In prior posts I have lamented about the reality that the pet consumables industry lacks a deep pool of brand consolidators. Once you get past the “big three” (Nestle Purina, Big Heart Brands (The J.M. Smucker Company), and Mars), the industry possess a limited set of buyers who operate brand portfolios and who have deep pockets to afford the most attractive properties at prevailing transaction multiples. That is not to say there are no other capable buyers of pet consumables properties, but rather that the current valuation paradigms of the second tier of buyers represents a significant drop from that of market leaders, whom simply can do more strategically and operationally with the assets they acquire.
Conventional wisdom has been that, over time, this reality would work itself out in four ways. First, was that the largest Tier 2 players would become aggressive in their M&A push in an effort to challenge the market leaders. Save for Spectrum Brands, who has been active, acquiring Proctor & Gamble’s European division, which includes the Iams and Eukanuba brands, and Salix Animal Health, a leading pet treat manufacturer, this segment of buyers has been largely stagnant. Hill’s Pet Nutrition has participated in a few known M&A processes, but never at valuation levels necessary to challenge the companies it is chasing. Second, was that large private players would become more aggressive in acquiring emerging brands before they became of interest to the large industry players, creating a second economy, so to speak, for sellers. Save for WellPet’s acquisition of Sojos, activity within this class of competitors, at least for consumables companies, has been muted. Generally speaking, these companies have either opted not to run brand portfolios, or chosen to build rather than buy. The third leg of this stool was that foreign buyers would enter the market. Save for Agrolimen SA’s joint venture with Nature’s Variety, we have only heard crickets from the foreign buyer community on notable deals. Finally, the notion was that human food companies would crossover into pet in an effort to capture the growth and margin available to leading industry players. While many have talked-the-talk, they have not been able to close, primarily losing out to industry players on a valuation basis due to operational synergies.
This fact pattern is troubling for many of the emerging authentic brands in the category, who don’t want to be perceived to be selling out a major industry player. For some, the thought of a foreign buyer or a consumer packaged goods or natural food company acquiring them remains seductive. So why has the industry seen such limited crossover appeal to these constituencies? The answer has both quantitative and qualitative underpinnings.
The pet industry possesses a myriad of large foreign operators in the consumables sub-segment. According to petfoodindustry.com, three of the world’s 10 largest pet food players are foreign — Unicharm, Deuerer, and Heristo AG. Additionally, there are five other foreign market players (mostly Western European) producing between $400 – $600 million in annual revenue. Based on the prevailing margin profile for a pet consumables business, these companies would seem to have sufficient financial wherewithal to acquire a mid-sized U.S. pet food business. However, when you analyze this population, the following common traits emerge — largely private companies with closely held/family ownership (Unicharm being the most notable exception), owned manufacturing assets, and a limited acquisition history. Where these companies have been acquisitive the targets have been in the buyer’s home market or in direct geographic adjacency. While some of these acquisitions have been of reasonable size, $50 – $150 million, it is clear that most of these companies are most comfortable sticking to what they know or prospecting only as far geographically as required. Further, when you talk to executives of these companies they tend to cite three primary concerns about U.S. pet consumables M&A — a) a lack of knowledge of the U.S. pet food market, b) a lack of internal M&A capability internally, c) a perception that the market is hyper competitive and therefore of limited attractiveness, and d) the deal prices are high in light of these competitive concerns. It seems logical to conclude that these dynamics are only likely to change if, and when, these companies experience a slowdown in their core business, if ever, and/or a professionalization movement stimulated by private equity drives them towards these outcomes. Of note, some of the smartest U.S. private equity funds with a heritage in pet consumables are actively targeting Western Europe for their next pet deal, but I view the possibility of these parties being players for U.S. assets as being a ways off.
Consumer packaged goods companies, as potential buyers of pet businesses have had their own unique limitations. Most notably, is the challenge these players have had with appreciating the gross margin profiles of the targets. Companies like Clorox and Church & Dwight, who have actively courted pet companies involved in sale processes, are used to product level gross margins that push 50%. We have yet to see a lower middle market pet food company that could produce those types of margins. Scale operators like Blue Buffalo generate 40% gross margins. Further, this class of buyers is not used to employing meat based inputs and concerns about recalls have led them to prioritize companies with owned production assets, which as a class of sellers have been experiencing the highest market valuation multiples in the most recent M&A cycle. Finally, we find consumer product companies, who are used to spending considerable dollars on consumer marketing, do not appreciate the role the pet specialty retailer plays in motivating product sales, and therefore they build into their valuation models a level of additional spend that makes them less competitive on price. Absent a notable cross-over success story, we don’t foresee these sentiments changing. In fact we have seen more companies in this class give up the ghost than take us the charge.
Finally, we have the conundrum of the natural food companies. It would seem logical to assume this class of companies would be interested in the pet space given the current parallels between the human and animal nutrition markets. With the proliferation of grain-free and natural pet solutions, these two markets have never been more closely aligned. There have been several instances where natural food businesses have pursued pet food assets where they appeared poised to win, only to go home empty handed. The challenges here have been both quantitative and qualitative. On the quantitative side, the inability to drive revenue synergies has made them less price competitive, even though deals at prevailing levels for the most attractive properties would have been accretive on an earnings basis (as an example Hain Celestial trades at 16.5x LTM EBITDA). Further, this class of buyers needs a scale property to justify the adjacent market entry to their investor base, which leaves them both limited properties to choose from and puts them in direct competition with the big three. On the qualitative side, two issues have surfaced consistently. First, these companies are being actively pursued by large strategic buyers themselves, which means focus is critical to driving shareholder value and remaining independent if that is what is perceived to be in the best interest of shareholders. Second, is the intellectual conundrum of adding meat to the portfolio mix. Of note, the three largest natural food products companies — General Mills, WhiteWave Foods, and Hain Celestial — orient their market offerings around plant based nutrition. Adding meat into that marketing narrative makes for a bit of a conundrum, even if they are comfortable with the food handling risk. My view is the right property will enable these buyers to overcome those concerns. The attractiveness of the profit margin profile of well managed animal protein based businesses, nearly 2x on an EBITDA margin basis at scale, will be sufficient to motivate a natural products buyer with some vision. I view it as only a matter of time before one of these companies takes this leap of faith, but there is certainly no clarity on when that might happen. WhiteWave Foods and Boulder Brands, the two natural products companies who have come closest to the finish line now find themselves in very different circumstances.
While the above narrative may lead one to conclude the glass is half empty, as opposed to half full, it is actually an improvement on the historical paradigm. Five years ago we would not be mentioning the other classes of buyers as possibilities, let alone probabilities. Today, I see it more as a matter of when, not if.
Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change. While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.