Comment - Beer - M&A: Time to Play?
M&A activity within the beer sector this year has been limited to just the one big transaction, in Mexico. Larry Nelson believes, however, that 2010 could have served as the calm before the storm, with the next wave of consolidation expected to break soon. Indeed, according to some, that wave could even be a tsunami, the size of which the world's brewers have never seen before.
Those who care little about brewhouses and packaging lines may have not have noticed that the world's largest exhibition for such excitements was staged earlier this month. Over its three days, Brau Beviale welcomed tens of thousands of visitors from around the globe, who came to check out the goods and services on offer at 1,400-odd company stands.
This Nuremberg, Germany-based trade fair, staged three out of every four years - in the fourth year it gives way to an even bigger drinks exhibition, Drinktec, in Munich - was unusually quiet. There was little in the way of innovations. The biggest news was perhaps Barth Haas' decision to open a research centre in England to identify additional applications for hop use.
But, like any good trade fair, gossip was abundant; rumours were rife. Two years ago, as InBev finalised its audacious Anheuser-Busch transaction, Brau's halls were filled with speculation that the Belgian-Brazilians were about to sell off Beck's to part finance the deal.
Like most rumours, the Beck's deal failed to materialise. But, returning to 2010, the Brau rumour mill churned out its biggest headline yet - a bid by A-B InBev for SABMiller was in the offing, or that a partnership of some sort would emerge; and that the deal would be made possible by Molson Coors acquiring SABMiller's stake in their MillerCoors' joint venture in the US. (Like all rumours, the details were suitably vague, yet exciting enough to stir imaginations.)
Such a possibility is easy to dismiss as fanciful. Yet, despite their global reach, there is surprisingly little geographic overlap between the world's number one and two brewers. There was potential for regulatory angst in Eastern Europe until A-B InBev sloughed off its assets to private equity late last year. The two are head-to-head in Russia but, should their operations be combined, the resulting market share would be well behind the 40%-plus claimed by Carlsberg's Baltika Breweries. The US would be problematic but - hey, presto - to avoid getting in the way of a good story, Molson Coors is on hand to make a merger/SABMiller acquisition possible.
If there is one country that could block a merger, it's China. When InBev combined Budweiser's operations with Harbin back in 2008, the country's then newly-minted competition authority found that the enlarged brewer would not eliminate or restrict competition. However, it did place a restriction on A-B InBev, saying that approval would be required before it could take an equity stake in SABMiller joint venture China Resources Snow Breweries, the country's market leader, or government-owned Yanjing Beer Group.
And, if there were a global competition authority, UN-based perhaps, what would they make of such a deal with global implications? With combined volumes approaching 600m hectolitres, A-B InBev-SABMiller would be three-and-a-half times the size of currently third-ranked Heineken.
This isn't going to happen. And there's certainly no indication that SABMiller would be interested. Note the minor transaction last week where it acquired Casa Isenbeck, Argentina's third-ranked brewer, from Warsteiner Group. Casa Isenbeck claims around 10% of the Argentine market; A-B InBev's Quilmes is the dominant player with a 67% market share. It's David versus Goliath at the moment but, in having a production capacity and distribution base, SABMiller is well-placed to launch premium international brands in the country and compete with Quilmes in the most profitable segment.
The real issue, as a savvy industry veteran told me last week, is what A-B InBev will do once its post-Bud debt load is paid down and free cash flow improves in 18 months to two years. How soon will there be pressure from shareholders or, more likely, a desire on the part of senior management to return to the M&A table?
Secondly, if brewers are reloading for another round of M&A activity, where are the opportunities? As reported in Brewers' Guardian earlier this year, most of the world's 20 largest beer markets have consolidated, with some permutation of A-B InBev, SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg present. There are three exceptions: South Korea, where both A-B InBev and Carlsberg have divested minority stakes in recent years; Venezuela, where Polar outpaces Cerveceria Regional, and Thailand, where Boon Rawd and Thai Beverages are head-to-head on market share.
SABMiller Graham Mackay has made the point repeatedly over the last decade that beer brands remain national rather than international products. More succinctly, the Cola-Cola-isation of the brewing industry isn't upon us yet.
The financial rationales for cross-border M&A often have to do with cost synergy gains or with acquiring leadership positions in key markets. Rarely do they talk about the potential for international brands; the recent exception in this regard is the hopes for Heineken in Mexico as a fruit of the FEMSA transaction.
There are a handful of companies that fit the market leader description - a stand-alone beer business in a Foster's Group demerger would certainly be a target. Meanwhile, San Miguel in the Philippines has said that its beer business can be had for the right price. (Given that Kirin has close to a majority stake already it must be considered the front runner.)
If there is scope for an acquisition with international consequences, then one wonders what will become of Diageo's brewing operations. A company once prepared to divest baked goods and fast-food restaurants to focus on its drinks businesses could once again look to tighten its strategic thinking. Then again, Diageo could be a buyer rather than a seller - it was rumoured to be in the bidding for FEMSA's beer business.
Often left out of the discussion about global M&A are the Japanese-headquartered brewers, Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo. The first has been active of late, snapping up the remaining shares in Lion Nathan and, of interest, taking a 14.7% stake in Singapore's Fraser & Neave, best known in the brewing industry as Heineken's partner in Asia Pacific Breweries.
Really, your guess is as good as mine or anyone's when it comes to predicting what the next round of consolidation will bring, save that it's reasonably clear that we haven't reached the end game yet. (Hands up all of you who saw the bid by InBev for Anheuser-Busch in the offing; or predicted Carlsberg's and Heineken's creative joint approach for Scottish & Newcastle.)
However, if there is to be a transaction with global implications, could a tie-up between a European-headquartered brewer and a Japanese conglomerate be likely?
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