Deal or No Deal? For Kraft Heinz, It Doesn’t Really Matter

Will it or won’t it? It’s a question followers and owners of Kraft Heinz Co (NASDAQ:KHC) shares have been asking themselves for a while now. That is, is the struggling company going to make an acquisition or, for that matter, might it even hold itself up for sale?

It certainly seems a little more likely now than it has in the recent past. Although Kraft Heinz walked away from a prospective deal with Unilever NV ADR (NYSE:UN) just a few months ago, sitting down at the table in the first place suggests a willingness to entertain the idea. In the meantime, an influential investor’s opinion is no longer being voiced in the board room.

Whatever the odds were that owners of KHC stock would see a much-needed deal get done, they seem to be getting a bit better. The question is, does it really matter?

Gearing Up

Stifel analyst Christoper Growe thinks an acquisition might still be in the cards. Just a few days ago, he wrote: “We believe Kraft Heinz will lead the industry in consolidation, and while this opportunity has come and gone in some investors’ eyes, we still see the opportunity for a large-scale, transformational acquisition with a focus on buying growing categories, brands that can travel around the world and one capable of creating significant cost savings.”

Stifel’s suggested targets? PepsiCo, Inc. (NASDAQ:PEP) or Mondelez International, Inc. (NASDAQ:MDLZ).

There’s little doubt that Kraft Heinz needs to do something to reinvigorate itself. Revenue growth has stalled since late-2016 and operating income is similarly stagnant. Between inflation and competition, KHC stock is down nearly 30% in just the past twelve months. Shareholders aren’t happy.

Another proposal like the Unilever deal certainly won’t find as much resistance among the board of directors going forward either.

Warren Buffett, who is vehemently opposed to hostile takeovers (which is what the Unilever deal would have eventually required), stepped down as a board member in April. His fund, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A, NYSE:BRK.B), still owns a lot of KHC stock and could arguably influence future decisions. That doesn’t seem to be on the agenda though — at least not to the extent that it could torpedo any acquisition plans.

Of course, that assumes there’s a buyee out there. Gordon Haskett analysts noted after a presentation the company made in February: “What we see in this presentation [is a] sign that Kraft wants to transact, [but] can’t find anyone that is willing to sell to it and now wants to re-invent its image so that sellers see it as a more hospitable landing spot.”

Questionable Outcome

While few disagree that something has to be done to revive Kraft Heinz, the value of deal-making isn’t entirely clear; bigger isn’t necessarily better. One only has to look at recently-circulated whispers that Kraft Heinz is looking to shed Indian milk brand Complan to appreciate the premise.

Other companies of its ilk also seem to be facing the same headache.

Take Procter & Gamble Co (NYSE:PG) for instance. During the ’80s and ’90s, and even into the early 2000s, it acquired brand names and rivals, building an ever-growing machine that dominated the personal and consumer goods market. Size helped. In the shadow of several different factors though (the advent of e-commerce, accessible inventory management solutions and a growing willingness by consumers to try alternative brands), that size turned into a liability. It’s been in divestiture mode since 2014, shedding brands that proved too much of a distraction in a market environment like today’s.

In that same vein, it’s not entirely clear there was a strategic or even a fiscal advantage to combining Unilever and Kraft Heinz. There may be no strategic advantage to bringing PepsiCo or Mondelez into the mix either. The premise is exciting, but the actual benefit is unclear.

Bottom Line on KHC Stock

Ergo, the only viable path to prolonged success from Kraft Heinz is a reinvention from the ground up –new products, new marketing, new mindset (as P&G finally figured out). But, that ethereal achievement may be the toughest of all to muster, given the company’s corporate culture.

Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow explained of his downgrade of KHC stock in April: “All of the industry contacts we contacted expressed concerns around the sustainability of operating the Kraft Heinz business with this culture. In particular, they said that the turnover rate at Kraft Heinz has increased to an alarming level and increased the execution risk at the company.”

One only has to look at General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) to see that, sooner or later, the wrong kind of company culture impacts the bottom line — with or without deal-making. In fact, bringing two different companies together with the wrong culture in place might only exacerbate the inherent problems of company integration.

It’s tough to find a good reason why you’d want to own KHC stock over, well, any other stock.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.

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