ATLANTA — Food makers are snapping up smaller rivals at the fastest pace in four years to buy time until consumers start spending again.
Campbell Soup’s purchase of Bolthouse Farms for $1.55 billion announced Monday highlights a bright spot in an otherwise slow year for acquisitions. Fueled by record-low borrowing rates, food companies this year are on pace for the most takeovers since the recession even as overall deal volume tumbles.
Several years of aggressive cost-cutting in the face of sluggish revenue growth have left food makers with little more to pare. Companies are instead using their stockpiles of cash to buy growth and the chance for new operational savings.
“The top line is not moving and the only needle these companies can move is cost, and that needle is tapped out,” Sachin Shah, a special-situations strategist for Tullett Prebon, said. “You have to spend to get cost synergies. They need cash flow.”
There have been 116 pending or completed takeovers of diversified food companies around the world this year, with a total value of $15.8 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s the most at this point in the year since 2008, when there were 130 announced deals valued at $5.46 billion. At this time last year, there had been 88 announced deals worth about $13.3 billion.
The broader deal market has been slower, with about 13,550 takeovers valued about $1.02 trillion in all industries this year, compared with 14,624 valued at $1.31 trillion a year earlier.
The purchase of Bolthouse from Chicago-based private-equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners is the second-largest consumer-focused takeover of a diversified food company this year after Kellogg’s’ $2.7 billion purchase of the Pringles potato chip brand from Procter & Gamble, announced in May.
The increase in food deals is mostly from companies with specific strategic goals, said Andrew Ross, chief strategy officer for ConAgra Foods. Buyers have been looking for acquisitions to fill holes, rather than mega-deals, he said.
“Deals are on the uptick because everyone is looking for growth,” Ross said. “But everyone is being disciplined about it. No one wants to make a mistake in this environment.”
ConAgra, based in Omaha, Neb., bought Pita Chips from Milwaukee-based Kangaroo Brands in May, to get into the growing pita sector. While Pita Chips has only about $20 million in annual revenue, ConAgra expects the company can boost the business more than the previous owner, Ross said.
ConAgra, which sells Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn and Healthy Choice frozen meals, saw an opportunity in April to add to its frozen-food business with Odom’s Tennessee Pride, a producer of frozen breakfast meals with more than $190 million a year in sales. The acquisition adds new products to ConAgra’s existing frozen food business, Ross said.
Buying Bolthouse will strengthen Campbell’s U.S. beverage division, which makes the V8 brand of juice and accounted for about 10 percent of sales in the year ended July 31. That unit was Campbell’s fastest-growing last quarter, generating $208 million in revenue, while sales in its soup unit have slowed.
Bolthouse, which employs about 2,100 people, sells fresh carrots, beverages and salad dressings as well as private-label products. The company had $689 million in sales and earnings before interest and taxes of about $79 million last year.
Campbell’s U.S. beverage business boosted sales 2 percent to $593 million in the nine months ended April 29. Sales in its U.S. Simple Meals business, which includes soup, declined 2 percent to about $2.3 billion in the same period.