lone starOn the morning that Blue Buffalo priced its IPO, above the expected range I might add, Nestle Purina announced that it had acquired Merrick Pet Care, owner of the Merrick, Castor & Pollux, Whole Earth Farms, and Backcountry pet food brands. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed. However the deal likely garnered the leading EBITDA multiple for a pet consumable transaction in this transaction cycle.  Merrick had experienced strong growth in the years following the majority recapitalization by Swander Pace Capital.  This is the second headline grabbing exit for the San Francisco based private equity firm, that earlier this year sold Applegate Farms to Hormel Food Corp for $775 million, or approximately 2.3x estimated 2015 sales.

On the surface this deal is of little surprise.  Merrick filled a well-defined hole in the Purina pet food product mix as it relates to natural pet food.  While Merrick had only recently entered into the freeze dried raw category, the acquisition also provides Purina with a platform in that space after missing out on the possibility of acquiring Nature’s Variety, who elected to do a transaction with Spanish pet food manufacturer Agolimen SA without engaging in a broader marketing process.  Rounding out the appeal was likely the integrated manufacturing assets and the foothold it gains in the natural channel through the acquisition of the Castor & Pollux brand, though whether that channel exposure sticks remains to be seen given the historical experience with Pet Promise.

However, when one digs a little deeper there are secondary facts worth noting:

  • Come from behind victory.  We heard from several sources that Purina was not the leader after the initial round of bidding.  However, as the most logical buyer with the deepest pockets they likely knew that they would get the last look so coming out too strong had no material advantages.  In the end, winning is all that matters.
  • Convergence theme in play. Also of note is that at least one of the final bidders was not currently in the pet space.  We believe this was a US based food company, though that is simply speculation. Our assumption was that Merrick would have been big enough to tempt someone on the outside to possibly buy-in, especially given the company’s focus on natural and its integrated manufacturing capabilities. That control of production has been an important consideration in our historical conversations with adjacent market strategic buyers.
  • Past precedent was important. It’s natural for a company with a meaningful presence in the independent channel to have concerns about on-going carriage once acquired by a major industry player.  It is also logical for retailers and consumers to have doubts when a transaction like this occurs.  However, in this case, Purina is able to point to their experience with Zuke’s, which has remained focused on the specialty channel and who Nestle actually pulled out of direct-to-consumer sales channels, as a proxy for how it will manage Merrick.  The fact pattern has given them some credibility with these retailers to push back against reduced carriage.
  • Castor & Pollux owners win too. When Merrick acquired Castor & Pollux Pet Works they did so in a stock deal, where the consideration was equity in the combined entity.  While Castor & Pollux was the leading player in organic pet food before growth in natural pet food exploded, it had plateaued at the time it sought an exit.  The company struggled to drive growth given its limited available resources. The gross margin profile associated with a sub-scale brand reliant on outsourced manufacturing and organic inputs is less attractive. Taking stock in Merrick, as opposed to cash at close, now looks to have been a very good decision.

We believe this deal makes the end of a the M&A cycle for major independent pet food players.  This current cycle included the sales of Natural Balance, Nature’s Variety and now Merrick.  We don’t see another headline grabbing pet food deal until Champion Pet Foods chooses to test the market, unless one of the large family owned operators decides it is time to exit.  Assuming this is the case, at least it ended with a bang.

/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.

Advertisements