Food makers are snapping up smaller rivals at the fastest pace in four years to buy time until consumers start spending again.
Campbell Soup Co.’s purchase of Bolthouse Farms for $1.55 billion announced yesterday highlights a bright spot in an otherwise slow year for acquisitions. Fueled by record-low borrowing rates, food companies this year are on pace for the most takeovers since the recession even as overall deal volume tumbles.
Several years of aggressive cost-cutting in the face of sluggish revenue growth have left foodmakers with little more to pare. Companies are instead using their stockpiles of cash to buy growth and the chance for new operational savings.
“The top line is not moving and the only needle these companies can move is cost, and that needle is tapped out,” Sachin Shah, a Jersey City, New Jersey-based special-situations strategist for Tullett Prebon Plc, said in an interview. “You have to spend to get cost synergies. They need cash flow.”
There have been 116 pending or completed takeovers of diversified food companies announced around the world this year through yesterday, with a total value of $15.8 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s the most at this point in the year since 2008, when there were 130 announced deals valued at $5.46 billion. At this time last year, there had been 88 announced deals worth about $13.3 billion.
The broader deal market has been slower, with about 13,550 takeovers valued about $1.02 trillion in all industries announced this year through yesterday, compared with 14,624 valued at $1.31 trillion a year earlier.
The purchase of Bolthouse from Chicago-based private-equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners LLC is the second-largest consumer-focused takeover of a diversified food company this year after Kellogg Co.’s $2.7 billion purchase of the Pringles potato chip brand from Procter & Gamble Co., announced in May.
The increase in food deals is coming mostly from companies with specific strategic goals, said Andrew Ross, chief strategy officer for ConAgra Foods Inc. Buyers have been looking for acquisitions to fill holes, rather than mega-deals, he said.
“Deals are on the uptick because everyone is looking for growth,” Ross said. “But everyone is being disciplined about it. No one wants to make a mistake in this environment.”
ConAgra, based in Omaha, Nebraska, bought Pita Chips from Milwaukee-based Kangaroo Brands Inc. in May, to get into the growing pita sector. While Pita Chips has only about $20 million in annual revenue, ConAgra expects the company can boost the business more than the prior owner, Ross said.
ConAgra, which sells Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn and Healthy Choice frozen meals, saw an opportunity in April to add to its frozen-food business with Odom’s Tennessee Pride, a producer of frozen breakfast meals with more than $190 million a year in sales. The acquisition adds new products to ConAgra’s existing frozen food business, Ross said.
Food companies have struggled to increase growth in the U.S., where the economy expanded 2 percent in the year through March and the unemployment rate has remained higher than 8 percent for more than three years.
“Companies have picked the low-hanging fruit as it relates to cost-cutting and growth,” said David Garfield, managing director of the North American consumer-products practice at consulting firm AlixPartners in Chicago. “One of the few things left is to expand the portfolio or find some synergies in an acquisition.”
Buying Bolthouse will strengthen Campbell’s U.S. beverage division, which makes the V8 brand of juice and accounted for about 10 percent of sales in the year ended July 31. That unit was Camden, New Jersey-based Campbell’s fastest-growing last quarter, generating $208 million in revenue, while sales in its soup unit have slowed.
Bolthouse, which employs about 2,100 people, sells fresh carrots, beverages and salad dressings as well as private-label products. The Bakersfield, California-based company had $689 million in sales and earnings before interest and taxes of about $79 million last year.
Campbell’s U.S. beverage business boosted sales 2 percent to $593 million in the nine months ended April 29. Sales in its U.S. Simple Meals business, which includes soup, declined 2 percent to about $2.3 billion in the same period.
The deal also gives Campbell better shelf placement in grocery stores, Garfield said in a phone interview. Campbell generally sells soups and beverages in the center of the store, where meal staples are displayed. Bolthouse Farms has talked grocers into selling its juices in produce aisles, alongside fresh vegetables, which could give Campbell a better chance to move around.
“In addition to diversifying the product portfolio, the acquisition gives Campbell a direct conduit to the produce aisle and the connotation of selling fresh and healthy products that goes with it,” he said.
Campbell said it is financing the purchase with a combination of short- and long-term debt. The company is picking the right time to tap credit markets.
Investment-grade corporate bond yields in the U.S. fell to a record low yesterday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data show. Yields declined to 3.233 percent, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch U.S. Corporate Master index. That’s the lowest level in data extending back to 1986.
Campbell’s debt is rated A2 by Moody’s Investors Service and A- at Standard & Poor’s, near the middle of both firms’ investment-grade ratings. The company had about $2.01 billion of long-term borrowings at the end of April, down about 17 percent from a year earlier.
With German bond yields negative and U.S. Treasury yields near record lows, stable corporations can easily find investors for their bonds even at low yields, Shah said. Investors like the stability of debt issued by companies such as Campbell that have staying power.
“There is a significant hunger for yield,” Shah said. “And food companies have a lot of cash they haven’t deployed.”