In our recently unveiled 2017 Predictions for Industry Supply Chains (Available for complimentary downloading in our Research Center), we elected to include Consumer Packaged Food (CPG) and Beverage supply chains in our industry-specific predictions. We have included this industry in our industry-specific predictions for the past three years and already, industry dynamics of activist investors surrounding the industry are once again underway, and the supply chain stakes are becoming far higher and likely destructive.

Consumers have not wavered in their more health-conscious view of food and beverage consumption and their shopping preferences continue to shun traditional processed foods. They demand healthy food choices containing natural and sustainable ingredients. Throughout 2016, these trends continued to be reflected in the business and financial performance of globally branded food producers who now continue to be challenged in achieving single-digit top-line sales and profitability growth. Global observers such as the Economist question whether the global expansion and presence model has run out of steam because of diminishing financial returns.

As what occurred in 2016, declining profits and meager sales growth continues to spawn activist investors to influence certain CPG, food, and beverage firms to consolidate. The prime disruptor in this industry remains Brazil based 3G Capital and specifically Heinz-Kraft Foods. A report from Fortune describes the 3G Capital playbook as a “meritocracy” that is on track to consume the food industry. The model includes wholesale replacement of an existing senior management team and what is often described as a blitzkrieg of cost cutting predicated on zero-based budgeting tenets. This model is further described in the analogy of a swimming shark with tendencies of buy, squeeze and repeat with the next target.

When 3G acquired Heinz, upwards of 7000 job cuts were initiated while five production facilities were shuttered. Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBITA) improved by 8 percentage points over an 18-month period. Heinz then acquired Kraft in 2015, and reports point to upwards of an additional 5000 in headcount reductions. A recent published Fortune report cites research firm AllianceBerstein as indicating that Kraft-Heinz is already 88 percent towards its goal to cut an additional $1.5 billion in annual costs by the end of this year.

Acquisitions govern growth as opposed to just organic sales growth.  The CPG industry is now consumed with the threat of 3G, and as Fortune observes: “The entire food industry is “3G-ing” itself before Kraft-Heinz can do it to the companies.” Fortune writes: “The whole food industry is speculating who’s next.” We concur and we predicted that there will indeed be another major acquisition involving a major branded CPG company in 2017.

Little did we know that it would come so soon and with far broader scope.

Dynamics Already Underway and the Stakes Increase

Last week featured the news of what our prediction included although the target and size was a big surprise. Kraft-Heinz issued a $143 billion acquisition offer for global CPG provider Unilever. While the offer was quickly rejected as insufficient, and subsequently withdrawn, the implications are far larger and once-again reverberating across the industry while all await the next shoe to drop. The Economist headline was: Barbarians at the Plate: 3G Missed Unilever but its methods are spreading.

Within the past few days Campbell Soup and General Mills reported disappointing sales and earnings. Campbell’s cited mistakes in its fresh-foods business unit that included a recent product recall and decision to harvest carrots while they were still small. Late last week, General Mills reported weaker than expected revenues from sales of yogurt and soup along with weakened consumer demand. The firm’s outlook for the remainder of its fiscal year that ends in May is expected to decline by 4 percent.

Today, The Wall Street Journal reported that Unilever is now pivoting from the Kraft-Heinz attempted acquisition with its Board now deliberating on options to deliver greater short-term value for shareholders.  That could include the sale of the firm’s current food division or attempting an acquisition of its own in the personal care area.

Meanwhile, speculation abounds as to what will be the next target for Kraft-Heinz. Names such as Mondelez International, Campbell Soup, Coca Cola Company, General Mills, Kellogg, and others are being tossed about.

With such a backdrop, pressures increase on remaining CPG food and beverage companies along with associated food suppliers.  By our lens, the survivors are those that embrace innovation and find ways to best accommodate today’s consumer choices.

Industry Supply Chains Buffeted from the Impact

In the middle of such forces are CPG focused industry supply chains that continue to be pressured for additional cost reductions and productivity savings. This will unfortunately, continue and at a more intense pace.  At the same time, visionaries continue to believe that the future still comes from process and technology enabled innovation and in sourcing, planning and marketing healthier and more organic food products. Thus, many food supply chains have heavy requirements for continuous new product introductions and in developing distribution strategies that accommodate an entirely different customer fulfillment need. Coupled with that is satisfying consumer needs for visibility into all levels of the food supply chain and specifically where food has originated.

All the above will be the primary agenda for CPG and beverage supply chains in the coming year. The winners are supply chain leaders who educate senior management on the differences of supply chain as a cost center vs. a business innovation enabler. They will also be those that can keep a laser focus on the end-goal, meeting and accommodating far different consumer preferences with changed thinking and distribution methods. Many will need to be equipped to deal with our other 2017 predictions such as responding to the perfect storm in the requirements for skilled supply chain talent across many supply chain, procurement and distribution dimensions along with the needs for advanced technology to support more predictive decision-making.

Bottom-line, the CPG industry remains in a state of defense and apprehension, and by our Supply Chain Matters lens, industry supply chains will pay the inevitable price in needs for further cost and headcount reductions along with blocked efforts to instill added product, process, and resilience to overall business support capabilities.

Stating the Obvious

Sometimes, a blog such as ours needs to be blunt in viewpoint to provoke additional thinking or changed mindset. The wave of activist investors surrounding the CPG food and beverage industry is destructive to supply chain capability and innovation, and the timing could not come at the worse time.  CPG industry supply chains and their network of food suppliers require the ability to support a business need for healthier and more organic food choices for consumers.  This wave of zero-based budgeting and cost cutting will not likely achieve that objective, and we as consumers, will have limited choices for healthier food. It is a race to the bottom with notions that the survivors gain the spoils.

One must wonder what the end-state really implies, short-term investor rewards or industry supply chains with very little capability to support required process, technology, and product innovation.

Bob Ferrari

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