February 2018


blue bffThese things always happen when you are on vacation.

Just prior to my departure on family vacation, I got a call from a reporter passing along a rumor that Blue Buffalo was going to be acquired.  I hear about non-existent pet food M&A rumors week in and week out.  The past month has been no exception.  Most of it is smoke, without the fire.  My response to the reporter — who has $8 billion to spend? On the plus side, I had the price pegged.  Kudos to her for getting the beat correct.

In reality, there are many large corporations with access to those sorts of funds.  Mars had recently doled out $9 billion for VCA after all, and Nestle has a little over $8 billion in cash on its balance sheet.  Apple has $77 billion of cash on its balance sheet, but they tend to favor in house innovation.  The key point is that major pet consumables acquirors have focused largely on product acquisitions to fill portfolio gaps as opposed to transformational M&A.  After all, Purina could have easily acquired Blue Buffalo for $3 – $4 billion prior to its public offering and the two sides could have avoided a lot of subsequent legal fees (further evidence that lawyers always win). I don’t see any of them coming in with a topping bid — Blue in the hands of General Mills is less formidable than Blue in the hands on a proven competitor.  That said, Blue in the hands of General Mills might make General Mills a more attractive takeout target for Nestle.  After all we are likely going to see more mega food M&A as these players grapple with changing operating dynamics for global food companies.

Food companies buying into the pet space is not unprecedented.  The J.M. Smucker Company acquired Big Heart Brands for nearly $6 billion back in 2015.  When Merrick Pet Food was sold, a major food company was the cover bid when Nestle acquired the business.  That said, I don’t see this as establishing a pattern whereby food companies quickly seek to align themselves with pet food brands in an effort to top one another.  Rather, I expect food companies will be more open to kicking the tires in auction processes but that acquisitions are likely to be focused only on true market leaders, consistent with what we have seen thus far.  That said, major food companies could offer pet food leaders unprecedented valuations, given their propensity to pay 5.0x – 6.0x revenue for the growth associated with disruptive brands (e.g., Rx Bar, Daiya, Krave, Suja, to name a few).

Finally, we have to give Blue Buffalo kudos.  They very effectively ran the business into a highly attractive exit (6.3 x Revenue / 25.5x EBITDA).  Twelve months ago, the company seemed stalled.  Growth was clearly flattening due to performance malaise in PetSmart and Petco, who were both undergoing inventory deleveraging, consistent with what was happening in broader retail, at a time when traffic and transaction metrics in these boxes were sagging.  The launch of their veterinary product line, while conceptually interesting, would have a long lead times in terms of sales – veterinarians seem to enjoy the status quo.  Thus, the jump to FDM, made possible by the weakness in major pet specialty, breathed life into the equity.  The company’s stock climbed 40% during the past six months, despite the fact that the FDM roll-out lagged expectations and sales were highly incentivized through discounts and promotions.  All we can say is well played and congratulations to the Bishop family and the Invus Group.

What will surely follow this acquisition is a public airing of grievances about a brand selling out and trip down memory lane for the industry recalling times where brands had values.  This will not be the last time this record is played.  However, the pet industry has been professionalized over the past 10 years and operates with a profit motive, we should have no expectations that capitalistic intentions will be subjugated in an effort to adhere to historical edicts. Rather mourn the transparency again lost through a publicly traded pet company gone private or having been acquired.

/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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happy faceThe pet industry, for all its interest and fanfare, is a data starved segment of the consumer landscape.  The industry lacks for data solutions that would provide a dynamic understanding of industry, channel, and company level performance.  Instead, operators and investors are left to rely on summary level government reporting, annual data releases from industry associations, specialized proprietary data reporting from industry participants, and select data points from publicly traded companies, that when put together provide a general understanding of industry growth and direction.  As the pet industry further expands into the food, drug, and mass channel data should improve, but this will take time.

As we wait for APPA data to be released at Global Pet Expo in March, we thought it might be useful to use the other available data sources to paint an industry picture ahead of the tradeshow season.

  • Growth:  The pet industry continues to grow at levels in excess GDP (2.3% in 2017).  Pet related Personal Consumption Expenditures, measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics posted 6.5% growth in 2017, driven by 9.7% growth in Services PCE.  Product PCE growth was more muted at 4.2%.  The industry experienced a deflationary trend in pet food of 1%. Services inflation continued at just short of 2%.  The variance in PCE versus APPA growth figures has been expanding, meaning the data sets are getting less correlated, for reasons that are unclear. However, based on the underlying PCE data it is safe to assume that growth was steady in 2017, but it is unlikely that we returned to 4%+ growth.  Continued deflationary pressure in pet food is a long-term headwind, which services inflation could constrain pet population growth for cash starved Millennial pet owners.
  • Economic Tail/Head Winds: Growth in the pet industry is, in our experience, tied to three economic factors.  First is employment.  People who are employed are more likely to have income to afford a companion animal and a living situation that would allow for pet ownership.  Currently, unemployment is at a structural barrier, which has been good for pet ownership growth over the past 12 – 18 months.  However, it seems the industry is getting as much benefit from the employment situation as one can expect. Unemployment has also declined due to people leaving the workforce, meaning the benefits of full employment on the pet industry in recent years is somewhat overstated.  Second, is disposable income.  The cost of owning a pet continues to increase. According to the APPA Pet Ownership Survey 2017 – 2018, the annual cost of owning a dog is greater than $1,500.  Some surveys put the lifetime cost at over $25,000.  To afford these costs, pet owners need disposable income. Yet growth in disposable income has been tepid over the past over the past 24-months. The recently passed tax reform should benefit income trends, but potentially at the expense of inflation. Psychologically income trends should be healthy for pet ownership as consumers tend to overlook cost inflation in the near term. Third, is home formation.  When a family unit purchases a home, it is often a catalyst for purchasing a companion animal.  Low interest rates and sustained economic growth have led to a strong demand for housing, despite concerns about affordability given current home prices.  Home formation trends should continue to benefit the industry, though rising interest rates may cause home formation trends to taper.
  • FDM Growth: The launch of Blue Buffalo in the mass and grocery channel is a game changer for the industry.  A myriad of other brands are launching outside the pet specialty channel, such as Nutro in Walmart, and we expect PetSmart and Petco will be offering a competitive response in their next reset.  The issue is that PetSmart and Petco cannot offer brands the same growth trajectory they have enjoyed in the post-recession period.  Quite simply, consumables availability has become ubiquitous; consumers are simply choosing a transaction venue based on convenience weighted cost.  The consumer relationship is with the brand, not the retailer.  Even with only six months of Blue Buffalo exposure, which has slightly underperformed and been aided by significant discounting and promotional spend, in 2017 pet consumables growth in FDM is estimated to have exceeded that in pet specialty — 2% compared to 1.5%.  This bodes well for growth among brands with existing FDM shelf space, though the ability to hold that space going forward is going to become increasingly competitive.
  • Ecommerce Growth Continues:  In 2016, industry analysts, based on very limited information, estimated that ecommerce penetration in the pet industry would eventually grow to 20%.  At the time penetration was estimated to be +/- 5%.  According to Amazon, they estimate ecommerce penetration in the pet space will reach 18% in 2018, meaning the industry will almost certainly breach 20% and do so in 2020.  Amazon recently stated that they viewed the industry as a “unique and highly valuable category” and they intend to make growing their online sales of pet products a 2018 business priority.  Additionally, the proliferation of direct-to-consumer pet food brands (Ollie, JustFoodForDogs, etc.) and sales platforms (Petnet, PetCube), many of whom are now venture backed, will give the broader sales channel additional tailwinds. We also see aging pet parents as a further opportunity to grow pet ecommerce. As consumers get mobility constrained they are increasingly turning to online venues for product acquisition. We believe they will do so with their pet spend, especially pet medications. The unanswered question is how MAP pricing might impact online channel sales.  Ecommerce has grown substantially based on its pricing advantage.  As that narrows, it would logically impact purchase intent unless it offers convenience benefits that outweigh the alternatives.

For the past two years, we have talked about an industry in flux.  While we believe the industry continues in a state of transformation, we think we are through the most volatile phase of the change cycle.  The truth is there is some stable thematics — steady growth aided by modest tailwinds, customer first retail, and dissolving incumbent paradigms.  Companies that can build a salient customer value proposition and innovate stand to do just fine against this continually evolving backdrop.  Those that rely on historical paradigms as a means of competitive advantage seem more likely to get run over.

/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.