Omission from Kraft-Heinz products

by Morton Sosland
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This page is probably the only place where it will be noted that a unique aspect of the newly-announced merger of The H.J. Heinz Co. and Kraft Foods Group Inc. is that neither of these companies has anything like a significant position in grain-based foods. Heinz, based in ketchup and sauces, and Kraft, a leading force in various cheeses and meat products, probably use sizable amount of grain-based foods like flour and high-fructose corn syrup as ingredients in their varied products, but descriptions of the merger usually emphasize the amazing array of brands, and in that formidable listing nothing appears smacking of specific competition in the grain-based foods arena. Only two other companies in North American food manufacturing are larger than this new industry giant with $28 billion in sales. One of these larger companies, PepsiCo, Inc., has a major stake in grain-based foods through its snack business. The second, Nestle S.A., has a limited grain-based foods portfolio in the United States, some of which is presently under review.

While it may be easy to explain this uniqueness by looking at the history of the two companies in the Kraft-Heinz combination, the absence of such a fundamental part of the food business may also merit speculation as to what the merger’s originators may be thinking. Yes, it is correct that neither the managers of 3G Capital, the Brazil-based group that provides capital and executive leadership, and Warren Buffett, the fabled head of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has shown an inclination to want to own businesses engaged in milling or baking. Considering the 3G base in Brazil, a nation whose food supply is more grain dependent than almost any other, and Mr. Buffett’s headquarters in Omaha, as near the center of America’s grain-based foods as any other city, prompts some wonder about this omission. Yet, nothing has ever been recorded expressing doubt on this score, and it seems advisable to attribute this special characteristic to an accident of corporate history.

In looking at the move by Heinz to join with Kraft by this merger, many investment analysts interpreted this stock and cash transaction as likely to spur merger activity within the entire food industry. Here is where the grain-based foods business once again is ahead of the rest of the food industry. In mergers and acquisitions this industry has recently experienced more significant change than anything expected from the Kraft-Heinz combination. No one should be willing to say that signals from Kraft-Heinz will not affect grain-based foods, but just how that might happen is difficult to predict in light of the activity that has already occurred.

The tremendously impressive array of consumer brands the merger puts under a single corporate leadership is the core of the transaction, which is additionally driven by the proven ability of 3G executives to reduce costs. One aspect that did not receive the same attention when the transaction was announced, and that is the newly-revealed goal of taking Kraft brands into international markets. When Mondelez was spun off from Kraft Foods in 2001, it was made up of all the international operations along with biscuits and crackers, while Kraft continued to operate in America. No better evidence of 3G’s ambitions may be observed than its stated goal of taking those Kraft brands into global markets where it already has been pressing Heinz to expand its operations.

Eight brands with annual sales above $1 billion and five more brands with sales of $500 million to $1 billion comprise a highly impressive line-up. Just as eye-catching is the estimate that the “synergy potential” by the end of 2017 approximates $1.5 billion, which equals a startling 5% of expected sales. Confidence about its cost-cutting abilities and its global reach leaves the new Kraft-Heinz Co. with the same task facing grain-based foods. This is the urgent need for innovation in products and marketing to attract a fast-changing consumer marketplace with wants much different from what ruled when many of these brands first reached their peaks.

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