Potential buyers for Uniqâs European convenience food businesses
- May 25, 2009
||investor search process declared by management, March 2009
||northern Europe and France operations of Uniq plc (UK)
||options include private equity buyer; or merger with Greencore
||Uniq plc (UK), leading convenience food producer in UK, Germany, France, Holland, Poland
||timing, premiumisation potential of certain assets in portfolio (PE); cost synergies (merger)
||growth constraint, losses, debt increase, focus on UK operations
||losses and restructuring costs caused Uniqâs net debt to grow to x2,0 EBITDA in YTD 2009
Uniq has publicly begun the process of finding buyers or joint-venture partners for all of its non âUK operations. The group has demonstrated how difficult it is to achieve profitable growth in convenience food, a problem that has also affected other big public companies in that space in Europe, notably Bakkavor and Greencore. We believe that Uniqâs main options are to attract a private equity buyer, prepared to both wait for better times and seek premiumisation opportunities in the portfolio; alternatively to merge with Bakkavor or Greencore, to extract cost synergies and increase scale.
These businesses are major producers of chilled and frozen meals, desserts, salads, sandwiches and fish specialties, in France, Germany, Holland and Poland. Sales split between branded, private label and food service; combined sales in 2008 of 460 mln GBP, constituting about 60% of Uniqâs total revenues.
The problems encountered by Uniq here, common to convenience food in general, include high materials costs, manufacturing complexity and SKU inflation, private label encroachment, and the consumer trading down to non âpremium offerings during a tough 2008 in Europe.
As a result, the group continues to exhibit low or negative growth, and operating losses. That, combined with restructuring charges and factory closures in its UK operations, has caused Uniqâs indebtedness to increase from a comfortable net cash position, to net debt of 27 mln GBP, equivalent to x2,0 EBITDA, in one year to end Q1 2009.
However, there are bright spots in the businesses that, in addition to a low valuation, could be capitalized upon by an active private equity investor. The Netherlands sandwiches business is growing strongly. Moreover, the French and Polish branded businesses, respectively Lisner fish specialties and Marie chilled and frozen foods, have held up relatively well, especially in profitability terms, and have market shares of above 10% in their categories and markets.
There exists the potential to leverage these brands, and develop new premium products that have a higher repeat purchase level, and lower materials costs and complexity, than convenience food does in general. A good example in Uniqâs history was the St Hubert spreads business, the clear market leader in France that delivered an EBITDA margin of over 30%; ironically, Uniq sold that jewel in its portfolio, to Dairy Crest in 2006.
One big factor that might discourage private equity, however, is potential restructuring costs associated with factory consolidation, to improve efficiency and profit. Itâs likely that a key reason for Uniq to seek to divest its Continental businesses, now, is that it doesnât want to shoulder the same restructuring burden, as it has in the UK, another time and further from home.
In that case, a merger with other walking wounded in convenience food in Europe, notably Greencore, might make sense if it can be financed. That group has significant chilled food and snacks businesses in Holland and Germany. Substantial synergies could be extracted from such a merger; a major restructuring effort would ensue however.