fly in soupOn its way to a date with a public security listing, Blue Buffalo ran into a small problem.  It seems there was a fly in their soup; one which they claim to have been blissfully unaware.  Equally embarrassing was the fact their fiercest rival, Nestle Purina, had been the source of the discovery.  What followed the initial accusation is either evidence of the power the independent premium pet food company wields or the first act in a Greek tragedy. The outcome is likely to have an impact on the pet food industry investment and the pet food M&A landscape.

In March 2014, it was leaked that Blue Buffalo, the $600+ million revenue independent premium pet food marketer, had selected a trio of lead arrangers for its public offering. The company had, for years, been rumored to be on and off the market seeking a buyer at prices between $2 – $3 billion depending on the timing of the speculation. It appeared that the company was now ready to tap the public markets for liquidity, an event that filled the industry with equal parts fear and excitement.

Two months after the leak, Nestle Purina filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging its competitor was lying about the contents of its products. Nestle claimed that independent tests show that Blue Buffalo uses chicken byproducts and corn in some of its food formulations — despite making marketing claims to the contrary.  Nestle would later amend its case to dispute other product claims on kibble, treats, and even cat litter. The fact that the industries top dog would undertake efforts to undermine Blue Buffalo came as a surprise to many.  Many speculated it was a tactic to lower the potential acquisition price for the brand.  Blue Buffalo returned the volley several days later counter-suing Purina for defamation, a summary of which can be seen here.

In a letter to customers, Blue Buffalo Founder and Chairman, Bill Bishop wrote:

“It is an easy thing to make unsubstantiated claims, put them in a lawsuit and then publish them all over the Web to disparage and defame a company. It is quite another thing to prove those allegations… We will prove these and other matters in court with good reliable evidence, and we look forward to disproving the voodoo science that Nestlé Purina relied on to support their outrageous allegations.”

The complete responses from Bishop can be seen here and here. Later, Bishop would go all in on a letter to the editor of Businessweek that can be seen here.  During the process, the National Advertisers Review Board (NARB) recommended that Blue Buffalo modify marketing claims it was making about competing products.  While Blue Buffalo disagreed with the the conclusions of the NARB, they agreed to take into account their recommendations in the future.  Details of the review hearing, recommendation, and associated reaction can be seen here.

Upon reading the first letter of response, I knew Nestle had something.  History has shown that the de facto strategy for the guilty is to attack not the claim but the science of the test and the party administering it. If professional sports is a relevant proxy, sometimes that plan works.  So Blue Buffalo then set out to undermine the validity of the Purina’s independent test going so far as to claim the laboratory involved had “dubious scientific credentials.”  The company’s critique of Windsor Labs and its scientific findings can be seen here.

As it appeared the two sides were heading to court, Blue Buffalo issued a statement that one of its suppliers had mislabeled ingredients sent to their customers, which could (that choice of words is important) have resulted in Blue Buffalo product being made with poultry by-product meal.  That statement can be seen here.  While it is notable that Blue Buffalo is acknowledging some of Nestle’s claims, it is passing the buck to its supplier.  While Wilber-Ellis has a history of recall related issues, the names of other pet food companies who may have received mislabeled ingredients, as Blue Buffalo claims, have not surfaced.  Since the FDA and Wilber are choosing to remain silent on this issue (the FDA views those names, if any, to be confidential information), it would be natural to speculate that there are no other names and in fact, this circumstance was known to Blue Buffalo.  However, that is merely speculative. What is also interesting is that Blue Buffalo has not issued a voluntary recall (the FDA does not mandate a recall in cases where the ingredients involved do not have a reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences), has not disclosed probable lot numbers, or offered to refund customers their money.  So far the strategy seems to be working as they have not wavered from their approach.

What happens next is likely to impact pet food investing and M&A.  If the circumstance above results in Blue Buffalo modifying or pulling its IPO plans, or going public and experiencing diminished value, or selling at a diminished value, it will be yet another cautionary tale of how supply chain issues can quickly erase equity returns hard earned over time in the pet space.  This may lead to investors pursuing pet consumables investments with greater caution and scrutiny.  Further, pet consumables M&A may come with more strings attached — broader seller representations and warranties, higher indemnification caps, etc. — or at lower valuations to account for this risk.  Companies that can demonstrate control over the product they put in the bag should also be ascribed a premium.  Owning your production assets becomes, in fact, more valuable. That written, if Blue Buffalo is able to hold shelf space, avoid a recall, and move forward with its liquidity plans, it will, in fact, validate how powerful the leading independent brand really is.

My view is the marketer is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the product in the bag matches the associated claims.  However, absent consumer lash-back, Blue Buffalo is unlikely to suffer much.  Further, given how much traffic their products drive at retail, pet specialty chains are more likely to accept the “it’s not our fault” explanation.  In the meantime, Blue Buffalo may get to see the results of the Freshpet IPO before confirming its path.  Freshpet is expected to price on November 6th.  At the mid-point of the range, Freshpet would command a fully diluted value of $414 million.  Based on estimated 2014 revenue, that would value the company at 3.5x – 4.0x revenue.  Those multiples would only serve to validate Blue Buffalo purported $3 billion price tag.

/bryan

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.

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