They're not a firm of solicitors or indeed members of a boy band, but an American private equity company which has been behind some of the biggest recent deals in the food sector. But with a public persona so low-key as to be almost non-existent, you could be forgiven for having little knowledge of the group or it's strategy.
Here's the lowdown. Since it set up in 1989, Hicks, Muse has completed, or has pending, in excess of 400 transactions worldwide with a total capital value of more than $50bn.
It focuses primarily on three areas: consumer branded products, media and industrial manufacturing. It has a strong European presence within the consumer branded products and media sectors and buys businesses with a view to putting together sector-level consolidation strategies ­ the firm calls this its "buy and build" strategy.
It set up an office in London four years ago and, in 1999, bought Hillsdown Holdings ­ a publicly traded company with grocery, poultry and furniture businesses ­ which it separated out, moving the food business away and labelling it Premier Foods.
Around the same time, it made a successful 18-month investment in Mumm and Perrier-Jouë´ champagne houses which it bought from Seagram and sold on to Allied Domecq.
It followed this up by buying Burton's Biscuits from AB Foods in October 2000 which gave it more than 20% of the UK biscuit market with key brands including Jammie Dodgers and Wagon Wheels.
Then it took over Nestl駳 ambient food businesses in the UK in May. This gave it brands such as Crosse & Blackwell, Branston Pickle and Sarson's vinegar and added to an existing larder of distinctly British foods including Typhoo Tea, Hartley's and Chivers jams and preserves, Smash mashed potato and HP Beans.
In the firm's smart London offices, associate Luca Velussi cuts a sharp, corporate figure who is keen to insist that there is nothing shadowy about the organisation. He says: "Our public profile is deliberately low-key in the UK as it is in the US, although we get press when we do deals and our profile goes up.
"How the companies do expresses what we are about."
Velussi plays down suggestions that the company is unusual. "What we do is not that different to larger food companies which focus on big brands. We just do it on a much smaller scale.
"We have a sector-based approach ­ we try to build world class businesses but will look to see what we can do before we buy it."
And it is fair to say that Hicks, Muse is making a much better job of it than some of its rivals. It aims to focus on brands that have scale by investing and growing them with advertising and marketing support.
The management tends to focus on brands which have a turnover in excess of £20-25m so it can support them and stimulate growth.

No fixed strategy for exiting deals
It also claims to stick with a company longer than the average private equity firm because of its strategy to grow a business. "So long as we keep adding value it makes sense." And Velussi claims not to have a fixed strategy for exiting deals ­ they're driven by opportunities and circumstances, he says.
Through Premier, it has set out to refocus the Nestl頢rands into positions of strength. The original acquisition of Premier Foods was predominantly own label but, by streamlining the business and by the acquisition of the Nestl頢rands, the focus is now on branded goods which it reckons are more appealing to consumers, retailers and shareholders. This assertion is borne out by their near £1bn turnover. Says Velussi: "Premier has been a success story for us. Whether it be acquisitions or NPD, we are always looking at expanding what we currently have."
The company has also put all the various parts of the business under one operating management team so that it presents "one story, one business". But why food manufacturing and why the UK? Velussi says Hicks, Muse picked London because of the high level of private equity activity and opportunities in the food sector. "The retailer base is very concentrated here but the firm in the States had done a lot of transactions in the sector, so we had credibility."
But the company is not seeking massive rates of growth and says "relatively predictable outfits which generate cashflow and are of a recurring nature" are the target.
Velussi acknowledges, however, that the UK has its own challenges, such as the squeeze on prices and online auctions. "It is difficult but we've found a way to operate which is satisfactory.
"And here you can do things that are harder to do in Germany and France in terms of the speed of change you can put through your organisation."
Velussi says 2000 was tough for Premier Foods but that was counteracted by having good managers. "It's been a rough ride in the food manufacturing sector but you react by trying to run your business more efficiently, introduce new products or build on the brands you have. "Relationships with the retailers have improved because we have unified the management team. It's in our interest to keep good relationships with potential buyers and sellers ­ that's more important than any kind of public relations."
He believes manufacturing success depends on management's execution and having a team that plans properly ahead. The firm also makes sure the manufacturing facilities it buys are well invested in, to avoid nasty surprises.
There are no plans for acquisitions at the moment, but Hicks, Muse believes there are still plenty of opportunities around Europe.
"We're still looking at acquisitions in consumer packaged goods across the Continent, but it's difficult to predict when something will come up. We do have the knowhow and experience in the area and when something surfaces we'll take a look at it."