Blog: Sadness over Cadbury isn't wrapped up in the Union Jack
Chris Brook-Carter | 22 January 2010
It's hard to describe the affection with which Cadbury is held by the UK public to those looking in from abroad. Continental Europeans, in particular, don't hold much respect for British chocolate, viewing it as an inferior version of their artisanal product.
But the British public does love Cadbury and you only have to read the press coverage of the company board's decision to sell up, to see that Dairy Milk is held as a national institution.
The media reaction to the news and the various vox pops that have inevitably accompanied the event have been overwhelmingly negative.
From abroad, I can see this might be viewed as simple nationalism. But that would be to misunderstand the British perception of free trade and its tolerance of once great British companies falling into foreign hands.
Maybe it's because I am a strong supporter of the free market and British myself, but in my opinion, there are few countries that really do back up their rhetorical support of free trade with actual action - or largely a lack of it in the case of tariffs and takeover laws - than the UK.
As Kraft Foods made its move on Cadbury, there were no speeches in Parliament calling for a change in the law to protect it - such as happened in France when it was mooted that PepsiCo may try and buy Danone. And, there were no outbreaks of hostility that bordered on the xenophobic, which have been a symptom of other recent cross-border deals elsewhere in the world.
What there was, if I can be so arrogant as to try and sum up the mood of a whole nation, was a sense of sadness and disappointment. Sadness that this particular brick of the UK's manufacturing past had been lost and now faces at least a degree of dismantling. And disappointment that Cadbury's board simply did not fight harder to stay independent.
As I say, neither of these sentiments were overwhelmingly driven by nationalism. We here in the UK have grown pretty used to seeing British companies move into foreign hands and many, we realise, are run a darn sight better as a result. Personally, it doesn't matter to me that the Scotch I drink is owned by a French company or the UK-branded car I drive is actually American. The sadness here is an isolated incident.
I have already explained that I am a rampant free marketeer and I believe that the majority of the UK public are at least resigned to the inevitable consequences of being a part of the global community. And yet, there is something about this particular deal that rankles, which, I believe, has driven the public's distaste for it.
The answer lies in Cadbury's history, which has been well documented in recent weeks. The Quaker roots produced a company with its employees' interests at the heart of its business. The Bournville site in the centre of Birmingham remains a testament to that pioneering vision.
And yet, Cadbury's employees are likely to be the overwhelming losers in all this. Cadbury's shareholder will make a nice profit. Its board will no doubt be rewarded for holding out long enough to push up the final bid. And Kraft walks away with its prize - although whether it proves to be a wise acquisition for a company that has taken on a big lump of debt remains to be seen.
But with Kraft stretching itself to such an extent, cuts will have to be made and as the US company has shown in the past - notably with Terry's - it does not hold much value in local and national sentiment. If it makes sense to move production to Eastern Europe, I'd bet that's where we'll see our Wispa bars coming from soon enough.
Companies come and go. Job cuts are made and new job opportunities open up. But what has been lost here is a company founded upon a noble and at the time revolutionary principle that has been ignored and ultimately squashed in the pursuit of a quick buck.
But what rankles even more is the nagging feeling that it needn't have happened. Cadbury's board had done an excellent job in convincing the business press and the analyst community that it could successfully fight off this challenge.
It seems they did a less impressive job convincing themselves.
Chris Brook Carter, publishing director.
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