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.

Advertisements