The food industry is one of the sectors most resilient to economic downturns but 2009 has not been without its challenges for the world’s leading manufacturers. The turmoil seen on the financial markets in late 2008 gave way to a deep recession in 2009, where credit remained scarce and manufacturers like Uniq, Bakkavor and Dairy Farmers of Britain faced financial problems – with the latter going to the wall. Some food makers, however, have thrived. Read on for which companies just-food feels had a good 2009 – and which suffered.
It was a good 2009 for:
With Cadbury facing 2009’s most high-profile takeover bid, the UK confectioner could seem a strange choice for this year’s list. However, the Dairy Milk maker has enjoyed a buoyant year, with chocolate sales remaining strong in the UK and growing in some of its key emerging markets. Cadbury may have been on a more sticky wicket with gum, a category dented by the downturn, but the business is ending the year on something of a high after a robust takeover defence, led by chief executive Todd Stitzer (pictured), this week. Most industry watchers believe that the momentum in the takeover battle with Kraft rests with Cadbury and that the business is worth far more than the value of the US food giant’s current – and so far only – takeover offer.
2. Dean Foods
The largest dairy processor in the US has seen its business performance steadily improve during 2009 as the company benefitted from low dairy costs. Dean also started a US$300m cost-cutting programme to drive the bottom line. However, Dean’s year was not all about costs. In June, the company snapped up Alpro, with CEO Gregg Engles hailing the soy food maker as “the most strategic asset we could have acquired in the world”. Nevertheless, 2010 could be a challenging year. While Dean looks to build its soy business in the US, there are signs that dairy prices are on the rise.
3. General Mills
The Cheerios cereals and Yoplait yoghurt maker had seemingly one of the most robust businesses among the world’s largest food makers in 2009. The US food group ended the year with some string quarterly numbers and claimed some level of success in thwarting the US retail love affair with private label. Industry watchers were also impressed with its recent commitment to lower sugar in cereals, arguing the move put General Mills ahead of arch-rival Kellogg. 2010 is likely to see General Mills continue to build its international business; its Cereal Partners Worldwide venture with Nestle has already signalled ambitious plans on innovation and in emerging markets.
2009 ended on a bright note for the Ireland-based private-label group. Greencore, as the world’s largest sandwich maker and manufacturer of products ranging from chilled prepared meals, fresh soups, cakes and desserts, has faced some of the toughest conditions it has seen in the convenience sector. However, under the stewardship of chief executive Patrick Coveney, factory closures and business disposals have created a renewed focus at the business and steadily improving results. Moreover, Greencore continued to thrive in the US, a fledgling market for the business but critical for its future growth.
M&A may have dried up elsewhere but Brazilian meat giant JBS did not seem to notice. The year kicked off awkwardly for JBS, when it walked away from its planned acquisition of National Beef Packing Co. in the US amid regulatory concern. However, the JBS management was not deterred and, while its two of its peers in Brazil decided to merge, the group showed its strength. It acquired ailing US poultry giant Pilgrim’s Pride and came together with Bertin, a deal that will create a JBS-led meat titan. JBS found time to get the chequebook out one more time in 2009 with a deal to buy Australian lamb business Tatiara.
While some will not look back with fondness:
1. Dairy Farmers of Britain
Sadly, the economic downturn had its victims. UK dairy co-op Dairy Farmers of Britain (DFB) was one such casualty when it went to the wall this summer. However, a critical factor in the demise of the co-operative came earlier in the decade, just two years after the business was founded in 2002. In 2004, DFB bought the Associated Co-operative Creameries dairy business in a bid to expand but, ultimately, the company could not compete with larger local rivals like Dairy Crest, Arla Foods and Robert Wiseman Dairies. Farmers quit and retail customers looked elsewhere. The administrators were called in in June.
2. Lindt & Sprungli
Chocolate may be seen as one of the food sector’s more recession-resilient categories but not all confectioners had a sweet 2009. Lindt, with a business based on pushing posh chocs, has found the last 12 months tough. The Swiss firm warned in March that 2009 profits would be lower than in 2008 and the company has struggled with the twin pressures of cash-strapped consumers and rising cocoa prices. The cost of cocoa has led to some industry watchers predicting a tough year for chocolate makers in 2010 and Lindt has even been named as a takeover target. Lindt’s share structure may make a sale unlikely but the company faces a challenging year ahead.
3. SOS Corporacion Alimentaria
The olive oil maker had anything but a smooth 2009. The 2008 acquisition of the Bertolli olive oil business from Unilever promised much for the Spanish food group – but the company ends this year in uncertain fashion. The company broke covenants on loan agreements and a share scandal saw SOS’s chairman and CEO dismissed in May. The affair led SOS to restate its 2008 accounts – and book a EUR190m loss – and to a share issue worth EUR200m. Finance costs led the group to post a 2009 half-year loss in August and, in November, SOS admitted it was looking to sell its rice business.
Uniq, the UK-based sandwich-to-desserts maker, was a company that served some of the biggest retailers in Europe. However, facing tumultuous business conditions, the convenience food business was forced to cut its cloth accordingly and retreat from the Continent. Disposals in France, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands were not the first time that Uniq’s management tried to breathe fresh life into the business but investors will no doubt be hoping that the company will benefit from home comforts in 2010.
A rollercoaster of a year for the Dutch food group continued into the final weeks of 2009. The company saw its share price yo-yo in mid-December amid rumours that the planned sale of US business Tree of Life was on its way – but also amid speculation that Wessanen itself could become a takeover target. In February, strategic differences saw CEO Ad Veenhof leave the business and, although Veenhof was replaced an on interim basis, the investment community was expressing concern in the run-up to Christmas that a permanent successor had not been found. Wessanen wants to quit the US and refocus on Europe, creating a leading natural and organic food producer. However, the company’s financial problems are hampering those plans – and saw the business miss out to Dean Foods in the race for Alpro.