UK: Weston makes the best use of the key ingredients.

UK: Weston makes the best use of the key ingredients. - Alistair Blair looks at three independent food manufacturers which have taken very different approaches to developing their business.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Alistair Blair looks at three independent food manufacturers which have taken very different approaches to developing their business.

Few companies show such continuity of management as Associated British Foods which has been run by Garry Weston since 1967. Hazlewood comes close.

John Lowe took it over in the early '70s and ran it until 1991 since when one of his original partners, Peter Barr, has been in charge. But there the comparisons end. In 1977, the stock market valued the Weston family's 63% stake in ABF at £140 million - a serious fortune. Lowe, however, was barely past base in the making of his. Freshly-floated Hazlewood was worth £2 million.

Starting in the 1930s, Garry Weston's father, Garfield, built his own inheritance into bread-and-biscuit combine ABF. Acquisitions were a key ingredient, but in the '60s, according to Weston, his father went overboard.

In 1965, Weston senior bought 40 companies including a leading manufacturer of parrot food. Meanwhile, Weston junior had been doing sterling work introducing Australians to Ryvita and other ABF brands.

Garry Weston has been more keen on hanging onto his heritage than making acquisitions. He sold out of parrot food and lots of other companies, but never hastily. He held on to Fine Fare for 20 years, and to his Irish supermarkets for 30. He spent lots of money on new factories for the core businesses. Not until 1991 did he make a serious acquisition, the stunningly good takeover of British Sugar.

Hazlewood never bought as many as 40 companies in a single year but looked as if it might like to. Even before the '80s takeover boom got started, Lowe was a textbook operator. The virtuous circle of rising earnings, a rising share price and share issues to buy more earnings cheaply took Hazlewood from its origins in pickles into fish, confectionery, cider, pizzas and even kitchen roll.

As is well known, this formula doesn't go on forever, but Lowe kept it going longer than most. His interpretation of the '80s takeover mantra focused on smallish, friendly deals and the retention of the people who sold their companies. Perhaps smart investors saw the end of the road in 1988 when Lowe announced that he had decided, after all, not to pursue an offer for Northern Foods. Earnings peaked in 1990 and in real terms have now sunk below the 1987 figure, although things could be looking up.

Northern Foods has also had exceptional management continuity under its original dynamo, Alec Horsley, followed by his son and then son-in-law Chris Haskins. They appeared to be onto a good thing in the '70s, positioning Northern as key supplier to Marks & Spencer's burgeoning food departments.

This offered a brighter future than the business Northern came from - doorstep-delivered milk. But this main chance has been lost by a refusal to give up on milk. The share price descent since 1992 reflects the hopelessly overpriced (£350 million) purchase of Express Dairy and Eden Vale.

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