Packaged-meat giant Hillshire could be a tasty acquisition

  • Article by: SHRUTI DATE SINGH and BROOKE SUTHERLAND , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: November 18, 2012 - 7:00 PM

Analysts say Hormel is a candidate to add Ball Park hot dogs and Jimmy Dean sausages.

CHICAGO - The prospect of selling meat under Hillshire Brands Co.'s labels is putting the maker of Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park hot dogs on the menu for producers including Hormel Foods Corp., Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS SA.

Buyers may be tempted to pursue Hillshire while it trades at a 21 percent discount to estimated fiscal 2013 sales, worse than the average among U.S. food manufacturers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Called Sara Lee Corp. before spinning off its tea and coffee unit in June, the $3.2 billion company has the top U.S. market share in hot dogs and sausages.

Purchasing the only independent, publicly traded meat seller with top national brands would give poultry, pork and beef processors the chance to boost margins with labels that include Hillshire Farm and Gallo Salame. Hormel, based in Austin, Minn., and Tyson are the most likely suitors, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. said. JBS, which ended takeover talks with Sara Lee in 2011 before the spinoff because it was too expensive, might also express interest, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.

"Hillshire could be an acquisition target," Alexia Howard, a New York-based analyst for Bernstein, said in a telephone interview. "It's high margin. It's less volatile in terms of profit. The brands bring you more negotiating leverage with retailers."

Matthew Pakula, a spokesman for Downers Grove, Ill.- based Hillshire, declined to comment on the company's takeover prospects.

The former Sara Lee renamed itself Hillshire in June after spinning off D.E Master Blenders 1753 NV, a tea and coffee company, to shareholders. Hillshire Chief Executive Sean Connolly is now focused on items such as improving lunch-meat quality and packaging, developing new hot dog flavors and winning over more households with its snacks and meals.

The company's price-sales ratio is relatively low. At 0.79 times projected fiscal 2013 revenue, Hillshire fetches a lower multiple than the 1.01 average among U.S. food manufacturers valued at $1 billion or more, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The stock has fallen more than 9 percent since June 29, the first day of trading after the spinoff, closing at $26.78 on Friday.

"From a valuation standpoint, we think it's attractive," said Kevin Dreyer, a money manager at Rye, N.Y.-based Gabelli & Co., which oversees about $37 billion including Hillshire shares. Dreyer estimates the company, which he called an "attractive takeover candidate," could be sold for about $37 or $38 a share.

Takeover premium

Ken Goldman, a New York-based analyst at JPMorgan, has a December 2013 price forecast of $33 for the stock, saying in a Nov. 1 report this factors in a 10 percent takeover premium.

Hillshire may be attractive to meat processors, whose businesses include raising and slaughtering animals, given that it offers immediate access to national brands, according to Wells Fargo & Co.'s John Baumgartner.

With rival Oscar Mayer already owned by Kraft Foods Group Inc., Hillshire offers the biggest potential deal for suitors among branded meat sellers. Hillshire holds the top market share in sausage and hot dogs and the second spot for frozen breakfasts and sliced lunch meat, the Wells Fargo analyst wrote in an Oct. 1 report, citing data from Nielsen Co.

"Really it's just the Hillshire portfolio and Oscar Mayer as kind of the main national brands," Baumgartner said in a phone interview.

Financial wherewithal

Hormel and Tyson, of Springdale, Ark., may be interested in Hillshire and have the financial capability to do a deal, said Bernstein's Howard.

Hormel has added Mexican cuisine and packaged foods through deals in the past decade. The company has a borrowing capacity of about $1 billion, and deals bigger than that depend on the target's cash generation and Hormel's desire to maintain an investment-grade credit rating, CEO Jeffrey Ettinger said during an investor presentation on Sept. 6.

Alaina Freeman, a spokeswoman for Hormel who works at Burson-Marsteller, declined to comment on whether the company has any interest in Hillshire.

Tyson, Hormel and Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's largest hog processor, are looking to make acquisitions to add packaged-meat items, said Farha Aslam, a New York-based analyst at Stephens Inc. Rising grain prices will cap the number of animals heading to slaughter next year, which means more slaughtering plants aren't needed, she said. Thus, the three meat processors are looking for growth through consumer meat products, Aslam said.

Hillshire has "a good business, a great brand and somebody is going to want to own them," Gabelli's Dreyer said.

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