Top 100 Food and Beverage Companies for 2014

This year's list of the top food and beverage companies has been altered mostly by domestic buying.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Whereas 2013 saw several U.S. firms undertake acquisitions across the globe – and one mega deal that made a U.S. firm owned by the Chinese – part of last year and the first half of 2014 seem to be playing out as a time of renewed interest in domestic deals for U.S. and Canadian food and beverage processors.

During the middle of this year, the world became a more unstable place; one less friendly to U.S. and Canadian firms doing business. At the end of July, Argentina declared bankruptcy. The Palestinians and Israelis are fighting again. Russia is destabilizing (to put it mildly) Ukraine. Then there’s Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

Is this a good time to invest in overseas markets?

Past Top 100© reports have chronicled the ambitions of domestic food and beverage processors to expand or buy firms overseas. As we look at the past year’s mergers and acquisitions, we see a trend toward “buying American” and growing horizontally, broadening the portfolio, maybe even transforming the company, rather than establishing a beachhead in some far-off land.

A case in point is the pending purchase of Hillshire Farms by Tyson Foods. While the brief bidding war was started by Pilgrim’s Pride, which is 75 percent owned by Brazilian firm JBS SA, Tyson outbid its chicken competitor with an offer of $8.55 billion. A month later, to help pay for the big buy, Tyson agreed to sell its poultry businesses in Mexico and Brazil to Pilgrim’s Pride and JBS.

For years, Tyson’s goal has been to lessen its reliance on commodity animal proteins and to grow its value-added/prepared foods business. Hillshire will give Tyson a complementary portfolio of recognized brands with particular strength in the breakfast category, currently an attractive and fast-growing day part.

Campbell Soup is another example. Admittedly, its biggest deal of the past year was the acquisition of Denmark’s Kelsen Group A/S for approximately $325 million. Kelsen makes baked snacks sold in 85 countries. The company’s primary brands include Kjeldsens and Royal Dansk, and it is a market leader in the assortment segment of the sweet biscuits category in China. It fits in well with Campbell’s Pepperidge Farm unit.

Moreover, Campbell has broadened itself domestically. It vaulted into a completely new category with the June 2013 acquisition of Plum Organics for $249 million. The Plum Organics brand is the No. 4 brand of baby food in the U.S. and the No. 2 brand of organic baby food. A year earlier, Bolthouse Farms took the soup company into fresh produce and high-end juices. On the other hand, Campbell last year sold its simple meals business in Europe to CVC Capital Partners and exited its Russian business. But it hasn’t made a single purchase this year.

Post Holdings was very busy last year and hasn’t taken a breath in 2014, using a string of domestic acquisitions to broaden the only-two-year-old cereal company into more of a horizontal food processor. Late in 2012, it bought Dakota Growers Pasta Co. from Viterra Inc., and during 2013 Post acquired five companies: Golden Boy Foods, Dymatize Enterprises, Agricore United Holdings Inc., Hearthside Food Solutions’ private label cereal, granola and snacks business, and Premier Nutrition Corp. Post will double in size in next year’s Top 100 list when it includes the $1.9 billion in sales from 2014 acquisition Michael Foods (as well as the smaller purchase American Blanching Co.).

Similarly, WhiteWave Foods, the organic milk and substitute milk spinoff from Dean Foods, quickly found its financial legs and bought domestic organic produce company Earthbound Farm early this year. Produce, not milk.

Speaking of former Dean Foods units, Morningstar Foods, which made Friendship cottage cheese and various private-label dairy products like coffee creamers under Dean’s ownership, was bought by our neighbor to the north, Saputo Group. With that addition of 1.6 billion U.S. dollars in sales, Saputo now has more sales in the U.S. than in its homeland Canada.

Grupo Bimbo already had more sales north of its Mexican border with U.S. baking acquisitions over the past decade. But it will take another jump in sales this year (and showing up on next year’s Top 100 list) when it consumes Canada Bread, with $1.6 billion in sales. Canada Bread was 90 percent owned by Maple Leaf Foods.

There are other examples of foreigners buying into U.S. food firms. This year started with a blockbuster. Japanese spirits and beverage company Suntory in January offered to buy American distiller Beam Inc. in a deal valued at $16 billion. As a result, three major Kentucky distilleries will be Japanese-owned (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are included in the Beam sale, and Four Roses is owned by Kirin). A fourth, Wild Turkey, is owned by the Italian spirits company Campari.

And while foreigners’ yen for Kentucky bourbon caused a stir, that xenophobia was nothing compared to the most debated deal of the past year: the $7.1 billion acquisition of Smithfield Foods Inc. by China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., which closed last September. (Shuanghui has since renamed itself WH Group Ltd.)

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