Talking shop: Pragmatic Ahold puts Nordic foray under review
Ahold, the Dutch retail giant, made another announcement this week that underlined how differently the business is managed in the second decade of the 21st century compared to the first.
On Tuesday (4 September), Ahold admitted it is weighing up the options for its stake in ICA, the Sweden-based retail venture it set up in 2000.
The Dutch retail giant owns 60% of ICA, which has stores in Sweden, Norway and the Baltic states.
However, management control of ICA is jointly held with Hakon Invest, a fund that invests in retailers in the Nordic region. Hakon Invest describes ICA as the "base" of its strategy and, even though it owns a 40% economic stake in the retailer, it equally shares control of the venture's strategy with Ahold. And, crucially, as Hakon Invest reiterated after Ahold's announcement on Tuesday, it wants to keep its investment in ICA. And, with Ahold wanting to have full control over its businesses as it pursues growth, the end of the venture is on the cards.
The ICA venture was, according to some industry watchers, symptomatic of Ahold's plan 15 to 20 years ago to be a more global player. In the early 1990s, Ahold entered the Czech Republic and formed a venture in Portugal with local retailer Jeronimo Martins. In the Noughties, Ahold made a move into Slovakia and decided on further investments in the US, a market it first entered in 1970.
Ahold's more recent expansion has been at a slower pace, focusing on organic growth, except for one or two minor acquisitions in the US. And current CEO Dick Boer has put in place a new strategy that, when announced last November, begged some questions over long-term growth but won plaudits for its measured, incremental approach to expansion in the short to medium term.
However, the 2003 accounting scandal that rocked Ahold has led to a very different type of business, analysts argue.
"The big change in Ahold was the accounting scandal," SNS Securities analyst Richard Withagen says. "When you ask the company ... it says now we don't want to go that way again and we want to grow in a much more controlled manner."
Petercam analyst Fernand de Boer adds: "The ventures are much more something from the past management that had a feeling of being a global company. That's why they entered into these kind of agreements," he says. "This management wants to grow the company in a controlled way. You don't have the control with ICA and they want to use the money in a different way."
Announcing the ICA review, Ahold said it wants to focus "on businesses it controls". The review will take six to 12 months to complete, it said, with an IPO one option on the table.
An Ahold spokesperson acknowledged ICA's strengths, particularly in Sweden. However, he said the company wanted to be able to implement its strategy across its businesses and saw a possible disposal of its stake in ICA as a way to spend resources elsewhere.
"It's a good business, a highly cash-generative business, a strong brand, a very strong competitor," the Ahold spokesperson said of ICA. "We believe there are other ways to create more value. It's all about focus, one strategy for all parts of the group."
That said, at Petercam, de Boer estimates Ahold's ICA stake could be worth EUR2bn, prompting the obvious question as to whether the proceeds could be used, not just to implement the Dutch retailer's strategy, but for major acquisitions in its existing markets and "adjacent" countries, as the Albert Heijn owner labels new markets.
The Ahold spokesperson said the retailer would continue its "somewhat cautious approach to our balance sheet". SNS Securities' Withagen goes further. "They want to focus more on organic growth. It doesn't really change the view on acquisitions," he says.
But what of ICA? Is it an attractive investment for shareholders in an IPO or a potential buyer in a one-off sale.
Withagen insists Ahold's returns from its investment in ICA have been "poor" and points out the problems the Nordic retailer has had with its Norwegian business in recent years.
A Swedish retail analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, describes ICA's Swedish business as "an excellent performer" and "one of the most profitable food retailers in Europe". The analyst says: "They are definitely the leading concept in Sweden, close to half the market. Like-for-like, they are outperforming peers and they have been for a long time."
However, Norway has proved a problem, as the analyst acknowledges. In 2011, ICA's losses in Norway more than doubled as the retailer recorded an impairment charge on the business. The Swedish analyst says ICA is trying to turn around its Norwegian operations but insists the business in that market is still under pressure.
"They've had too high prices, poor locations, concepts that didn't fit the Norwegian consumer. They tried to make it more like the Swedish ICA that the Norwegians didn't like," the analyst tells just-food. "They are going back to the original soft discount brand, that looks a little promising but I wouldn't say they are out of the woods. It's still quite significantly loss making but sales aren't developing as well. It has had quite a number of years with quite poor performance and we haven't seen that much improvement yet."
With Hakon Invest keen to keep its stake in ICA, a listing of Ahold's shares seems most likely. Withagen suggests a trade buyer could be interested, citing Danish retailer Dansk Supermarked as a possibility. However, others argue a single buyer of Ahold's stake could be put off by having to share control with Hakon Invest.
The Swedish retail analyst indicates Hakon Invest has the right of first refusal to take control of ICA under its agreement with Ahold but says the fund may not want to do so. "It would be quite a heavy investment and it might require them to take on a lot of risk that they may not want to have," the analyst says.
In a sign of Ahold's pragmatism, the spokesperson is quick to insist the retailer would only sell up or launch an IPO if the price was right. Ahold withdrew plans to sell its minority stake in its Portuguese venture when Jeronimo Martins did not offer the price it wanted.
"It would not be our preferred option," the spokesperson said but added: "We're not selling at any price."
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