When it comes to adapting to ever-changing consumer preferences, food and beverage companies have exercised these options: Change ingredients in current products to make them healthier, develop healthy products, or acquire or merge with a healthy foods company.
General Mills and Nestle have vowed to remove artificial ingredients from some products. Snyder’s-Lance has created more gluten-free products, and Kellogg released healthier options in a debut of more than 40 products earlier this summer.
However, not all companies have the desire or resources to make sweeping internal changes. Some see value in offsetting lagging sales of stale brands by acquiring or merging with fast-growing small and mid-sized companies.
"If you're looking to appease shareholders and find where the value is, it's going to be externally, and that's why a lot of these companies are ramping up their M&A efforts," said Anthony Valentino, financial journalist at Mergermarket.
Industry mergers and acquisitions are maintaining a fast pace, Valentino said. According to Mergermarket's Consumer Trend Report for H1 2015, the food subsector reported $80.2 billion in deal value for mergers and acquisitions for the first half of 2015, an increase of 129.9% over H1 2014. The H1 2015 deal value was the highest H1 deal value since 2007.
Significant mergers and acquisitions have surfaced this year.
Healthy food acquisitions lead industry M&A
Consumers' preferences for healthy foods and beverages is a full-blown shift in culture and perspective. Food and beverage companies that do not already manufacture foods that are deemed "better for you," particularly major processed foods companies, have struggled to stay relevant. Many of these companies have seen flagship brands dwindle as healthier options have taken their place in consumers' grocery baskets.
Instead of allocating the resources needed to rebrand or retool recipes for languishing brands, some companies have acquired smaller natural and organic companies. In the past year:
These types of acquisitions likely won’t stop anytime soon. Valentino agreed, "I think it’ll be consistent. The expectation from people in the industry is that food M&A isn’t going anywhere."
Economic drivers for food M&A
Mergers and acquisitions have proven to be the smart investment.
"Companies find it more economical to purchase existing entities in these markets than start new ones," said Brian Todd, president and CEO of The Food Institute, according to New Hope 360. "It is viewed as a much more cost-effective entry point and one that has already been vetted."
In some cases, companies target promising acquisitions, particularly in the health food space.
“If you look at the corporate landscape, you have a lot of companies that are sitting on a ton of cash, particularly strategic businesses," said Valentino. "This has really jumpstarted that opportunity. … Now you have to look into the middle markets, some of the younger companies, who are growing by leaps and bounds. Plus, the capital (large companies) have sitting on the sidelines lends itself very well to a deal-making environment."
Kraft Heinz: Merger of the year
The current deal-making environment has led to one of the biggest mergers of late: Kraft Heinz Co., which created the third-largest food company in North America.
What was interesting is that unlike other mergers, Kraft Heinz came as a surprise.
"We talk to industry guys everyday, and that was a pretty a well-kept secret," said Valentino. "It was not reported on in any publication, from The Wall Street Journal to wherever, with no real leak beforehand, which was very interesting. Pretty much every deal in the food space at some point in its sale lifecycle has been exposed to the public, but there really wasn't one here. I think that's what really caught some people off guard — that and the sheer size of it as well."
With Kraft Heinz coming out of left field, some may have wondered, "Why a merger of this magnitude? Why now?"
"I know it sounds obvious, but that shift in consumer trends has been emphasized more so in the past few years, and it's really taken a steamroller effect," said Valentino. "That definitely catalyzed it. I don't know if that was the tipping point, but that definitely was a contributor to why you're seeing it now as opposed to five, eight years ago, because I don't think that was really an issue at that point."
Food industry mergers and acquisitions have been financially healthy and healthy for consumers. As mergers and acquisitions have proven to be an increasingly common strategy among major food companies in particular, more companies will be looking for opportunities to acquire or be acquired, and the landscape of the food industry will continue to change along with consumer tastes and preferences.