TreeHouse ready to go shopping

by Eric Schroeder
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NEW YORK — Backed by a $1.2 billion financing structure entered into on May 6, TreeHouse Foods, Inc. has the resources to be an active player in the merger and acquisition market. Just how active depends on “a few constants” and “several changes,” the company’s top executive told participants at the Citi Global Consumer Conference held May 28 in New York.

“What is constant is that it is the category economics that determines how well private label does,” Sam Reed, chairman, president and chief executive officer explained in response to an analyst’s question on what categories are attractive to TreeHouse from an M.&A. perspective. “What you would like to see is a substantial category that still has growth, that still has opportunity for segmentation, that there is a great branded leader pioneering in innovation and consumer communications via advertising or other means, and that there is a big enough profit pool that you want to split the profits. So a portion like single-serve coffee as opposed to big cans of ground coffee.

“Then lastly, you want to have an instance where either a private-label presence has been created or can be consolidated. Those are the constants.”

Mr. Reed said TreeHouse applies those constants to every acquisition and every capital project it considers.

Meanwhile, the company also must consider what is changing in the marketplace.

“One is that while the old standbys are still being used in center-of-the-store shelf stable staples, the packaging formats and the sizes and the configurations are radically different for today’s consumer compared to the baby boomer generation, and we have to adapt to that,” he said. As an example, he pointed to TreeHouse’s April acquisition of Protenergy Natural Foods, a maker of private label soups, for C$170 million (approximately $150 million) in cash from Whitecastle Investments Ltd., Whitecap Venture Partners and others.

Through the acquisition of Protenergy, Mr. Reed said TreeHouse has invested in a technology, paper packaging for soup and broth that it believes may be spread over other product categories.

“I think also we have to be attentive to the fact that shopping habits have changed in that there is much activity done in the perimeter and that the center-of-the-store traffic is not going to keep up with perimeter growth,” he said. “So we have got to look at product categories that in fact can get us in front of the consumer there. A good example is that we have taken our leadership in portable salad dressings and expanded now into refrigerated dressings in both food service and retail grocery.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, TreeHouse must follow the consumer wherever he or she goes, Mr. Reed said.

“We did that to different retail formats in the past … and now we have got to do it across the store,” he said. “There are instances where there were only branded entries a few years ago. Leading retailers decided whether it’s in produce or deli or bakery or other highly trafficked perimeter departments that they want their banner, their logo, their brand represented. Well, that’s a great opportunity for us, so we have to commit ourselves to doing that.”
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