It had gone 7pm on Friday night when, at last, UK poultry and fish supplier Boparan Holdings showed its hand in the battle to buy Northern Foods.
Boparan Holdings had been rumoured to be ready to make a bid for Northern since before Christmas but the business and its owner, the food tycoon Ranjit Boparan, kept us guessing right up to the 7pm deadline laid down by the UK’s Takeover Panel.
The GBP342m (US$545m) bid, which Boparan Holdings claimed would give Northern shareholders a whopping 80%-plus premium on what they would get if their company pressed ahead with its plan to merge with Greencore, was accepted by the UK firm’s board.
Mr Boparan had built a 6.6% stake in Northern since the company first announced its plan to merge with Ireland’s Greencore in November and reportedly doubted whether the transaction could bring about the benefits the two companies said it would – notably GBP40m in annual cost savings. On Friday evening, the entrepreneur insisted that, if he succeeded in buying Northern, the combined company would become one of Britain’s “major food suppliers” with “significant opportunities that will benefit customers, consumers and employees”.
Greencore responded this morning by saying it would “consider its options” and speak to both its own investors and Northern shareholders. There has been speculation this morning that Greencore could return to the table with a better offer, including a cash element to win over Northern’s shareholders. Greencore, however, declined to comment. Investors in both Greencore and Northern are scheduled to vote on their companies’ proposed merger next Monday and there remains much for all sides to chew over in the week ahead.
Another major UK food manufacturer that has grabbed the M&A headlines in recent months is Premier Foods, the country’s largest food maker. The company’s management, led by chief executive Robert Schofield, has been facing pressure to reduce its rather hefty debts (which at the end of June stood at over GBP1.3bn). Last month, Premier announced a series of management changes that the company said would “accelerate” the growth of its brands and its innovation pipeline. However, disposals have always been the most effective way to appease investors, which include private-equity firm Warburg Pincus, and, today, Premier announced it had found a buyer for its meat-free business, which includes the Quorn brand. Could more disposals be in the pipeline?
In the US last week, speculation over the fate of Sara Lee continued, with Brazilian meat giant JBS reportedly weighing up tabling a fresh bid for the business in tandem with a consortium of unnamed suitors. However, the most intriguing story to emerge from across the Atlantic was Wal-Mart’s decision to revamp a swathe of its private-label portfolio as part of a drive to “make food healthier and more affordable for everyone”.
Wal-Mart’s announcement was made alongside First Lady Michelle Obama and will see the retail giant, among other things, slash the salt and sugar content in thousands of products. The move won praise from consumer advocates in the US, with some believing other retailers, and indeed Wal-Mart’s suppliers, will be forced to follow the company’s lead.
“What they are announcing really can have a significant impact across the supply chain because they will be requiring this not only of themselves and their private label brands but also of their vendors,” one consumer lobbyist told just-food on Thursday.
However, another said advocacy groups would be “holding Wal-Mart’s feet to the fire” to ensure the retailer follows through on what remain voluntary moves. Some public-interest groups believe the US government should be taking a tougher line on getting the food sector to play its part in tackling obesity.
Of course, industry would counter that much has already been pledged, including moves from suppliers to reformulate their own products. By announcing its move alongside the First Lady, however, Wal-Mart has staked its credibility on the issue and is likely to fulfil its promises.
As such, the largest retailer in the US, which last year set out plans to make its business and its supply base greener, will now be asking more of its vendors in the field of health and wellness.