Best bits: Iceland Foods seals week of headlines for UK retail
Iceland Foods' management, including founder and CEO Malcolm Walker, will own 43% of retailer
It was, in the end, no major surprise. But it did mark the end of a saga that had lasted the best part of two years.
Late on Friday afternoon (9 March), it emerged that a consortium of investors led by Malcolm Walker, the founder and chief executive of UK frozen food retailer Iceland Foods, had taken over the company.
In a deal that valued Iceland Foods at GBP1.45bn, Walker and three of the retailer's other directors acquired a 43% stake in the business. Three co-investors, Dubai-based retailer Landmark Group, UK businessman Lord Kirkham (who founded furniture chain DFS) and South African private-equity firm Brait, backed the offer and will a combined 57%.
Walker is said to be "very happy" with the new shareholder structure at Iceland. The 66-year-old and the other Iceland directors will have "operational and board control" of the business.
"Our new equity partners in the business are like-minded entrepreneurs who share our belief in doing the right thing in the long term interests of our people and customers. We all look forward to working with them to build on the outstanding success that Iceland has achieved as one of the UK’s best performing food retailers since the current senior management team returned to the company in 2005," Walker said.
It is the latest stage of a colourful career for Walker. He founded Iceland while working for now defunct UK retailer Woolworths in 1970. In 2001, he was fired by Iceland amid allegations of insider dealing (he was cleared three years later) and set up another frozen food business. In 2005, he returned to Iceland as chief executive after the company, which had been struggling, was acquired by Icelandic investment firm Baugur.
Walker and other Iceland's directors held a 23% stake in the retailer and last week's buy-out of the chain's other shareholders, collapsed Icelandic banks Landsbanki and Glitnir, left the company's founder, who had long been seen as a strong contender to buy the business, "delighted".
And the future looks bright for Iceland. The retailer, which has over 850 stores in the UK, has a record share of the country's grocery market, according to data from Kantar Worldpanel, with sales increasing at a double-digit rate.
Some of Iceland's recent success can be put down to the downturn in the UK (although Walker can take some credit for refocusing the business since he took over again in 2005). Another UK retailer that can be said to have thrived despite the challenging trading conditions is one at the other end of the consumer spectrum - upmarket grocer Waitrose.
After seeing profits fall in 2008, Waitrose has, in recent years, managed to increase its market share by maintaining its well-heeled image and, at the same time, developing a reputation, in some areas, for value. The retailer's operating profit increased in 2009 and 2010 as its broader appeal and new stores boosted sales.
However, with food sales volumes falling in the UK last year, competition in the country's grocery sector intensified, weighing on Waitrose's profits, which fell in 2011 due to investment in expansion and in running promotions to compete with the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury's. The fall in earnings, however, did not concern industry watchers, who backed Waitrose's strategy.
Waitrose MD Mark Price told just-food he "hoped and expected" profits would grow again in 2012 but insisted the retailer would become "more price competitive" this year. However, with Tesco looking to revitalise stagnant sales in the UK, Waitrose should continue to fight hard on price, while maintaining its premium credentials in other parts of its offer.
That said, Price and Waitrose do have other areas to work on this year. There is still room for improvement, not least online. Price insists there is "great potential" for Waitrose in the channel and cited recent sales growth of 30%. However, most of the UK's major multiples are stepping up their online investment, not least Tesco and Sainsbury's, which yesterday proclaimed it was the country's second-largest online food retailer and said it had "ambitious growth targets" for that side of its business.
The convenience sector needs to be another area of focus for Waitrose. The company is continuing to build its network of c-stores and it needs to, with Tesco and Sainsbury's continuing to add stores, Asda possessing a raft of smaller outlets after the acquisition of Netto's UK business and Morrisons pledging last week to open more of its M Local shops.
Plenty for Price, who once dubbed himself The Chubby Grocer, to chew on.
Morrisons' comments on convenience came as it was the first of the major UK retailers to announce full annual financial results. The country's fourth-largest grocer saw pre-tax profits increase 8% and CEO Dalton Philips described the last 12 months as the retailer's "best year yet".
The retailer said the next 12 months would be "challenging" but, speaking to reporters as it announced its numbers on Thursday, it said it expected to deliver "profitable growth" in 2012 despite plans to increase its level of investment in some long-term initiatives. CFO Richard Pennycook said improved efficiency would help to boost profits in a year in which Philips believe consumers will still be under pressure.
Nonetheless, Morrisons plans to open 20 more of those M Local convenience stores and convert more of its main outlets to its new "fresh format" - a vital move, given the renewed emphasis Tesco is placing on fresh food as it looks to revitalise stagnant UK sales.
"We are trading for today whilst building for tomorrow," Philips said. Just as well. There will be no let up from the competition.
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