dog-bowlBeing early, wrong, or both is no fun, at least not in the case of making industry predictions (traders will also say early is also wrong).  And when it comes to our views on the waning of the pet food upgrade cycle many people have made us aware that we were either early or wrong (or both!).  However, when you make market predictions based on limited information you are going to be wrong, sometimes with regularity (see my view on the inability for private equity to acquire PetSmart here, as just one notable example where I have missed the mark, but at least I correctly predicted that they would not combine with Petco, see here), and we are okay with that.  That said, here I am not sure we were either wrong or even that early in this case.

In 2013, we began to beat the drum about the deceleration of the pet food upgrade cycle (for those of you scoring at home you can see comments here and here).  Our view was that basic economic realities were fundamental headwinds — stagnant wage growth, slowing pet replacement, growth in small dog ownership, and continued food price inflation.  We then pointed to PetSmart comps going flat to negative, and fully negative ex-inflation, for most of 2014, had to be a sign this cycle was on life support.  However, all of these factors were explained away by other data — accelerating pet product Personal Consumption Expenditures in 2015 (Bureau of Economic Analysis), recovering pet adoptions in 2015 (PetPoint), accelerating pet food spend in 2015 (APPA), growth in alternative form factor pet food (GfK), mismanagement at PetSmart (pick your favorite equity analyst), and the successful Blue Buffalo IPO.  In short, for every fundamental premise we had on the offer, there was a data set that one could point to bolster their thesis.  The issue was that the evidence used to perpetuate the myth that the upgrade cycle was alive and well was easy to debunk, but nobody want to hear it, and they still don’t.

Fast forward to today, and we now see increasing direct evidence that supports our thesis.  First, last month The J.M. Smucker Company trimmed its full year earnings forecast on the basis of declining sales of pet food for the quarter, down 6%. While there was a positive spin around the narrative (difficult comps due to prior year sell-in, strong new brand sales prior year), it is concerning.  The company expects weakness to persist throughout the balance of the year.  Second, our survey of private mid-market pet food marketers ($100+ million in revenue) indicates that the malaise Smucker’s is experiencing is not isolated, though the magnitude is greater.  Most of the company’s we surveyed offered full year views of 0% – 2% growth domestically. Finally, Tractor Supply, which does a significant percentage of its business in livestock and pet supplies (44%), trimmed its quarterly earnings forecast and full year outlook for the second time this year.  The company now expects same-store-sales for the quarter to be flat to down 1% after being up 2.9% in the prior year period. While we may not think of Tractor Supply as the prime destination for the premium pet food consumer, they do sell a considerable number of premium brands – Blue Buffalo, Merrick, Natural Balance, and Wellness, among others.  The company pointed to slowing growth in the C.U.E. (consumables, usables, edibles) business. Translating the semantic hieroglyphics, this means their pet and animal products business, including pet food.  We suspect Tractor Supply is not alone.

What is more important here than being right or wrong as it relates to the state of pet food, is what will the implications be for the capital markets of the death of the cycle.  We do not believe that slowing pet food sales, premium or otherwise, is going to hamper capital formation. There remain multiple heuristics of emerging brands garnering footholds to grow their business rapidly to $25 – $50 million in sales with limited capital investment.  The scarcity of these businesses, coupled with the amount of institutional capital chasing these opportunities, means that growth equity investments in pet food, distinct from treats, will remain robust.  Of greater significance is whether this will jump start a new M&A cycle.  While large strategic acquirers tend to have a negative M&A bias during period of weak financial performance, it might just be such that they will uses these events to recognize the need to buy into niches that represent the future of the industry.  This could push multiples, which have been waning, albeit, at the margins over the past three years to begin to trend up.  Further, the fact that broader M&A statistics indicate we are almost certainly at the end of this M&A cycle, might cause more sellers to come to the table.  Watch closely for M&A volume in this segment to tick up over the coming year.

/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

cowboyIn prior posts I have lamented about the reality that the pet consumables industry lacks a deep pool of brand consolidators.  Once you get past the “big three” (Nestle Purina, Big Heart Brands (The J.M. Smucker Company), and Mars), the industry possess a limited set of buyers who operate brand portfolios and who have deep pockets to afford the most attractive properties at prevailing transaction multiples.  That is not to say there are no other capable buyers of pet consumables properties, but rather that the current valuation paradigms of the second tier of buyers represents a significant drop from that of market leaders, whom simply can do more strategically and operationally with the assets they acquire.

Conventional wisdom has been that, over time, this reality would work itself out in four ways. First, was that the largest Tier 2 players would become aggressive in their M&A push in an effort to challenge the market leaders. Save for Spectrum Brands, who has been active, acquiring Proctor & Gamble’s European division, which includes the Iams and Eukanuba brands, and Salix Animal Health, a leading pet treat manufacturer, this segment of buyers has been largely stagnant.  Hill’s Pet Nutrition has participated in a few known M&A processes, but never at valuation levels necessary to challenge the companies it is chasing. Second, was that large private players would become more aggressive in acquiring emerging brands before they became of interest to the large industry players, creating a second economy, so to speak, for sellers.  Save for WellPet’s acquisition of Sojos, activity within this class of competitors, at least for consumables companies, has been muted.  Generally speaking, these companies have either opted not to run brand portfolios, or chosen to build rather than buy.  The third leg of this stool was that foreign buyers would enter the market.  Save for Agrolimen SA’s joint venture with Nature’s Variety, we have only heard crickets from the foreign buyer community on notable deals. Finally, the notion was that human food companies would crossover into pet in an effort to capture the growth and margin available to leading industry players. While many have talked-the-talk, they have not been able to close, primarily losing out to industry players on a valuation basis due to operational synergies.

This fact pattern is troubling for many of the emerging authentic brands in the category, who don’t want to be perceived to be selling out a major industry player. For some, the thought of a foreign buyer or a consumer packaged goods or natural food company acquiring them remains seductive.  So why has the industry seen such limited crossover appeal to these constituencies?  The answer has both quantitative and qualitative underpinnings.

The pet industry possesses a myriad of large foreign operators in the consumables sub-segment.  According to petfoodindustry.com, three of the world’s 10 largest pet food players are foreign — Unicharm, Deuerer, and Heristo AG.  Additionally, there are five other foreign market players (mostly Western European) producing between $400 – $600 million in annual revenue. Based on the prevailing margin profile for a pet consumables business, these companies would seem to have sufficient financial wherewithal to acquire a mid-sized U.S. pet food business. However, when you analyze this population, the following common traits emerge — largely private companies with closely held/family ownership (Unicharm being the most notable exception), owned manufacturing assets, and a limited acquisition history.  Where these companies have been acquisitive the targets have been in the buyer’s home market or in direct geographic adjacency. While some of these acquisitions have been of reasonable size, $50 – $150 million, it is clear that most of these companies are most comfortable sticking to what they know or prospecting only as far geographically as required.  Further, when you talk to executives of these companies they tend to cite three primary concerns about U.S. pet consumables M&A — a) a lack of knowledge of the U.S. pet food market, b) a lack of internal M&A capability internally, c) a perception that the market is hyper competitive and therefore of limited attractiveness, and d) the deal prices are high in light of these competitive concerns.  It seems logical to conclude that these dynamics are only likely to change if, and when, these companies experience a slowdown in their core business, if ever, and/or a professionalization movement stimulated by private equity drives them towards these outcomes.  Of note, some of the smartest U.S. private equity funds with a heritage in pet consumables are actively targeting Western Europe for their next pet deal, but I view the possibility of these parties being players for U.S. assets as being a ways off.

Consumer packaged goods companies, as potential buyers of pet businesses have had their own unique limitations.  Most notably, is the challenge these players have had with appreciating the gross margin profiles of the targets.  Companies like Clorox and Church & Dwight, who have actively courted pet companies involved in sale processes, are used to product level gross margins that push 50%.  We have yet to see a lower middle market pet food company that could produce those types of margins.  Scale operators like Blue Buffalo generate 40% gross margins.  Further, this class of buyers is not used to employing meat based inputs and concerns about recalls have led them to prioritize companies with owned production assets, which as a class of sellers have been experiencing the highest market valuation multiples in the most recent M&A cycle.  Finally, we find consumer product companies, who are used to spending considerable dollars on consumer marketing, do not appreciate the role the pet specialty retailer plays in motivating product sales, and therefore they build into their valuation models a level of additional spend that makes them less competitive on price. Absent a notable cross-over success story, we don’t foresee these sentiments changing. In fact we have seen more companies in this class give up the ghost than take us the charge.

Finally, we have the conundrum of the natural food companies.  It would seem logical to assume this class of companies would be interested in the pet space given the current parallels between the human and animal nutrition markets.  With the proliferation of grain-free and natural pet solutions, these two markets have never been more closely aligned.  There have been several instances where natural food businesses have pursued pet food assets where they appeared poised to win, only to go home empty handed. The challenges here have been both quantitative and qualitative.  On the quantitative side, the inability to drive revenue synergies has made them less price competitive, even though deals at prevailing levels for the most attractive properties would have been accretive on an earnings basis (as an example Hain Celestial trades at 16.5x LTM EBITDA). Further, this class of buyers needs a scale property to justify the adjacent market entry to their investor base, which leaves them both limited properties to choose from and puts them in direct competition with the big three.  On the qualitative side, two issues have surfaced consistently.  First, these companies are being actively pursued by large strategic buyers themselves, which means focus is critical to driving shareholder value and remaining independent if that is what is perceived to be in the best interest of shareholders. Second, is the intellectual conundrum of adding meat to the portfolio mix.  Of note, the three largest natural food products companies — General Mills, WhiteWave Foods, and Hain Celestial — orient their market offerings around plant based nutrition.  Adding meat into that marketing narrative makes for a bit of a conundrum, even if they are comfortable with the food handling risk.  My view is the right property will enable these buyers to overcome those concerns.  The attractiveness of the profit margin profile of well managed animal protein based businesses, nearly 2x on an EBITDA margin basis at scale, will be sufficient to motivate a natural products buyer with some vision. I view it as only a matter of time before one of these companies takes this leap of faith, but there is certainly no clarity on when that might happen.  WhiteWave Foods and Boulder Brands, the two natural products companies who have come closest to the finish line now find themselves in very different circumstances.

While the above narrative may lead one to conclude the glass is half empty, as opposed to half full, it is actually an improvement on the historical paradigm. Five years ago we would not be mentioning the other classes of buyers as possibilities, let alone probabilities.  Today, I see it more as a matter of when, not if.

/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.

 

 

 

 

mockingjayEarlier this month, Petco Animal Supplies and PetSmart stores in Topeka, Kansas, and adjacent Lawrence, Kansas, removed from their shelves Hill’s Science Diet and Ideal Balance products.  Store managers have been telling customers that the brands is not coming back on shelf.  Notably, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a subsidiary of Colgate Palmolive, is headquartered in Topeka.

Consider the above action a shot across the bow in the dynamically evolving landscape of pet food retail.  To better understand the future, and what this gambit might mean, one must begin with a look at the past.

Hill’s Pet Nutrition was founded in 1907. The company started in the rendering business.  By 1930, the company had evolved into packing company, producing animal feed, dog food, and horsemeat for human consumption in Norway, Finland, and Sweden.  In 1948, Dr. Mark Morris contacted Hill’s seeking a producer for Canine k/d, his brand of healthy scientifically engineered pet food.  In 1968, Canine k/d was made available to veterinarians as Hill’s Science Diet.  The brand evolved into a broad line of prescription and breed specific solutions available through veterinarians and pet specialty retailers.  In 1978, Hill’s became part of the Colgate family through a merger of Hill’s parent company.  In 1999, Hill’s sales reached $1 billion.

What is particularly significant was the fact that Hill’s was at the forefront of the healthy pet food revolution, albeit with a scientific approach. Further, long before there was Blue Buffalo, Hill’s, along with Nutro, was one of the biggest drivers of customer traffic to pet specialty retailers on the market.  Thus, for Petco and PetSmart to declare war on Hill’s is, for lack of a better term, A BIG DEAL.

The makings of this feud can be traced back five years.  Beginning in 2011, Hill’s pet food sales began to stagnate.  The company, whose products evoked images of white lab coats and engineers, found itself on the wrong side of a change in consumer preference, and therefore purchase intent.  Instead of favoring science based nutrition solutions, pet owners began to favor products whose ingredient panels best mirrored their own diet.  White lab coats were replaced by images of roasted turkey, market vegetables, and whole grains.  Natural triumphed over engineered.

Hill’s, being part of a large consumer packaged goods firm, was not content to let its franchise slip away. The company tried to change with the market, launching Science Diet Nature’s Best, a naming convention approaching the absurd.  Not surprisingly the disconnect remained.  Hill’s responded with the launch of Ideal Balance, its “natural” solution, but was slow to win back customers. While Hill’s revenues had grown to $2.2 billion in 2015, this number represented essentially flat growth between 2011 – 2015.  To maintain sales, Hill’s embraced the internet as a channel.  In 2015, Hill’s represented 7.5% of online pet food sales, taking the third position behind Blue Buffalo (12.3%) and Wellness (9.0%).  It attained that position by turning a blind eye to the price discount pet food retailers where charging for its solution set, thereby drawing the ire of Petco and PetSmart.  And you understand why we-are-where-we-are.

One has to surmise that Hill’s knows quite well what it is doing and the consequences of its actions. My understanding is they have recently put pressure on major online retail sites to enforce their MAP policy based, in turn, on pressure from Petco and PetSmart. However, if Hill’s cannot get back in the good graces of its top premise based retailers, prepare to find Science Diet and Ideal Balance at big box store near you.  The likes of Target and Wal Mart would welcome Hill’s and its customer base with open arms. Whether this is a brilliant move by Colgate or the straw that breaks the brands back remains to be seen.

Of greater interest is what this means for Blue Buffalo.  A big box Hill’s is not going to be a welcome site for the veterinary community who drives the disproportionate sales of prescription diets and is a big influencer of Science Diet sales.  Blue Buffalo has staked the next leg of its growth stool on its veterinary line of products.  If Hill’s defects, that will create a fracture in the relationship between the company and the veterinary community that Blue Buffalo could be poised to exploit.  That’s not to say it won’t have fierce competition for that mind share from the likes of Royal Canin and Purina, but thirty days ago that market looked much tougher to crack.

Let the games begin.

/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.

 

 

 

phoenisThe pet industry stands at the precipice of a tactical sea change.  The industry entered into this transitional phase in 2014 and is expected to remain there through 2017.  The industry entered into this state as a result of slowing growth and macroeconomic headwinds.  The historical catalysts for growth — Baby Boomers as the driver of industry spend, pet food upgrade cycle, premise based retail — have waned.  However, the future change drivers — pet ownership among Millennials, grain-free and alternative form factor pet food, ecommerce, connected pet — are individually not yet sufficient to resurface the landscape. Yet we expect, after another year of gestation, these trends, will set of the next phase of industry growth, market share shift, and strategic acquisitions.

As we muddle through the tail end of this transitional phased, here are trends we are keeping an eye on in 2016:

  • Industry Offers More Upside Opportunity than Downside Risk. Despite the slowing sequential growth rate for the industry and the limited innovation in consumables, we believe the industry stands poised to outperform in 2016. Our premise relies on three factors. First, the acceleration in pet adoptions experienced in the 2H2015 will have a knock-on effect on pet spending in 2016 as these new owners generate a full year of expenditures and trade up to premium solutions. This adoption spike is consistent with the 2012 – 2013 period where growth was 4.5%, albeit from a smaller base. Second, while the pet food upgrade cycle may be running on fumes, a proliferation in food additives, convenience offerings, and premium cat solutions will provide the industry with a growth impetus. Finally, we view the macro economic stability for employment, wage growth, and consumer sentiment as remaining favorable through the balance of 2016.
  • Expect Transaction Velocity to Remain High. 2015 was a return to normalized transaction velocity levels for the industry after a two year hiatus. We expect transaction velocity will remain high in 2016 as consolidation themes continue and sellers try to take advantage of the tail end of the capital markets cycle. What will change is the types of deals that are getting done. In 2014 and 2015, the industry was the subject of a large number of headline grabbing transactions involving key industry names – Big Heart Brands, PetSmart, Petco, MWI Veterinary Supply.  Absent a sale of Champion Petfoods, we expect most of the velocity to be among companies valued at less than $250 million. Notably, the M&A rumor mill was at peak decibel levels at Global Pet Expo. However, the number of companies pursuing deals pursuant to organized processes appears lower, meaning the number of potential deals that could get done pursuant to one-off dialogs is elevated.
  • Consumables Lines Blurring in New Ways. Five years ago, the thought of a pet treat business being able to bridge into pet food was unthinkable. Today there exist a myriad of treat brands which have developed a trusted connection with consumers in the pet specialty channel that might allow them to make that leap. Notably, several of these brands launched food solutions at Global Pet Expo to very favorable retailer response. While it is unclear if and how quickly these solutions can scale, it speaks to the fact that the delineation between food and treat brands continues to decrease.  As premium pet food companies find market share gains harder to come by, we expect they will seek to expand sales volume through increased treat offerings and acquisitions of treat companies. Further, treat company valuations will benefit from buyers factoring in potential product line extensions into food, though not all brands will benefit.
  • Ecommerce Landscape Changes Ahead. Sales of pet products continues to grow online fueled by price based competition and increased convenience. The impact of growing online sales can been seen acutely in the comps of Petco and PetSmart prior to their representative transactions. However, the pain has spread to the independent channel as well, as more brands have embraced ecommerce as a driver of growth and customer acquisition. In response, retailers are putting pressure on manufacturers to enforce MAP policies or, in some cases, choose sides. However, many of the brands caught in the battle among retail formats are not well equipped to do either. Assuming that Chewy.com continues to find fuel for its growth, and that Jet.com continues to find brands willing to embrace its platform, this problem will grow. Pressuring brands will not solve the problem. Rather, the winners in retail will be those who deliver the best consumer service experience as measured by selection, price, and convenience. Independent retailers will need to develop capabilities that enable their customers to shop online and get accelerated delivery, presenting an opportunity for distributors to fill this void.

 

As always, a complete copy of our 2016 industry report is available by email.

/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.

 

beakersHistorically, the discourse around pet food delivered in alternative form factors (fresh/frozen, freeze-dried, dehydrated) has focused on the merits, or lack thereof, associated with feeding your pet raw protein. Lost behind the countless articles delving into the pros and cons of raw, has been the growth in both size and importance of this sub-category, and the value it has created for those who invested early in this category.

According to GfK point-of-sale data from the pet specialty channel for the 12 months ended August 2015, alternative form factor pet food was, in approximate terms, a $175 million market.  Based on these same figures for the prior year period, this represents 50%+ growth for the category.  When you add to this annualized IRI MULO data for fresh/frozen pet food sold in the mass market and apply an adjustment to GfK’s estimate of dehydrated pet food, which we know to be low, and the total market is approaching $750 million, growing at 30% – 35%.  While relative to dry kibble, this market is in fact small, it is meaningful, and in combination with its growth rate, cannot be ignored by the large strategic buyers in the space.

Validation of this notion began to accelerate in 2H2014 when Agrolimen SA, a Spanish privately-held producer of food and other consumer goods, quietly acquired a controlling stake in Nature’s Variety, the market leader in freeze-dried raw pet food, from Catterton Partners.  This was followed closely by the successful initial public offering by Freshpet, Inc. (NASDAQ: FPRT), which currently trades at 2.3x Revenue despite some challenges in the roll-out of their refrigerator program among several large retail accounts.

After a brief fallow period, further validation arrived in the form of Nestle SA’s acquisition of Merrick Pet Care. While Merrick’s market entry into the freeze dried raw space (Backcountry), was nascent, the fact that they had an in-market offering was clearly a benefit to the deal.  Around this same period, Stella & Chewy’s, LLC, a portfolio company of Stripes Group,  and the market leader in freeze-dried raw sold in the independent pet store channel, transitioned into a new 164,000 square-foot facility in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, funded by a debt package sourced by the company in early 2015.  On January 7, 2016, the company announced it had hired a highly seasoned consumer industry executive to run the company and recruited pet industry executive Mark Sapir as Chief Marketing Officer.  Sapir most recently served as VP of Marketing & Innovation at Merrick.  Finally, on January 8, 2016, it was disclosed that WellPet, LLC, a portfolio company of Berwind Corporation, and the owners of the Old Mother Hubbard (which had been previously owned by Catterton) and Eagle Pack Brands, had acquires Sojourner Farms, LLC, doing business as Sojos. Sojos is number two or three player in the dehydrated pet food space.  In addition to providing validation of both the freeze-dried raw and dehydrated solution set, it also provides further evidence that larger players in the consumables space will buy smaller brands, especially if those brands resonate with premium customers who shop independent pet specialty.

So what does this all mean? I believe there are two conclusions that can be drawn. First, that the alternative form factor pet food market is a real sub-category and mid-sized to large players need to pay attention to it, because consumers are buying into the category, and have a response for how to compete within it or counter its proliferation going forward. The category is no longer a novelty, something that market leaders can simply write off or ignore.  Second, it’s going to result in more transactions as strategics buy into the space in an effort to deliver a competitive response. The winners of this coming-of-age will be the entrepreneurs who pioneered the category and the private/growth equity firms that supported them.  With a limited set of properties available, it could send valuations, which have been trending down, back towards the upper end of the historical multiple range.

/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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

catAs we approach the bell lap in 2014, anticipated full-year performance for the pet industry is starting to come into clearer focus.  For the first time since we have been blogging about the industry, we believe projected growth might fall short of APPA projections.  The industry continues to face structural headwinds that are dampening our expectations.  Notably, three metrics we commonly rely on as relative predictors of growth are lagging the benchmarks we feel are necessary for these projections to be achieved.

  1. Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE), which consist of the actual and imputed expenditures of households by consumption category as measured by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, for pet related goods and services showed growth of 3.7% in 1H2014 versus 5.7% in 1H2013;
  2. PetSmart same-store-sales comps (including inflation) for 1H2014 were -0.6% versus 3.5% for 1H2013;
  3. Adoption rates, as measures by PetHealth Inc.’s PetPoint Report shows that adoptions of canines have been weak through 1H2014, with feline adoptions also lagging in 1Q2014.

There are other factors that concern us as well.  Household formation has been sluggish, wage growth is stagnant, and the retail environment is tepid, at best.  However, offsetting these concerns is data that shows pet parents are spending more than ever, alternative sales channels such as online and farm and feed and experiencing strong growth, and conventional grocery is making significant investments in the category.  From experience, we also know the pet industry is like a cat — it always lands on its feet.

As we take stock of the industry here are the key themes we see shaping the current landscape:

  • Transaction Environment Heats Up. Acceleration in pet industry transaction volume began in 2010 driven by third party investment in emerging brands. After peaking in 2011, velocity tapered in 2012 and 2013. Based on YTD numbers, pet industry transaction volume is set to rebound, led by increased M&A activity. Consolidators are looking to gain greater exposure to faster growing segments of the market. Large amounts of liquidity in the market are driving up valuations, when combined by uncertainty in the retail channel, is motivating sellers. Notably, available liquidity options have now expanded to the public markets for mid-sized pure play pet companies with strong growth impetus. As market growth slows, we expect pressure to consolidate will heighten further giving this M&A velocity uptick legs through 2015.
  • Major Pet Specialty is Getting Pinched. Pet specialty retailers are facing slower comps and market share erosion from a myriad of drivers we have highlighted over the past few years. Margin is moderating for this channel as sales growth slows, at a time when investments are needed. We believe the successful response to these threats requires bold moves not currently being contemplated. While tweaks to the merchandising mix may help, rapidly expanding omni-channel capabilities through acquisition and investment and pursuing vertical integration opportunities are needed. Imagine PetSmart’s fortune if it had invested in Blue Buffalo ten years ago. Channel barriers are coming down and retailers need to think out of the box to protect their incumbent positions. Change takes time, so do not expect a near term rebound, but do not discount the power these retailers have with manufactures to mitigate losses.
  • Channel Barriers Are Eroding. The pet industry has a high percentage of channel tied merchandise. PetSmart derives nearly 30% of its revenue from product exclusives. Brands that bridge into FDM are generally shunned by independents. As comps slows in pet specialty, emerging brands are getting anxious about their own growth prospects, causing them to consider testing the prevailing merchandise borders. As conventional grocery attempt to reverse share losses realized over the past five years, expect them to expand their efforts to recruit leading brands or incentivize those brands to develop solutions that work at lower price points. The risk for the industry is that a broader carriage of authentic and emotive brands in conventional grocery at lower price points could result in the realization of a downgrade cycle.
  • Online Independents Enter End Game. While pet products growth online continues to be robust, profits associated with these sales remain thin. Being a sub-scale online pet retailer is a losing value proposition, literally. The best situated players are developing forms of differentiation – media and education assets, prescription capabilities, and private label offerings – to offset lower margin product sales. Those who are successful will be the attractive consolidation candidates. PetSmart’s acquisition of Pet360 is consistent with this thematic. Three other independent players are currently for sale. Some of these companies will be acquired for their differentiated capabilities, but we expect the others to become zombies or go away entirely. We expect that three years from now, there will be no meaningful independent traditional pet ecommerce retailer.

For a complete summary of our pet industry market insights, please contact me for a copy of my report.

/bryan

Source: American Pet Products Association, CapitalIQ, PetSmart, Inc., U.S. Department of Commerce

Note: The purpose of 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.