Cadbury fights for its life

September 7, 2009

CadburyOne of our national treasures looks set to disappear. No, no,no. I am not talking about Sir Tel being replaced at Radio 2 by Chris Evans, but of Cadbury, which faces a £10.2bn hostile bid from Kraft Foods.

The chances of Cadbury retaining its independence after this unwanted intervention do not look good. Of course, it may not be Kraft that emerges the eventual winner. According to City analysts, the Kraft bid – though superficially attractive at a 31% premium to the pre-bid share price – is pitched far too low. What they have in mind is the same multiple that Mars paid for Wrigley last year, which would mean about £10 a share – a long way up from the 745p on the table. Also, only £4.1bn is in cash, so the bid is far from knock-out.

But maybe we’re getting too technical here. Cadbury is definitely in play and Kraft is, at first sight, better positioned to haul the booty away than Nestlé or Hershey. In fact, it cannot afford not to win; neither can its competitors stand idly by and let it. Here is a landscape-changing deal in the offing, which would propel Kraft to the world’s largest confectionery company in an industry where scale is increasingly important (as the Mars deal showed).

Nestlé and Hershey would have considerable problems with the competition authorities (even if they divided the spoils between them), but there are few apparent conflicts of interest affecting a Kraft/Cadbury combo. Kraft, which owns Milka, Terry’s and Toblerone, is strong in confectionery in Europe and Latin America, where Cadbury is weak. Cadbury, on the other hand, offers Kraft a high-growth gum business and exposure in a number of invaluable emerging markets.

Kraft has suggested it will keep the Somerdale factory going, which Cadbury itself is threatening to close. That’s politically astute, but it won’t alter the fact that any alternative Cadbury owner will have to make some medium-term decisions likely to squeeze the culture out of the acquired company. Nestlé did no less when it acquired Rowntree, another Quaker company, over 20 years ago. There will be too many cost synergies involved, debts to be paid off and shareholders appeased, post-deal, for Cadbury culture to be maintained in aspic.

What of the brands? The Cadbury Dairy Milk kids may well twitch their last in one big wide-eyed rictus, which would be a great pity. But, if the Kraft deal does come off, I know someone likely to come out smiling. Kraft places a fair bit of its promotional spend with JWT, which also has a toe-hold in the Cadbury gum business.

And lastly, what of Nestlé? If Kraft triumphs in the takeover battle, that will leave Nestlé’s carefully laid plans for becoming the dominant global confectionery player in tatters. There’s more on this in my column this week.

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