A Brazilian billionaire who helped merge Kraft and Heinz last year could have General Mills in his sights next.
Financier Jorge Paulo Lemann's firm 3G Capital is reported to be raising as much as $10 billion toward additional acquisitions, and some observers on Wall Street think the Golden Valley packaged foods giant is a logical fit.
"For 3G, General Mills offers a very similar investment proposition as Kraft Foods did a few years ago," Credit Suisse stock analyst Robert Moskow wrote in a report last week. "It is a big, diversified, highly domestic company with leading brands."
General Mills declined to comment. But it has implemented its own cost-cutting initiatives, like zero-based budgeting — a stringent accounting practice that evaluates all costs on a yearly basis — to demonstrate financial discipline to investors.
The Minnesota maker of Cheerios cereal has also made significant investments in emerging food segments that fall outside its typical wheelhouse, like organic yogurt and non-GMO snack chips. Its stock has risen about 20 percent over the past year, making a potential takeover more expensive.
But 3G, which led the megamerger of Kraft Foods Group and H.J. Heinz Co. along with Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, has been vocal about its plans to consolidate the industry. As Chicago-based Kraft Heinz nears its two-year anniversary as a combined company, investors anticipate that its owners are seeking their next move.
Moskow's analysis weighed the merits of various takeover candidates — including Campbell Soup, Kellogg's and others. It judged the most likely target to be Mondelez International, maker of Oreo cookies and Wheat Thins, but said General Mills comes in a "close second."
"Mondelez would solve Kraft Heinz's growth challenges by expanding it into faster growing international markets and categories," Moskow wrote. "General Mills makes the most sense financially because it provides bigger cost savings."
Speculation about 3G's intentions intensified last month after Reuters reported that the firm is raising between $8 billion and $10 billion for another consumer goods acquisition.
The firm previously oversaw a consolidation in the beer industry, initiating a merger of Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller that closed earlier this year and gave the combined firm nearly 30 percent of the world's beer supply.
"3G has a reputation of rolling up industries; it is in the DNA of what 3G does," said Brittany Weissman, a food analyst with Edward Jones. "The beer industry is the best example of that. Many people think that's what they are going to do in the food industry — and they've already started doing it."
While Wall Street is fond of 3G for its ability to extract higher profits than many industry peers, those profits are achieved through intense focus on the bottom line. Job cuts and reductions in perks are often among the first changes under 3G management.
For a metro area like the Twin Cities, the potential loss of a major corporate headquarters could be devastating.
"From the perspective of our business community and economy, the headquarters companies, whether publicly held or not, make the difference between what we have today and becoming a cold Omaha," said Bill Blazar, senior vice president of public affairs for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "It's a big deal to have them here. Nobody should underestimate the consequences of losing one."
Unlike its competitors Campbell and Kellogg's, General Mills lacks a blocking stake — or family trust — that could protect the company from a hostile takeover.
But Moskow wrote that General Mills' board and management is "entrenched" and "committed to the well-being of the communities in which it operates and its employees." He said that could make for a potentially dramatic bid should Kraft Heinz set its gaze on the Minnesota behemoth.
General Mills would initially decline to engage in merger discussions, predicted Moskow, and "if Kraft Heinz then took its bid public, the board would mount a vigorous defense." But in the end, he wrote, a deal that gave shareholders a premium value for their stock would likely succeed.
Weissman's assessment was similar. "General Mills has a very strong desire to remain independent," she said. "But that doesn't mean there isn't a certain deal or certain price out there that they wouldn't have to accept."
It is possible that 3G's current round of fundraising is for a nonfood acquisition, said food analyst Erin Lash of Morningstar. 3G "owns assets across several categories — alcoholic beverages, restaurants — that would probably all fit under that umbrella, so it might not be packaged food."
A number of companies have been floated as possibilities over the past two months, Lash said. If 3G is planning a food-company bid under Kraft Heinz, it is still "several quarters down the road." Both Credit Suisse and Edward Jones' analysts forecast that an acquisition target could surface around the two-year anniversary of the Kraft Heinz merger in May or June.
"A lot of people, including myself, think at minimum this is something that gets announced next year, if not closes next year," Weissman said.
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767