Think you're the best thing since sliced bread? Associated British Foods (ABF) is sliced bread. ABF, which introduced sliced bread in the UK during the 1930s, makes and markets baked goods under the Allinson and Tip Top brands. Its grocery products, which account for some one-third of sales, include household staples Karo syrup, Argo corn starch, Kingsmill bread, Silver Spoon sugar, and Twinings tea. In the US, it owns Fleischmanns Yeast and ingredient and spice maker ACH. Other divisions churn out sugar, pharmaceutical ingredients, specialty oils, and animal feed. Beyond food, ABF owns Primark, a retail clothing chain in the UK, and parts of Europe. ABF's activities span nearly 45 countries worldwide.
ABF benefits from a diversified basketful of international name brands. More than 50% of the company's sales and about 45% of its operating profits are generated outside of the UK. Grocery operations provide a slow-growth platform from which to pursue higher-growth yet more volatile commodity markets, such as agriculture and sugar.
Despite a difficult global economy, ABF has managed to shore up its performance. Following a two-year decline, in 2010 year-over-year earnings (US currency) climbed more than 50%, slipping slightly in 2011, on a modest acceleration in sales. Results were driven by more than a two-fold increase in demand from the Asia/Pacific region, which helped offset a sharp decline in the Americas.
ABF's cash position, which bounced up in 2010 and down the next year, reflects a handful of capital investments. Among them, the company has funded a new meat factory in Australia, and launched Vivergo Fuels Ltd. The UK wheat bioethanol plant, operational in 2012, is a joint venture among ABF, BP, and DuPont, which produces bio-fuel and animal feed.
Sugar prices, which marked a 30-year high during most of 2011, have also buoyed recent earnings. ABF's sugar business (representing about 20% of sales), took off in 2009 with the acquisition of Azucarera Ebro, a beet sugar producer owned by Ebro Puleva. The takeover has strengthened ABF's business infrastructure; previously, ABF orchestrated a long-term agreement for its African sugar processor, Illovo, to supply Azucarera Ebro with raw cane sugar. In addition, Azucarera produces ethanol and animal feed. ABF bolsters operations further with a handful of cane sugar mills and beet sugar factories in China.
Elsewhere, ABF is continuing to invest in Primark as it faces off lower consumer spending coupled with higher unemployment. Over the last 10 years, the clothing retailer has doubled its store count, expanding to generate more than one-quarter of the company's sales. Some 220 stores primarily in the UK, but with a growing presence in Western Europe, cater the latest fashion trends to the under 35-year-old woman. During 2011, retail operating profits slumped some 9% on more than a 10% uptick in sales over the prior year. ABF cited its decision to absorb the costs associated with increased cotton prices and higher UK taxes in order to preserve its customer base.
ABF's future, in large part, looks to its past. It is one of the UK's biggest family owned businesses. Founded in 1935 by W. Garfield Weston, his great-grandson CEO George Weston, and the Weston family own approximately 55% of ABF. – less