ECONOMY

Talk of new deals in food and catering sector rising again

A good number of the Greek food and beverages firms, with a strong investing record at home and abroad, are planning a series of buyouts and strategic alliances with a view to consolidating market position and enhancing size. Indeed, according to market sources, the time is ripe for the industry to produce surprise realignments again. Besides, the sector’s listed firms have suffered much less during the stock market decline compared to others, such as information technology. This has its explanation: Globally, the shares of foodstuffs firms belong to the so-called «defensive» category, slow during both the rise and fall of markets. Food is the last thing that consumers will cut down on in times of recession, but also one of the last to benefit when incomes rebound. The shares of foodstuffs and beverage firms have also proved the least vulnerable to rumors and unlikely to record rallies that cannot be easily explained by their prospects or fundamentals. In the last few months, however, rumors have proliferated that the listed subsidiaries of multinational food groups are planned for delisting from the Athens bourse; this is, no doubt, partly rooted in these groups’ policy in recent years to move toward having only the stock of the parent company listed on big stock markets. A case in point is Pavlides chocolate makers, which was delisted by its parent group Kraft after 26 years of trading on the Athens Stock Exchange. However, neither Elais of Unilever, nor A-B Vassilopoulos of Belgium-based Delhaize, which have been the subject of such rumors, have so far confirmed such a prospect. Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, whose share is traded on three bourses, seems resolved to continue its aggressive acquisition policy of non-alcoholic beverage firms, jointly with The Coca-Cola Company. The completion of the buyout of the Multivita mineral water bottling plant from Poland’s Maspex is expected shortly. Yesterday, the company announced its intention of buying out Austrian mineral water firm Romerquelle GmbH. «The buyout is a significant boost to our activities in Austria, part of our strategy to selectively expand the variety of our products,» said Managing Director Irial Finan. Chipita snacks manufacturer remains steadily export-oriented after recent moves to shed all subsidiaries not directly related to its basic activity. With four plants in Eastern Europe, it is now considering a new one with Delta Holdings in Serbia, while outside Europe it favors growth through joint ventures with strong local players. Delta Holdings, which includes big names in foodstuffs and catering, such as Delta Ice Cream, Delta Dairies, Barba Stathis and Goody’s, is expected to be the focus of important deals soon, after recent references to «further consolidation through partnerships and acquisitions.» Goody’s fast-food chain has already announced the development of new labels, likely through acquisitions. The group is said to be considering setting up jointly with Chipita a factory in Serbia, where Delta Ice Cream has a strong presence. At the same time, the Delta Ice Cream subsidiary, Delta International, is being considered for listing on a foreign bourse, or alternatively for a partnership that would tap distribution channels. The group already has partnerships with foreign concerns such as Arla Foods, Danone and Sodexho. The Elbisco group, which set up shop in Spain and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the last two years, is planning to invest 47 million euros by 2005. The catering sector also frequently attracts speculation as regards the formation of a yet stronger pole, with the absorption of Everest or Grigoris by a larger group.