This week saw two more giant deals for the food industry in a year that has been filled with mergers, acquisitions and divestments. Sysco announced it would spend $3.5 billion to buy competitor U.S. Foods; meanwhile, WhiteWave announced it would spend $600 million to acquire Earthbound Farm.
Those deals, as different as they were, pointed to a series of business trends in food and beverages that dominated the headlines in 2013. These are hardly new concepts in the mergers and acquisitions world, but they did seem to take on a new urgency this year. And we see no reason why those trends won't continue into 2014.
BUYING MARKET SHARE
There's a change-management and business theory known as "corporate lifecycles" that we adore. Without spending a lot of time explaining what is a fairly complex approach, suffice it to say that the theory tracks the growth of companies at various stages of their existence.
One of those stages is called "aristocracy," when a company tends to struggle to find growth, shies away from new markets, and focuses on short-term financial gains. Aristocratic companies often take to merging with other aristocratic companies in an effort to control market share.
The Sysco-U.S. Foods merger is a classic example of such a royal wedding. But it's not the only one we've seen this year.
Dairy Farmers of America, although structured as a cooperative, has been acting the part of the aristocratic corporation in its mergers with Dairy Maid and other similar companies. Another approach common among aristocratic companies is to buy up smaller competitors in smaller markets. That's the approach J&J Snack Foods seems to be taking as it buys up every other pretzel maker in North America.
DUMPING THE NON-CORE
When aristocrats age they often enter the stage called "early bureaucracy," a time marked by corporate restructuring and blame placing. It's also a time when a corporation will announce with great fanfare that it is shedding non-core assets, returning to its roots, and "doing what we do best."
No company has better illustrated this trend in 2013 than Nestle. The world's largest food company has suddenly taken to selling anything that doesn't seem Nestle enough. Jenny Craig? Dump it. Givaudan? Who needs it?
Other companies in a similar position include Chiquita — which hired a new CEO in 2012 who plans to "focus on the core" and "eliminate distractions" — and Del Monte Foods, which has decided its core is actually pet food.
BUYING YOUNGER COMPANIES
Aging corporations often look to regain their youth by buying a much younger company that is presumed to have expertise in new markets. Examples this year include Coca-Cola, which is seeking shelter from the anti-soda movement and completed its takeover of coconut-water bottler Zico Beverages; Campbell Soup, which is seeking shelter from the declining market for canned soups by buying Silicon Valley darling Plum Organics; and Post Holdings, which is seeking shelter from the collapsing market for cold cereal by buying every company it can find that doesn't make cold cereal.
The corporate lifecycle approach to understanding businesses isn't flawless, but it can be illuminating. And nearly every transaction we've seen this year fits into the model. (WhiteWave's purchase of Earthbound Farm is a particularly wacky one. WhiteWave was spun off as non-core by Dean Foods just 14 months ago, and is buying Earthbound as it exits the "adolescent" stage, when company founders step aside.)
And if nothing else, corporate lifecycle theory is pretty good at predicting what a company is likely to do as growth slows. Which is a sort of long-winded way of saying we expect A-B InBev and SABMiller to merge in 2014 in one of the largest aristocratic marriages in food and beverage history.
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