playbookIn October, Del Monte Foods announced that they had sold their fruit and vegetable business for $1.68 billion.  While the world will still have Del Monte canned pineapple, whole kernel corn, and Contadina tomatoes to enjoy in perpetuity, the transaction speaks volumes about the attractiveness of the pet food business relative to its human corollary.  Del Monte’s pet products business will now operate under the Big Heart Pet Brands banner.

You may recall that back in 2010, when Del Monte Foods was taken private by a private equity syndicate headed by Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts (http://wp.me/piXtL-dU), I postulated that the deal was not about shelf stable fruits and vegetables but a bet on the macro fundamentals of the pet industry.  The sale of Del Monte’s Consumer Products business validates my thesis, as does the recent acquisition of Natural Balance Pet Food.  The real question is what comes next?

As a general rule, private equity backed companies are not keen to keep cash on their balance sheets.  Excess cash is used to make acquisitions, delever, or ends up as dividends to shareholders.  Given the size of the slimmed down Del Monte post sale (some $1.8 billion in revenue), I don’t see the later two options as being viable alternatives. As such, I expect that Del Monte will be an active player in the pet consolidation market, and with that much cheese at its disposal the target list includes brands others cannot contemplate.  So who will Del Monte buy? We handicap the candidates:

  • Blue Buffalo. The Blue is the biggest and best name on the block. Not a month goes by without a rumor surrounding the prospects of a Blue Buffalo acquisition by a major CPG company, but the reality is that the company has limited options for suitors at the purported price tag — $3.0+ billion.  Could Del Monte take it down?  Yes.  Will they? Unlikely.  First, Del Monte’s pet line-up is very much about a product portfolio and spending all your allowance on one product company runs a bit counter to that premise. Second, private equity backed companies do not have a propensity for being top payors.  When Del Monte acquired Natural Balance for $341 million, they paid between 1.0x – 1.5x Revenue.  I’m not sure what multiple of EBITDA a $3.0 billion deal for Blue implies, but it would be far greater than the 9.0x the private equity syndicated paid for Del Monte.  While Del Monte established the market multiples that pet companies aspire to achieve through their acquisitions of Meow Mix and Milk Bone, I don’t see them doing a highly dilutive deal with Blue Buffalo; the cost benefit tradeoff is misaligned. Odds: Not good.
  • Natura Pet Foods. The fate of Proctor & Gamble’s pet food portfolio has been a source of constant speculation.  P&G was rumored to be considering offloading its pet business when they acquired Natura Pet Foods in 2010 (http://wp.me/piXtL-cJ), which some took as an about face. They never integrated Natura, which would make it the most likely candidate among the P&G portfolio to be acquired.  Natura would provide Del Monte another power house brand in premium natural, but of greater significance is the fact it would be buying a portfolio of products (EVO, Innova, California Natural, Healthwise), not a single brand.  This would also enable Del Monte to keep Natural Balance in pet specialty, as the Natura portfolio would meet the same needs in mass.  This strategy runs into two problems, one from each side of the transaction.  First, Natura was the subject of one of the widest recalls ever in June of this year, when the company voluntarily recalled every product it made with an expiration date before June 10, 2014. It was their fourth Natura recall in as many months.  Would Del Monte buy a dented egg?  For the right price I suspect they would.  Second, a sale of Natura would only generate proceeds of less than $500 million, a rounding error for P&G, and therefore not much motivation to transact.  Odds: Possible not probable.
  • Iams Pet Foods/Eukanuba. In contrast to a Natura transaction, the sale of Iams and Eukanuba would likely fetch between $3.0 – $3.5 billion ($2.5 – $3.0 billion of that being Iams). This would be worthy of some attention for both sides. Merging Iams/Eukanuba with Del Monte’s pet food brands would make it the number two player in the market, with 20% share versus 35% for Nestle Purina Pet Care. Notwithstanding my comment about check size above, this deal would be tempting for Del Monte to consider. Iams and Eukaneuba generated approximately $2 billion in revenue in 2012 (allocating the other $300 million of segment revenues to Natura), and therefore would be attractively priced, consistent with the Natural Balance transaction. Notably, in July 2013, Del Monte tabbed Giannella Alvarez as Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Pet Business.  As part of her work history, Ginnaella spent time at P&G, albeit involved in a Latin American paper joint venture, but she may have some relevant connectivity to current leadership. However, a deal of that size would likely require the private equity owners of Del Monte to invest more equity, something private equity firms can be loathe to do.  The transaction timeline would also be elongated by anti-trust concerns.  While this deal makes a lot of sense, there are clear barriers to a transaction.  Odds: Possible.
  • Champion Pet Foods. The brand that few talk about in this conversation is Champion Pet Foods, which manufacturers and markets the Orijen and Acana brands of super premium pet food.  Champion was acquired by Bedford Capital Management in 2012, and the business has grown rapidly since the transition, benefiting from Natura’s channel exit and growing distribution offset by production complications related to a plant fire in December 2012. Champion’s regional formulations may not create production economies of scale (yet), but they garner a premium price among consumers who value a limited ingredient solution with a known sourcing pedigree.  While Del Monte wants scale in the brands it acquires, Champion is growing quickly and will become a target of major pet CPG companies over the next 12 – 24 months.  An acquisition would provide Del Monte a very compelling product stack in pet specialty.  Odds: Long, but logical.

Net net, post sale transaction Del Monte finds itself in an enviable position — with both cash and intent.  I do not expect that the company will rush into any transaction, but they have to buy and given the limited competition for premium assets in the space, look for them to strike while the iron is hot, or at least warm.

/bryan

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