Pinnacle mulling M.&A. opportunities

by Monica Watrous
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PARSIPPANY, N.J. — When evaluating an acquisition opportunity, Pinnacle Foods, Inc. considers several key factors.

“We are looking for businesses that are North American, in our existing or adjacent categories… high synergy potential, and we’re also looking for businesses that are leaders or close to leadership,” said Bob Gamgort, chief executive officer, during a March 6 earnings call with analysts. “And so that’s the criteria that we use as we evaluate all of the opportunities that are in front of us right now. And you can imagine that they all score differently across that criteria, and it is our judgment in the end to say which is the right acquisition that makes this company better over the long term.”

While Pinnacle avoids buying distressed businesses, Mr. Gamgort said the company isn’t afraid of flat or declining categories or underperforming brands.

“We would not buy any business and just hold onto it and continue to manage it the way that it has been managed and expect the performance that was in the past to continue,” he said. “We would only do it if we had the game plan to turn it around.”

Responding to Unilever USA’s rumored sale of Ragu spaghetti sauce, he added: “We haven’t done a lot of work on that category, so it is hard for me to speak specifically on that one, but think about the salad dressing category in Wish-Bone, and even when we acquired Birds Eye, those were not growth businesses. We had to turn Birds Eye, for example, into a growth business through a lot of the innovation that we launched.”

In buying Wish-Bone from Unilever last October, Pinnacle recognized unique synergy benefits, including marketing opportunities to co-promote the brand with its Birds Eye portfolio of frozen vegetables.

“I think Wish-Bone is a great example of that, our criteria for an acquisition actually happening and then how we are seeing this integrated in plans that we have for and especially in the second half of 2014,” Mr. Gamgort said. “I think it also gives us confidence that this is the right strategy.”

The business has proved highly accretive to Pinnacle’s earnings, contributing $38 million to net sales during the fourth quarter.

In its first year as a public company, Pinnacle posted double-digit earnings growth. Net earnings for the year ended Dec. 29, 2013, advanced 70% to $89,349,000, equal to 84c per share on the common stock, which compared with $52,519,000, or 65c per share, in the prior fiscal year. Net sales slipped to $2,463,802,000 from $2,478,485,000. Results reflect a significant reduction in interest expense from the company’s i.p.o. and refinancing actions in 2012 and 2013, as well as a significant increase in net cash provided by operating activities in 2013 as compared with 2012.

For the fourth quarter, the company had net earnings of $55,707,000, equal to 48c per share, up 28% from $43,662,000, or 54c per share, in the comparable quarter of the previous year. Net sales rose slightly to $709,322,000 during the quarter, compared with $705,060,000 the year before.

Net sales for the Birds Eye Frozen segment declined 4.1% during the quarter, reflecting lower net pricing partially offset by higher volume and mix. Growth in Birds Eye vegetables, driven by the new Recipe Ready line, and Birds Eye Voila! complete bagged meals, as well as Mrs. Pauls’ and Van de Kamp’s seafood products were offset by declines in Aunt Jemima breakfast and Celeste pizza.

For the Duncan Hines Grocery segment, sales advanced 8% on the strength of Duncan Hines baking products and Log Cabin and Mrs. Butterworth’s syrups, offset by declines in pie fillings and chili products. The recently acquired Wish-Bone brand of salad dressings also benefitted net sales.

Sales declined 6.1% for the Specialty Foods segment, due of a lower volume and mix and reduced net pricing, partially offset by the Wish-Bone food service business. Lower net sales of private label canned meat were offset by growth in food service and snacks.

Looking ahead to 2014, the company expects another year of double-digit growth.

“As we look toward 2014, we will continue to follow the strategy that has driven our success,” Mr. Gamgort said. “In a nutshell this involves investing differentially in our portfolio with a focus on our higher-margin leadership brands, driving gross margin improvement through continued improvement in product mix and strong productivity programs, generating attractive free cash flow driven by our industry-leading free cash flow conversion enabled by our lean overhead structure and tight management of working capital, and realizing the benefits of the Wish-Bone acquisition.”
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