If there's a company that has changed more in the past year than Heinz has, we don't know about it.
A year ago, Heinz was a beloved food-industry icon. It churned out ketchup that was ubiquitous. The management team was famous for attracting some of the biggest talents in the business to join the team. Cash flow was good. Many of the company's brands were stable, segment-leading icons. Heinz was a success.
But in this era, success makes you a target. And the takeover kings had their eye on the ketchup king.
And on Valentine's Day, the news came that Heinz had been purchased. The new owners—Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and private-equity fund 3G Capital—hinted that everything was wonderful at Heinz and would remain so. Heinz' CEO talked about how the company, with 30 consecutive quarters of top-line growth, was "being acquired from a position of strength."
That, of course, was not the whole story of what was going on behind the scenes. Heinz was strong before the acquisition, but on Feb. 14 all its revenue was suddenly just a tool to pay off debt. And it wasn't a big enough tool. Because the new owners had saddled the company with $14 billion in debt. Plus, Berkshire Hathaway had set up a sweetheart deal for itself that required Heinz to pay $720 million a year in preferred dividends.
The changes that followed were as fast as they were predictable.
A new CEO arrived—a guy with experience slashing costs at Burger King, which is also controlled by 3G Capital.
Then there were job cuts. Then there were a series of wacky cuts in which the new owners suddenly decided that everyone at Heinz was a money-wasting maniac who was using too much paper—some of which was used for color printing!
And suddenly the real problem became clear. Just as analysts and industry watchers had said earlier, Heinz was already a frugal company. "To think that they were bloated by any means is kind of crazy," Jack P. Russo, an analyst with Edward Jones & Co. in St. Louis, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. The new owners couldn't cut any fat, because there wasn't any fat at Heinz.
So they started cutting bone. There were more job cuts. And then the company started subleasing office space at its headquarters and research facilities. Somewhere in there, Heinz lost a high-profile customer: McDonalds. Then there were more job cuts.
Finally, the company started cutting benefits to retirees.
So as the New Year begins, we see nothing to suggest that Heinz is about to turn the corner. The company has sufficient cash flow to make interest payments on the billions in debt, but there's not much left after that. Nor are there any significant cost savings to be found. And, as often happens in such situations, sales have begun to decline.
Thus, we think that what 2014 holds in store for Heinz is pretty obvious:
1. ASSET SALES
Heinz is going to have to sell some units. The most likely candidates are in the frozen-food aisle. Look for Ore-Ida and/or SmartOnes to be sold soon. The T.G.I. Fridays line of frozen food doesn't look safe either.
2. ASSET PURCHASES
Any cash that Heinz raises from the sale of assets won't be enough to pay down the debt. Rather, the company is likely to try to use that new cash to buy a company or two with faster growth potential.
3. MINOR DEFECTIONS
It's common in scenarios like this for valued employees to flee. The company they signed on for just no longer exists. No doubt Heinz is full of such people—folks who loved working for Heinz, but hate working for 3G and Berkshire Hathaway. And no doubt they all have their resumes in the mail. But the truth is that there aren't loads of jobs available for food-industry managers. That's particularly true in Heinz' hometown of Pittsburgh. So although some people will find new jobs, the majority of people at Heinz aren't going anywhere.
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