The year began robustly, with 37 transactions involving UK and Irish food and drink companies, a similar level of activity to the four previous quarters, it said in its latest Bite Size report.
Several of these had been driven by overseas acquirers, particularly from Asia, it said. Examples included Bright Foods’ acquisition of the remaining 40% in Weetabix, cementing its entry into the UK and global food markets through the Weetabix brand.
In addition, Israel’s Frutarom acquired UK flavours company Foodblenders during the same period and other Asian groups continued to publically voice their interest in pursuing western targets, Grant Thornton said.
Deals had also been characterised by a strong appetite for convenience foods, it said. A total of 13.5% of transactions in the quarter focused on the delicatessen and convenience food sector. The sale of Adelie Foods to private equity outfit HIG Capital Europe was one instance it cited of that trend.
Notable convenience sector developments had included Baxters Food Group’s acquisition of Wornick Company in the US, Winterbotham Darby & Co’s acquisition of UK firm G’Nosh and Bakkavor’s acquisition of US business B Robert’s Foods.
A high proportion of M&A agreements with undisclosed terms suggested many of them had taken place among small to medium-sized enterprises, which tended to keep quiet about such matters, Grant Thornton added.
According to its calculations, official disclosed deal value for the quarter was just £102M, split across six transactions, compared with £3.2bn in the final quarter of 2014.
Many of the transactions had been motivated by increased demands on firms to deliver profit, claimed Trefor Griffith, partner and head of food and beverage at Grant Thornton.
“Brands are under pressure and producers are responding by taking a hard look at their businesses, both for the potential to become more efficient, but also to look at new routes to market and whether they have the right mix in their portfolios to be competitive in today's harsh environment,” said Griffith.
“Portfolio optimisation, which involves companies both rationalising the size of their portfolios and also acquiring new, often faster growing businesses continues to be one of the key investment themes driving M&A activity in the food and beverage sector.
“Examples of this are currently to be found mostly at the larger end of the market. For example Nestlé, which has already divested its Spanish La Cocinera frozen meals business to Findus, is seemingly also nearing the sale of frozen food unit Davigel to Brakes.
“Other groups also undertaking portfolio optimisation include Unilever, Kerry Foods, and 3G Capital with Heinz, and no doubt the newly formed Kraft/Heinz group.”