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M&A: Urge to merge

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Mergers and acquisition activity is always ongoing in every segment
of industry, but this summer looks to be a particularly hot one for
food and beverage manufacturers.

Companies are repositioning themselves in a complex market, where consumer trends are diverse, wide ranging and subject to change. This is no summer love fest. The outcomes of all the deals could mark a period of heightened competition. Looking at the range of done deals and those in the making gives an insight into each company's reading of the tea leaves. Just today, more potential deals seem to be in the offing. Danone, France's so-called flagship food company, is once again rumoured to be part of the mix. Media in both France and the UK are reporting that Danone is considering selling its biscuit segment for $4.7bn. Kraft Foods and Kellogg's are potentially bidding for the segment, with Pepsico also in the mix. Nestlé, Cadbury, Diageo, Heineken, Intersnack in Germany, Unilever and Frutarom have all been in M&A deals in recent months, or are thought to be on the prowl for suitable investments. One strategy is to hit all the growth trends consultants seem to rave about. Nestlé's acquisition of Novartis Medical Nutrition, is one obvious move as companies look toward health and nutritional products as a growth area. Another related strategy is a reaction to declining, stagnant or slow moving markets for foodproducts in home markets. Rising commodity and input prices, along with retailer pressure to keep prices down, are squeezing margins. Companies are being pushed to reposition themselves toward global diversification, where Asian and Eastern European markets seem to be high growth regions. Associated British Foods has taken a separate diversification strategy, one that bears watching. The company last month announced it would collaborate with BP and DuPont to begin producing biofuels, the demand for which has been blamed for much of the rise in price for cereals. Private equity has been playing a major role in the recent M&A activity. Shareholder activist Nelson Peltz has been a gadfly in the mix. Peltz, head of US-based Trian, a hedge fund, has been buying major stakes in companies such as Heinz, Cadbury and Kraft. In effect he is pushing management to do a better job and has already been responsible for changes at Heinz, where he now sits on the board, and at confectionery company Cadbury. Management has seemingly responded, althought they might claim such deals were already underway. At Cadbury several major changes in company structure have occurred since the purchase. The company has already announced the separation of its confectionery and beverage division, and pledged to spend about €666m on a cost reduction programme between 2007 and 2011. Cadbury has also made recent acquisitions in the Turkish and Romanian confectionery markets, and restructured operations in Europe, Middle East and Africa into two. Now Peltz will supposedly encourage Kraft to sell brands such as Post cereals and Maxwell House coffee in order to focus on improving its core frozen food and cheese businesses. His activism is a healthy sign in an industry that seems slow to respond to change, but is prized for reliable cash generation. Warren Buffett, chief executive and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is also rumored to be on the lookout for food and beverage companies he can transform into better cash cows. Statistics from Barrington Associates indicate that mergers among the top-tier food companies have been virtually non-existent over the past three to five years because management was busy paying down debt and integrating operations. In the US for example M&A activity has grown from $6.76bn worth of deals in 2003, to $16.40bn last year. In the first half of this year $11.91bn worth of M&A activity has already occurred. For small and medium sized businesses that get left out of the deals, this will be a critical time as M&A activity heats up. An old African saying seems apt here: When elephants fight, it's the grass that gets hurt. Ahmed ElAmin is editor of FoodProductionDaily.com. He is a business journalist who specialises in development issues, food, wine, technology, international business and offshore finance. To comment on this article please e-mail ahmed.elamin@decisionnews.com.

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