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Unilever move latest in wave of deals in food sector

By Anita Awbi , 08-Feb-2006

Unilever's proposed frozen division sell-off in Europe is part of the latest in a wave of deals taking place in the food sector, as some of world's leading producers sell side-line brands to private equity firms.

CapVest, an ambitious private equity firm, may be interested in buying Unilever's Captain Bird's Eye brand, after purchasing the Findus portfolio from EQT last month and expressing interest in Heinz frozen foods.

This move represents renewed merger and acquisition activity within global food manufacture, with chilled and frozen foods divisions providing the best options for companies looking to consolidate their reach.

 

"There's still a lot happening in the sector. It's a very unconsolidated market relative to the retail sector it supplies. Manufacturers are constantly getting beaten up by retailers," PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) food sector leader Neil Sutton told FoodandDrinkEurope.com.

 

"So I think there will be lots of movement in frozen and chilled foods in the coming months," he added.

 

The opportunity for increased consolidation comes as some of the largest food manufacturers are getting low returns on their frozen food divisions, seeing nominal one per cent growth rates.

 

They seem to be faring worst in the UK, where chilled food is becoming increasingly popular and more and more retailers are swapping freezer space for fridges.

 

But Sutton sees investment in the frozen foods industry as a fairly solid venture for companies looking to consolidate their interests in this area.

 

"In Europe there is a general trend towards chilled foods, and this is most prominent in the UK. But a frozen foods brand can move to chilled, much like the Marie brand in France," he said.

 

"And a lot of these companies are pan-European. Findus is a multinational business and so is Unilever. CapVest strategy is to consolidate the European frozen foods sector so these businesses make sense. Something like Bird's Eye is a powerful brand."

 

Some global suppliers are realising the middle ground may not be so profitable, as small firms with local strategies etch out a place alongside global businesses who are leading the way with key brands and formidable marketing.

 

Those manufacturers in the middle, stretching a global presence with a large and thinly spread portfolio, may find it tougher.

 

Sutton said: "The issue for Unilever is their strategy to focus on a smaller number of brands. The world got smaller, so I suppose it's more efficient from a manufacturer's point of view to concentrate on fewer brands."

 

Unilever's frozen foods business has annual sales of around £1.4 billion, but has been underperforming in recent years as European consumers opt for fresher alternatives.

 

The Anglo-Dutch firm has been looking to sell the division to concentrate on staple brands such as Hellman's mayonnaise, as spiralling production costs continue to shrink profit margins. Unlike rivals Kraft and Nestlé the company has not passed these rising overheads on to consumers.

 

And Heinz, also feeling rising production costs and European private label threat, has decided to concentrate its resources on its most famous brands, such as Baked Beans, Ketchup and Farley's Baby Food.

 

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