Dairy Crest exit from JV in UK sets up Yoplait for sale
- April 01, 2009
||announcement of exit from joint-venture in UK, March 2009
||Yoplait Group (France), no.2 domestic chilled dairy producer and no.1 in the US
||potential acquirors include Sodiaal (buy -back), Lactalis, Friesland Campina
||Sodiaal Union, no.1 domestic dairy co-operative and PAI Partners, private equity firm (both France)
||expansion in Europe, major position in large French market
||liquidity event for members (Sodiaal), exit after 7 year investment (PAI)
||valuation based on Kirin acquisition of Dairy Farmers, August 2008
PAI has held its 50% stake in the Yoplait strategic alliance for nearly 7 years now. Dairy Crestâs announcement that itâs to sell its 49% stake in the YDC joint venture in the UK, back to Yoplait, suggests that the latter is being readied for PAIâs long âawaited exit from that investment. The timing isnât bad, with there being at least two strong buyers in Europe, but the valuation may not be stellar.
Yoplait Dairy Crest has, since 1991, distributed Yoplait chilled dairy products in the UK, where the brand has a strong presence in certain value âadded market segments, like homogenized cheese snacks for infants (âPetits Filousâ). Dairy Crest has justified its exit, three years earlier than the 2012 termination provision in the JV agreement, by the need to reduce debt and focus on brands that it owns outright.
It looks likely, given the small impact this deal will have on Dairy Crestâs balance sheet (exceptional profit of 50 mln GBP), that the deal was more driven by Yoplaitâs desire to gain full control of its profitable UK business, in order to simplify its corporate structure and enhance its sellability. A recent precedent in another sector, Carlsbergâs acquisition of Scottish & Newcastle, famously demonstrates how big an obstacle joint-ventures can be to M&A transaction completion (Baltika in Russia case).
The most obvious exit route would be for PAI to sell its 50% back to its partner in Yoplait, the giant Sodiaal co-operative in France. After all, most joint-ventures are terminated by buy-backs of that kind. However, that groupâs recent M&A moves suggest that itâs not at all in acquisition mode now; besides which the weaknesses of Yoplait mean it would make more sense for a group with a large existing chilled dairy business, elsewhere in Europe, to acquire that brand.
With annual sales revenue of about âŹ 2,2 bln, Sodiaal is the no.2 processor of milk in France (after Lactalis). Yoplaitâs turnover constitutes less that 50% of that amount, and perhaps only 25% of Sodiaalâs total purchased milk volumes. The other parts of that group, spanning Candia (retail milk), Riches Monts (cheese) and Nutribio and Beuralia (ingredients and formulas), are arguably much more sustainable under a co-operative model than chilled dairy, because they use more milk and are less marketing âdriven. So they should be Sodiaalâs focus.
On top of that, Sodiaalâs most recent M&A activity has seen it contribute both its cheese business and its non-consumer assets into 50:50 joint ventures with, respectively, Bongrain (Compagnie des Fromages) and Entremont, in 2007. That suggests a weak appetite for acquisitions.
Finally we have Yoplaitâs weaknesses, which should also discourage Sodiaal from regaining full control of it. Although the brand has a strong position in France, where itâs no.2 behind Danone, and in the US where, through a JV with General Mills, itâs market leader in certain categories, Yoplait is weak in Europe outside France, where its franchise model has had mixed success. Also, since PAIâs investment in 2002, the group hasnât made any significant acquisitions.
We believe therefore that Yoplait would add most value to a large European chilled dairy producer, that wishes to acquire a major position in the large French market. Sodiaalâs members should recognize this, and focus instead on securing milk supply contracts with Yoplaitâs new owner.
Taking note of the Dairy Farmers precedent in Australia, where another co-operative was sold outright to a strategic investor (Kirin Holdings), Sodiaal should elect that its members, too, deserve a lucrative âliquidity eventâ after all their years of toil. Their interests will then be aligned with those of their partner PAI, in terms of value maximization from the sale of Yoplait.
In theory Lactalis heads the potential buyers list for Yoplait. It has the scale, ambition and acquisition track record to win a tender, and will no doubt wish to challenge Danone more strongly in the French chilled dairy market, where it currently competes through a joint-venture with Nestle chilled dairy.
However we believe that, at this time, Lactalisâ priorities might lie elsewhere. Armed with the strong Euro, the group should continue its acquisition drive in emerging Europe; Ukrproduct in Ukraine is a good example candidate in our view. Also, and in the face of a newly âascendant Arla, it should seek out low -hanging cheese acquisitions elsewhere on the continent; Synnove in Norway is one option.
The prime buyer candidate of the moment is arguably Friesland Campina. After its merger, that group is keen to develop its consumer branded business in new geographies. In spite of a dominant market position in Benelux, and a strong one in Germany, the groupâs consumer products western Europe division grew in revenue terms by only 1% in 2008, lower than any other division and compared with 5% for the group as a whole. By acquiring Yoplait, F-C would add a third core geography to its west Europe operation, and increase that divisionâs turnover by 25% to nearly âŹ 4 bln.
The problem for F-C might be financial. It saw a significant decline in its operating profit in 2008 and, with net borrowings of âŹ 1,5 bln, its net debt ratio to EBITDA is about x3,2. On the other hand, the group has reserves in its cost structure, not least from future synergies. Also, cash is being raised by a spate of divestments. In the last few months alone, F-C has sold Nijkerk in Holland to Arla, the Prenzlau dairy in Germany to a local firm, and its Romanian ice cream business to Unilever.
A potential surprise buyer is Muller of Germany, whose portfolio fit with Yoplait would be strong. With revenues of some âŹ 2 bln, Muller is big enough to make the acquisition, to finally extend its geographical strength beyond its domestic market and the UK. On the other hand, it could be that the group has too monolithic a focus on just one brand, and is too reluctant to invest through acquisition rather than just capital expenditure, to make a bid for Yoplait.