HJ Heinz said it will continue to invest “aggressively” in emerging markets as it eyes possible M&A opportunities.

Speaking on the firm’s earnings call today (1 September), chairman, president and CEO William Johnson told analysts that it is seeing more M&A opportunities in emerging markets, as the division represented 17.8% of the group’s business in the first quarter.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to deploy our capital not just for a short-term benefit but for the long-term health of the organisation,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to figure out ways to continue to drive that [growth] while building the infrastructure in the regions where we are now and in some of the markets where we feel we can leverage, much like Food Star in China.

“My preference is to still continue to look for those M&A opportunities that exist in the emerging markets and I can tell you we are not spending much time looking for M&A opportunities in the US or Western Europe, our focus is entirely on the emerging world,” Johnson insisted.

He added that Heinz is eyeing businesses of all sizes in the developing markets, with a preference for the “buy and build” approach.

“The beauty for us is, if you look at our regions where we have business in emerging markets, whether it be Asia, Russia, Latin America of Africa… we now have management teams in place that are perfectly capable of handling incremental businesses of almost any size,” Johnson said. “It is going to depend on the opportunity, obviously on the cost of return, it will depend on the capabilities of the management team and the strength of the business, and my preference is buy and build, but that does not preclude us from doing something of a larger scale.”

Johnson added that a combination of commodities, the economy, the impact on consumer confidence, and the lack of direction on foreign exchange for multinationals, means businesses, including itself, are tying to figure out “how do we deal in an economy like this”.

“We’re going to continue to push aggressively in terms of incremental investment into the emerging markets, the only markets that are showing sustainable growth in all the countries we operate in and where consumers are becoming increasingly confident. Otherwise you’re just chasing consumers deeper into their cave of hibernation. For a company like Heinz we have to be extraordinarily conscious and analytical about where we’re getting returns on our spending,” he added.

Heinz this morning reported “solid” first-quarter profit growth, driven by double-digit sales growth in emerging markets and North America.

In the quarter ended 28 July, the company earned US$240m compared to $213m in the prior year, which included a net loss of $2.2m from discontinued operations.

Heinz shares dropped 0.74% to $45.90 per share at 10.29am EDT today.