Why accounting errors won't stop Hain takeover speculation — or 6 hungry potential buyers
This story has been edited to remove comments from an analyst who is not at liberty to discuss Danone.
Hain Celestial has been the focal point of food and beverage industry takeover speculation in recent months. But revelations this week about potential accounting errors and missing revenue and profit guidance targets caused some analysts to question their assessment. Hain’s stock tumbled as much as 27.5% in premarket trading Tuesday morning, and a firm has now launched an investigation into potential claims on behalf of Hain shareholders.
Letting up on speculation of a Hain takeover may be premature based on the facts of the case, the value Hain’s portfolio could provide and the list of hungry suitors that may be lining up.
Accounting errors won’t stop a takeover
In its announcement, Hain said that the company was primarily concerned about whether it accounted for the revenue associated with concessions made to some U.S. distributors in the correct time period. Those accounting errors are less likely to change total revenue for the year, but may have inflated profitability in certain quarters.
While investors may be concerned that Hain won’t achieve its revenue and profit guidance for the year, the question is by how much. A dip in revenue would have to be fairly significant to drag Hain down to the slowing revenue growth or declines that many other major manufacturers—including those that could potentially buy Hain—recently reported.
Depending on how far off Hain’s final numbers are, this plunge in stock price could make Hain more attractive to buy. An acquirer could offer either a lower bid or the same one, which would now carry a higher and more attractive multiple for Hain shareholders. The whole scenario could also pressure management to sell.
Why Hain is still a ripe acquisition target
Hain Celestial has been a leader among larger natural food and beverage companies, having posted double-digit revenue growth for 20 consecutive quarters. Competition is heating up from retailers’ better-for-you private-label brands, and larger manufacturers buying up or launching their own natural and organic food brands.
“That's putting pressure (and) a lot of squeeze on companies like Hain,” said Lou Biscotti, partner and head of the food and beverage practice at WeiserMazars.
In January, Hain lowered its expectations for fiscal 2016 revenue and earnings per share. In November 2015, it reported a 9% sales gain for fiscal Q1 2016, which ended its long streak of quarters with double-digit sales growth. That was followed by 8% growth for Q2, but Hain was back into double digits with 13% growth in Q3.
Speculation for a Hain takeover also sent the company’s stock soaring as much as 12% on July 6, after Danone announced its $12.5 billion takeover bid for WhiteWave Foods, one of Hain’s key competitors in the natural and organic space. Hain’s shares had already increased 17% year to date at that time, though Hain still remains cheaper than WhiteWave, experts say.
“(Hain’s) product line is very much in sync with consumer trends today,” said Biscotti. “And from what the experts talk about, their stock is a little undervalued, based on what happened with WhiteWave. (Hain) would be an excellent, excellent acquisition candidate.”
Introducing: Hain’s lineup of hungry suitors
But who’s buying? Several companies might, according to a wide range of speculation.
“General Mills is probably one that I would tip my hat to,” said Biscotti.
Food Dive named General Mills as the most likely candidate to acquire Hain in a recent story on M&A speculation. General Mills has proven its interest in better-for-you products in recent years, whether through acquisitions like Annie's, startup investments through its 301 Inc. platform. It's also done internal brand overhauls, like removing artificial ingredients from its cereals and revamping its yogurt portfolio.
With Hain as a leader in the natural and organic food and beverage space, its portfolio could fit well into General Mills’ recently outlined plans for the future, which includes strategic investments in fast-growing brands and segments.
Kellogg has a portfolio and revenue growth needs similar to General Mills, which makes it another likely candidate to buy Hain. This could be for Kellogg what Annie’s was for General Mills, and Hain could have synergies with Kashi.
Kellogg’s overall portfolio is more concentrated than General Mills, primarily in cereal and snacks, while Hain extends further into grocery and even non-food brands. Hain’s brands may be too far out of Kellogg’s purview for it to consider an acquisition.
Kellogg has also been more focused on internal growth, with cost-cutting initiatives like Project K causing the company to shut down a number of facilities in recent years. However, Kellogg did launch its venture capital arm 1894 earlier this year, which could demonstrate the company’s interest in future acquisitive growth. Kashi also acquired a vegan snack brand in July.
Danone may have ignited recent Hain takeover buzz with its own takeover bid for WhiteWave.
WhiteWave isn’t a done deal yet, and the acquisition has to prove itself after Danone integrates the brands into its portfolio. It’s unclear whether Danone would be prepared to make another acquisition of a related but still very different set of brands in this space before proving to shareholders that growth in these categories is worth the purchase — or whether it would do so fast enough before another buyer swoops in.
Mondelez has proven it’s willing to make the right acquisition moves based on its Enjoy Life Foods purchase last year, which positioned the company within better-for-you snacks and ingredients, and its rejected attempt to acquire Hershey earlier this summer. Last week, Mondelez announced it would acquire the license for Cadbury biscuits, so the capital and interest are there.
Hain would also fit well into Mondelez’s growth strategy, which the company outlined last year and includes generating half of total revenue from better-for-you products in the next five years. Hershey has some better-for-you brands, like SoFit and Krave, but otherwise, like Cadbury, primarily aligns with sweets and indulgences. Hain would be a major step toward that healthy revenue goal.
But like Kellogg, Mondelez’s portfolio is more focused on snacks than general grocery. The company even moved to divest its coffee business in a deal to create Jacobs Douwe Egberts last year, which could demonstrate that Mondelez may not be willing to go too far outside of its current set of product segments.
One potential acquirer of Hain receiving much speculation is Coca-Cola. But considering Coca-Cola’s relatively focused portfolio and recent announcements, it’s unclear whether that speculation will amount to anything.
Coca-Cola announced in March that the company was refining its business model to focus more on producing concentrate while getting rid of bottling and distribution. In that regard, a Hain acquisition doesn’t seem to make sense, because Hain’s portfolio includes both beverages and food.
Right now, adding food production, an area in which Coca-Cola is not experienced or potentially equipped, doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Biscotti mentioned PepsiCo as a potential acquirer. Hain could bring more of a health focus to a beverages and snacks portfolio that, despite well-received developments like organic Tostitos and the announcement of organic Gatorade, still doesn’t quite align with consumer health trends.
However, PepsiCo has been notably quiet in the M&A space for the past several years. PepsiCo saw major activity around the turn of the century, including acquiring Tropicana in 1998 and Quaker Oats (including Gatorade) in 2001. The company also initiated a handful of smaller acquisitions about a decade ago, including IZZE, Naked and Stacy’s Pita Chip Co in 2006. But PepsiCo has since looked inward and focused on internal growth and returning capital to shareholders.
However, the beverage and snacks giant did seem to awaken when it offered to purchase a majority stake in Chobani last year, which Chobani rejected. That could signal PepsiCo’s reenergized willingness to enter the M&A fray, as long as the product and price are right, and Hain could be a welcome addition to that portfolio.