Majority stake in the Northamptonshire makers of the nation’s favourite breakfast product is sold to state-owned Chinese company
You can’t say we weren’t warned. Lord Digby Jones, a former director-general of the CBI, has long cautioned that “if we don’t watch out, China will eat our lunch”. On Thursday, it got started, with breakfast. A state-owned Chinese company is gobbling up a majority stake in Weetabix for £720m.
“I have been waking people up for years to the fact that China and India wanted our lunch, but I never thought they would want our breakfast as well,” Jones, who is now a UK trade ambassador, said.
Weetabix, made in Northamptonshire and exported to more than 80 countries, is the nation’s favourite breakfast product – we get through 3.4m biscuits a day.
Sources close to the Shanghai-based buyer, Bright Food, said China’s second biggest food company had its sights set on taking over a string of household names. “They won’t stop here,” one source said. “I’d be very surprised if this was the last British brand they take over.”
One City analyst suggested the cereal deal underlined the “global power shift from the west to the east”.
Bright Food has already splashed out on a 75% stake in Australia’s Manassen Food for more than $500m and a 51% stake in New Zealand dairy producer Synlait. Last year it offered more than £1.2bn for United Biscuits, the name behind British snacks such as Hula Hoops, Twiglets and Jaffa Cakes.
It has also attempted to take over French yoghurt group Yoplait and been linked with Campbell’s Soups and Premier Foods, the company behind Mr Kipling cakes, Bisto gravy and Loyd Grossman sauces.
Jones, who admitted to eating Weetabix for breakfast every other day – alternating with porridge – said he had “no problem” with China gobbling up great British brands, but just wished that they would be “similarly open to British investment in China”.
Bright Foods’ chairman, Zongnan Wang, who sealed the deal with a couple of celebratory Weetabix, said in a statement that he was “excited” about bringing the 80-year-old wheat biscuits to breakfast tables across China and Asia, where western eating habits are slowly catching on as wealthier citizens begin to shun traditional rice and steamed bread.
Despite Weetabix being derided by a head chef at the Savoy as “cakes that you give to dogs”, Weetabix’s chief executive, Giles Turrell, said he believed there were “substantial opportunities to further grow the business internationally, in North America, Asia and beyond”.
Industry experts warned that Weetabix may find breaking into the Chinese market difficult because of high levels of lactose intolerance among the population. However, Marcia Mogelonsky, an expert on food and drink at the market researcher Mintel, said there was “huge growth potential” for breakfast cereals in China, where just $665m was spent on them last year, compared with $2.3bn in the UK.
Mogelonsky said Bright Foods, which makes a huge range of products including canned meats, alcohol and sweets and even runs a taxi firm in Shanghai, had an “endless pot of money” to fund other takeovers. But she expected the company to be selective over which brands it poaches next. “I don’t think it’s going to be like Supermarket Sweep with them stripping the shelves of everything in a hurry.”
She said Weetabix would give the Chinese a “toehold in the UK, which will open up western Europe, which will in turn open up eastern Europe and then the world,” she said. “There’s a whole bunch more out there they can go after.”
Clive Black, an analyst at Shore Capital, said the acquisition of 60% of Weetabix was “just one example” of the “global power shift from the west to the east. It’s similar to how the bourgeoisie took over from the aristocracy 200 years ago,” he said.
“Asia and Latin America have got capital but lack experience and gravitas of brands – that new money is looking for old wealth. I think we’re going to see a lot more of it as the old world continues to get poorer and the new gets richer.”
Weetabix, which also makes Alpen and Ready brek, left British control nine years ago when Sir Richard George, whose family had run it since before the second world war, sold the family firm to the flamboyant venture capitalist Lyndon Lea for £642m. Lea, the 41-year-old son of a Lancashire hairdresser and engineer who is known for hosting parties featuring Cirque de Soleil dancers and sushi served off the bodies of near-naked women at his Californian beach house, was blasé about the fivefold return his private equity firm made on the deal. “It’s been a good return for us,” he said.
Lea’s Lion Capital firm will retain a 40% stake in the company. Bright Foods has committed itself to safeguarding production at the Weetabix factories in Burton Latimer and Corby, Northamptonshire, where 2,000 workers are employed.
The deal came on the same day as a Chinese retailer sealed the acquisition of Gieves & Hawkes from a Hong Kong company, which bought the Savile Row tailor from its British shareholders in 2002 for about £10m.
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