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投资理财

这家来自巴西的投资公司掌控着一家美国食品巨无霸,还试图统治整个行业

Geoff Colvin 2017年02月15日

巴西投资者对麦当劳番茄酱的供应商应用了一种简单但有效的管理模式(收购,挤压,重复),并取得成功。谁将成为他们下一个收购目标?

住在麦迪逊的人们仍然很难接受一个真真切切的事实:在3月底前一个尚未指定的日子,一位卡夫亨氏(Kraft Heinz)员工将关闭奥斯卡·梅耶工厂的灯光,再也不会有人来上班——在这家工厂长达98年的历史中,这种事还是头一遭。

奥斯卡·梅耶工厂一度是麦迪逊市最大的雇主——逾4000名工人每小时要处理900头猪,将它们转化为奥斯卡·梅耶热狗、培根和切片火腿等产品。当卡夫亨氏于2015年宣布将关闭该工厂时,其员工数量已下降到约1000人,最近更是减少到400人左右;仍在生产的,包括一种名为“肝乳酪”,80岁以下消费者几乎不会问津的产品。没有人知道3月份之后会发生什么事情。

由于多达20公顷的厂址需要进行环境修复,该厂的“价值”估计在负1000万到负2000万美元之间。市政府正在竭力为这片土地宣传造势,但最终很可能无计可施;规划者从未想象过奥斯卡·梅耶会离开。重新开发如此大一片土地,绝非易事。麦迪逊市长保罗·索格林告诉当地一家刊物,“鉴于其规模,它可能需要十年,乃至更长的开发时间。”

那么,究竟发生了什么事?为什么一家仅仅在15个月前还为1000人提供好工作的工厂即将关门大吉?(除了“肝乳酪”之外。)这个答案解释的,远不止一家中西部肉制品加工厂的命运。它还会阐明3G资本公司(3G Captial)在卡夫亨氏实施的一种与传统信仰相悖的经营策略。以咄咄逼人的管理风格著称的3G资本是一家私募股权公司,其监管者是现年77岁的巴西首富豪尔赫·保罗·雷曼。这个答案甚至会预示美国食品行业未来的模样,或许还有全球影响,因为所有证据表明,意欲变革这个庞大行业的3G资本才刚刚启程。但也有证据表明,在过去30年大获成功的3G战术,这一次或许不会那么奏效。

In Madison, they still struggle to accept that it’s really happening. On a not-yet-specified day before the end of March, a Kraft Heinz employee will turn off the lights in the sprawling Oscar Mayer plant, and for the first time in 98 years, no one will be coming back to work.

The facility was once the city’s largest employer, with over 4,000 workers transforming hogs, 900 an hour, into Oscar Mayer hot dogs, bacon, sliced ham, and more. Employment was down to about 1,000 when Kraft Heinz announced in 2015 that it would close the plant, and recently the workers had dwindled to about 400; the products still being made include an item called liver cheese, which few consumers under age 80 are clamoring for. No one knows what happens after March.

Because the 50-acre site will need environmental remediation, its “value” is estimated at negative $10 million to negative $20 million. The city is scrambling to drum up interest in the site but was caught flat-footed; planners never imagined that Oscar Mayer would leave. Redeveloping so many acres won’t be easy. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin told a local publication, “It’s possible that given its size, it will take a decade or more to develop.”

So what happened? Why is a plant that provided good jobs to 1,000 people just 15 months ago being shut down? (Other than the liver cheese.) The answer explains a lot more than the fate of a Midwestern processed-meat factory. It also illustrates Kraft Heinz’s iconoclastic strategy under the hard-driving management of 3G Capital, the private equity firm overseen by Brazil’s richest man, 77-year-old Jorge Paulo Lemann. The answer even hints at the future of the U.S. food industry—and perhaps has global implications—because all evidence suggests that 3G is just getting started in an effort to transform this whole vast sector. But evidence also suggests that the 3G playbook, which has worked spectacularly well over the past 30 years, may not prove so effective this time.

巴菲特的公司持有卡夫亨氏27%的股权

3G管理模式

如果你搞不清楚大型食品公司相互交织的联姻和离异进程,那倒是情有可原。18个月前,亨氏收购卡夫食品集团,卡夫亨氏由此成立。卡夫是一家主要面向美国市场的食品制造商,它在2012年拆分了一大块主要面向国际市场的零食业务,后者现在被称为亿滋国际——不久后,这家独立的上市公司很可能再次进入这个长篇故事。2013年,在沃伦·巴菲特巨额融资的帮助下,3G资本收购亨氏,并将其私有化。当它随后收购卡夫,并于2015年推动其与亨氏合并之后,3G资本将合并后的公司,即卡夫亨氏公开上市。巴菲特旗下的伯克希尔哈撒韦公司持有其大约27%的股权,3G资本的持股比例约为24%。

明白了吗?尽管巴菲特以微弱优势成为卡夫亨氏的大股东,并且在该公司董事会拥有3个席位(包括他本人在内),但他很乐意让3G掌舵。早在他们收购卡夫之前,巴菲特就对3G的经营能力赞不绝口。“我毫不尴尬地承认,要是我掌管一切的话,亨氏的经营状况绝对不会像现在这样好。”他说。

巴菲特如此推崇的3G管理模式值得我们悉心观察,因为它正在席卷整个食品行业。居于这种模式核心的,是广义的精英治理。每位员工每天都必须证明自己存在的理由。对于表现最好的人来说,这是个好消息;他们的晋升速度,是笨拙的老食品公司闻所未闻的。比如,卡夫亨氏CEO伯纳多·希斯于2005年首次出任CEO,执掌3G前身旗下的All America Latina Logistic公司。他随后出任3G于2010年收购的汉堡王公司CEO。2013年,他拾阶而上,成为亨氏CEO,现在执掌卡夫亨氏。他只有46岁。

表现不佳者经常以同样的速度被解雇。预算成本每年都会接受严苛的评估,如果不再被视为值得投资,它们就会被清除。毕竟,希斯和其他高管都是3G合伙人。他们自己的钱被捆绑在每个风险项目上,无力承受多愁善感的后果。

You can be forgiven if you’re not up to speed on the intertwined corporate marriages and divorces in the world of Big Food. Kraft Heinz came into being 18 months ago when Heinz bought Kraft Foods Group, a mostly U.S. grocery manufacturer that in 2012 had separated itself from a collection of mostly non-U.S. snack businesses now known as Mondelez International, an independent, publicly traded company that could reenter this saga before long. Heinz had been bought and taken private in 2013 by 3G Capital, with considerable financing from Warren Buffett. When it then bought Kraft and merged it with Heinz in 2015, 3G took the combined business public as Kraft Heinz. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns about 27% of the stock; 3G, about 24%.

Got that? While Buffett is the largest shareholder by a slight margin and has three seats on the board of directors, including one for himself, he’s happy to let 3G run the show. Back before they bought Kraft, he said, “I’m not embarrassed to admit that Heinz is run far better under [3G] than would be the case if I were in charge.”

The 3G management model that Buffett so admires is worth a close look because it’s on track to eat the food industry. At its heart is meritocracy, broadly defined. Every employee must justify his existence every day. That’s great news for the very best performers; they are promoted with speed that’s unheard-of in lumbering old food companies. Kraft Heinz CEO Bernardo Hees, for example, first became a CEO in 2005 at a company called All America Latina Logistica, owned by a 3G predecessor. He was then made CEO of Burger King, a 3G holding since 2010. He moved up to be CEO of Heinz in 2013 and now of Kraft Heinz. He’s only 46.

Underperformers get fired with the same alacrity. Budgeted costs also are evaluated unsparingly every year, or more often, and are eliminated if they’re no longer judged worth incurring. After all, Hees (pronounced “Hess”) and other top executives are 3G partners. Their own money is tied up in each venture, and they can’t afford to be sentimental about it.

卡夫亨氏CEO伯纳多·希斯

让我们再次回到麦迪逊的奥斯卡·梅耶工厂。事实是,这家工厂早该关闭了,每个人都知道这一点。现已退休的前卡夫高管约翰·鲁夫说,“这是一家特别糟糕的工厂。”他的大部分职业生涯都是在世界各地的食品加工厂度过的。“它拥有一支很好的员工团队,但它是一家多年来持续增加人手的老厂。绝对不该像现在这样经营这家工厂。关闭它可能是一件正确的事情。”那么,为什么卡夫不在3G入主之前,早早地关闭奥斯卡·梅耶工厂呢?原因很简单:人们爱这家工厂。这是大型老企业面临的一个经典问题。它是卡夫公司百年历史上一个备受珍视的组成部分,但3G不这样看。瑞士信贷分析师罗伯特·莫斯柯指出,“卡夫很难做出艰难的选择。3G已经迫使他们做出艰难的决定,比如关闭奥斯卡·梅耶工厂。这是非常令人伤感的。”鲁夫认同这种观点。他说,“3G剪掉了很多剩余的情感纽带。”

年营收达260亿美元的卡夫亨氏,正在全公司范围内践行这种理念。3G管理模式的第一步是,批量更换高管团队和大刀阔斧地削减成本。在亨氏,3G曾在一天之内解雇12人高管团队中的11位。当亨氏收购卡夫时,10位高管被迅速撤职。在卡夫亨氏如今的10人高管团队中,有8位来自3G资本,皆是深谙3G管理模式的巴西人。“如果不会说葡萄牙语,你多少会处于不利地位。”一位前亨氏董事说。

与每一笔收购交易一样,并购卡夫后,3G迅速推行一系列旨在削减成本的措施。这桩收购交易完成没几天,长期存放免费卡夫产品(奶酪,Jell-O果冻等等)的办公室冰箱就被推出去了。公司专机不再运营。从CEO以降,所有员工都只能坐经济舱。现在,该公司有时要求出差的员工两人合住一间客房。比实际节约更重要的是,3G希望传达一种讯息:“我们要像公司主人那样思考和做事,要像花自己的钱那样用好每一分钱。”该公司告诉潜在员工。

真正的节省需要更长时间来实现。卡夫亨氏的新领导层迫不及待地宣布,他们将关闭北美七家工厂,并整合其他地区的生产业务,由此裁减约2600个岗位。(其中一家位于加州富勒顿的工厂最近获得缓刑,因为它生产的方便午餐盒Lunchables备受市场追捧。)一项额外的节省来自二级效应:一些州、城市和工会开始向该公司提供奖励,以求保住当地的工厂。比如,为了让卡夫亨氏继续经营当地的热狗厂,密苏里州布恩县在去年12月份对该公司大幅减税——尽管这家工厂已裁减40%的员工,但卡夫亨氏并没有关闭该厂的计划。卡夫亨氏打算关闭爱荷华州达文波特市一家拥有71年历史的工厂,但计划在附近兴建一家新厂——根据一项协议,这家新厂雇佣的员工数量仅相当于旧厂的三分之一,当地政府还将给予卡夫亨氏475万美元的奖励。

Which brings us back to the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison. The truth is, that plant should have been closed long ago, and everybody knew it. “The Madison plant was a terrible plant,” says John Ruff, a retired Kraft executive who spent much of his career in food-processing plants worldwide. “It had good people, but it was an old plant that had been added to over the years. It was never meant to be run as it was being run. Closing it was probably the right thing to do.” So why hadn’t Kraft closed it long before 3G came along? The reason is a classic problem for big, old businesses: People loved that plant. It was a treasured part of the company’s history. But not to 3G. “[Kraft] had trouble making tough choices,” says Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow. “3G has forced them to make tough choices, like closing the Oscar Mayer facility. It was very emotional.” Ruff agrees: “3G got rid of a lot of remaining emotional ties.”

Now project that philosophy across a $26 billion company. Step 1 in the 3G management model is a wholesale replacement of the top team and a blitzkrieg of cost cutting. At Heinz, 3G cashiered 11 of the top 12 executives in one day (as this publication chronicled in a 2013 story headlined “Squeezing Heinz”). When Heinz bought Kraft, 10 top executives were quickly dismissed. Of Kraft Heinz’s top 10 leaders today, eight are Brazilians from 3G who know the playbook. “If you don’t speak Portuguese, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage,” says a former Heinz director.

As with every 3G takeover, cost-cutting measures were imposed immediately after the takeover of Kraft. Office refrigerators long stocked with free Kraft products (cheese, Jell-O) were wheeled out within days of the merger’s closing. Corporate aircraft were ditched, and everyone from the CEO down was made to fly coach. And today employees on the road are sometimes required to double up in hotel rooms. More important than the actual savings is the message. “We think and act like owners of our business, treating every dollar as if it were our own,” the company tells prospective employees.

The real savings take longer to implement. Kraft Heinz’s new leaders wasted little time announcing they would close seven plants in North America and consolidate production in other locations, eliminating some 2,600 jobs. (One of the seven, a plant in Fullerton, Calif., was recently given a reprieve due to strong demand for Lunchables.) Additional savings come from a second-order effect: States, cities, and labor unions, desperate not to lose their local facility, start offering incentives to the company to keep it open. In December, for example, Boone County, Mo., granted Kraft Heinz large tax abatements to keep operating its hot dog plant, with 40% fewer workers, even though it had not been scheduled to close. The company is closing a 71-year-old plant in Davenport, Iowa, but building a new one nearby—and getting $4.75 million in incentives in a deal that requires the new plant to employ only one-third as many workers as the old one.

卡夫亨氏公司拥有多个知名品牌

可预见的是,3G不喜欢富丽堂皇的公司总部。它将卡夫总部从其奢华的芝加哥郊外园区搬到市中心。新总部占据一栋摩天大楼的五层楼,其面积仅相当于老总部的四分之一,开放式布局设计——很多书桌,几乎没有多少独立的办公室。

一条不能停止游泳的鲨鱼

到目前为止,这听起来像是私募股权公司的典型战略:收购一家公司后,大幅削减成本,并准备在大约5年后退出。但3G绝非典型。要想理解其独特的经营方式,以及它或许将对卡夫亨氏,乃至整个食品行业产生何种影响,不妨回顾一下3G最引人瞩目的投资案例:百威英博。

1989年,雷曼与他的两个合作伙伴卡洛斯·阿尔贝托·斯库彼拉和马塞尔·赫尔曼·泰勒斯收购了一家名为Brahma的巴西啤酒公司。1999年,Brahma收购竞争对手Antarctica,并于2004年将其与比利时酿酒商Interbrew合并,组成英博集团。其旗下品牌包括巴斯、贝克、拉巴特、狮威、时代等等。英博集团随后的收购行动彰显了令人惊叹的野心——2008年斥资520亿美元收购世界上最大的酿酒商安海斯-布希公司。但更加令人瞠目的是,百威英博随后以超过1000亿美元的价格,吞并世界第二大酿酒商米勒公司,创下商业史上第三大公司收购案例。这笔交易于去年秋天正式完成,为百威英博带来了大约200个品牌,其中包括3个在全球营销的品牌:百威、科罗娜和时代。该公司酿造的啤酒几乎占全球啤酒销量的三分之一。

请注意几个关键要素:

•大部分私募股权公司在收购之日就在考虑退出时机,但雷曼和他的合伙人已经在啤酒行业深耕了28年之久,并且还在继续。

•尽管英博集团和安海斯-布希公司的合并要求合伙人稀释其股份,但他们仍然主导着董事会,在15个董事席位中占据4席。

这种模式是收购,挤压,重复。3G管理者展现出非凡的经营技能,大大增强了他们收购的每家公司的价值。但他们并非伟大的创新者。他们通过收购实现增长——这种增长不是内生的。

一大阻碍是,这种模式不可能永远管用。其创造价值的渠道只有一个,即收购更多的公司。“它就像一条不能停止游泳的鲨鱼。”另一家主要食品制造商的董事说。但百威英博无法进一步应用这种模式,因为反垄断当局绝对不会允许这家规模如斯庞大的酿酒商收购另一家重要的酿酒商。那么下一步是什么?所有可能知道答案的人都不愿意置评。业界的猜测是,鉴于百威英博现在只能在啤酒业之外寻求扩张,可口可乐将成为它的下一个目标。

下一个收购目标

因此,一个大问题是:卡夫亨氏是否打算成为食品世界的百威英博,彻底主导整个行业,让剩余的厂商几乎没有容身之地?3G守口如瓶,不愿透露自身战略,甚至不愿为投资者提供收益预期数据?但所有的迹象表明,卡夫亨氏抱有这样的雄心。《巴西日报》博客在11月份报道称,3G正在筹集80亿到100亿美元的资金,打算通过卡夫亨氏收购一家全球性消费品公司。(3G自然不愿置评此事。)无论这份报告是否准确,收购都符合该模式。它是3G创造价值的方式。此外就是时机。3G是在收购亨氏两年后吞并卡夫的。而现在距离其收购卡夫,差不多过了两年时间。

投资者深信,卡夫亨氏将进行一次大规模收购,并且已经将这一前景纳入其股价之中。你可以基于分析师对利润的普遍预期,计算出一个公平反映未来利润流现值的股票价格。咨询公司EVA Dimensions受《财富》邀请,根据卡夫亨氏的经济利润(税后营业利润减去资本费用),确定它的公允股价应为59美元,而其实际股价高达87美元。

唯有卡夫亨氏创造的经济利润远远超过所有人对目前这家公司的预期,它才值这么多钱。也就是说,投资者已经认定另一次大规模的3G式收购在所难免。EVA Dimensions公司CEO贝内特·斯图尔特总结称,“卡夫亨氏需要以合理的价格获得另一个卡夫亨氏,越早越好。”

整个美国食品行业都在猜测卡夫亨氏的下一个收购对象。颇具讽刺意味的是,最受关注的绯闻对象竟然是亿滋国际——许多人认为,在仅仅分手5年后,它即将与“前夫”复合。在卡夫和亨氏合并完成仅仅几周后,维权投资者比尔·阿克曼旗下的潘兴广场基金就买入56亿美元的亿滋国际股票。市场普遍认为,此举证明亿滋国际最有可能成为下一个收购目标。(阿克曼和亿滋国际均拒绝接受采访。)

对于3G来说,亿滋国际的吸引力是多方面的。最重要的是,它将帮助卡夫亨氏实现一大优先目标——向增长缓慢的美国市场之外扩展。海外业务目前仅占卡夫亨氏营收额的30%;与亿滋国际合并后,这一比例将增至48%。作为增长最快的食品市场,新兴经济体在卡夫亨氏营收额的占比将从12%增至26%。此外,亿滋国际也为3G提供了一个施展其运营魔法的好机会,因为它的Ebitda(税息折旧及摊销前利润)利润率仅为18.3%,是主要潜在收购目标中最低的。(其他的潜在目标包括凯洛格、金宝汤、通用磨坊和婴儿配方奶粉制造商美赞臣。)这使得卡夫亨氏有足够的空间将其利润率提升到自身的水平——令人咋舌的30%。另一个利好是:只要价位合理,亿滋国际似乎不可能拒绝。其董事会成员包括维权投资者纳尔逊·佩尔茨、凯雷集团董事总经理帕特里克·西沃特,两人都是热切的价值追求者。

很容易理解为什么关于这桩交易的传闻不断涌现,最近一次是在去年12月份(导致亿滋国际的股价上涨5%)。但细细想来,这桩交易至少面临一个严峻挑战。亿滋国际广泛分布的全球足迹既是一大吸引力,也是一个问题。3G的效率机器在庞大且紧密结合的运营中效果最好,但它似乎很难在一个业务遍及165个国家的企业中发挥效用。卡夫亨氏需要创造的显著改进,可能很难实现。

其他的潜在收购目标也存在问题。作为投资者认定的次优收购对象,通用磨坊增长缓慢,而且不会显著增加卡夫亨氏所追求的国际化。美赞臣的Ebitda利润率差不多跟卡夫亨氏一样高。金宝汤则拥有一个占据支配地位的股东,即多兰斯家族。凯洛格的大部分股票由两个信托基金持有,哪怕价格诱人,他们恐怕都会抗拒合并提议。

还有一个更大的因素,可能会阻碍卡夫亨氏斩获一个亟需的收购目标:现如今,整个食品行业的管理模式都在“3G化”。自从3G收购亨氏以来,美国各大食品制造商相继宣布将采取措施显著降低日常开销。3G奉行一种极其苛刻,被称为“零基预算”的运营原则:在每年年初,各部门预算都假定为零,每一项提议的支出都必须重新证明其合理性。你知道吗?在亨氏交易结束后不久,亿滋国际就开始采用零基预算,并向华尔街大肆宣扬预期的成本节约额。去年夏天,当卡夫亨氏关闭工厂和裁员时,通用磨坊宣布将关闭5家工厂,并削减1400个岗位。

当3G刚刚挺进啤酒行业时,作为一位不知从哪里冒出的新贵,它并没有受到业界重视。现在,食品行业的每个人都对它怀有敬畏之心,迅速调整以适应新形势。鉴于目标公司能够挤出的效率空间越来越少,3G模式可能不会像以前那样有利可图。

卡夫亨氏仍然可以找到机会,主要是因为竞争对手不能或者不会像它那样游刃有余地践行3G战术。比如,几乎每家大公司都在运营一些多余的项目,但他们很难收缩战线,因为每个项目的背后都有一群支持者。相较之下,卡夫亨氏正在义无反顾地践行其座右铭:“更少、更大、更好,”大刀阔斧地削减,将资源集中在他们认为最有效的地方。在他们看来,让一些人失望,是值得付出的代价。

没有多少公司会对包括高管在内的每位员工,实行每天区区50美元的差旅饮食津贴。但这样做不仅会直接节省资金,还会让管理人员从审理开支违规报告这类低价值工作时间中解脱出来。对于许多公司文化来说,这种极端的精英治理模式实在过于激进,但它恰恰吸引了许多3G想要的人才——他们所称的“狂热分子”。与3G合作长达20余年的管理大师吉姆·柯林斯相信,狂热分子是3G成功的关键所在。他写道,“这些痴迷于3G模式的人不会成为最受欢迎的人,因为他们经常恐吓别人。但当狂热分子聚在一起的时候,那种乘法效应是不可阻挡的。”

把这些政策结合在一起,并坚持不懈地实施,其结果就是一种无法比拟的运营优势。主要竞争对手正在蚕食这种优势,但卡夫亨氏仍然遥遥领先。

消费者口味

要想成为食品行业的百威英博,卡夫亨氏还要应对一个更大的威胁:消费者口味的长期转变。对更新鲜、更健康食品日益剧增的偏爱,是每一家大型食品公司都必须严阵以待的危机。一些公司正在冒险采取对抗措施。在CEO丹尼斯·莫里森的带领下,金宝汤正在豪赌新鲜食品,尽管它几乎没有这方面的。相较之下,以Spam午餐肉闻名于世的荷美尔公司表现得尤为出色。该公司现已开发出一系列与Spam大相径庭的产品,比如花生酱零食,豌豆奶昔,还有一种用鸡肉,藜麦和羽衣甘蓝制成的汉堡。

但卡夫亨氏并不打算走这条路。在“更少、更大、更好”政策的指引下,这家公司正在创新重点放在一些“大赌注”上,致力于调整一些老牌食品的配方。比如,重新配制发明于1897年的Jell-O果冻,不再使用人工香料、染料和防腐剂;用更好的奶酪制造问世于1937年的起司通心粉;把发明于1918年的Velveeta奶酪切成更小块。这些产品表现良好,但面对这样一个令整个行业颤抖不已的现实——增长重心正在从这些产品所处的超市中心,强劲地转移到新鲜食品所处的超市周边地带——这似乎是一种过于温吞的反应。

创新不足是卡夫亨氏持续萎缩(而不是增长)的一大原因。2016年的收入可能比2015年减少约3%,而2015年的收入几乎比卡夫和亨氏在2014年的合并收入减少近6%。致力于发挥资本最大效用的卡夫亨氏有意放弃了一些业务。但这个进程已基本完成。根据分析师的预测,在今明两年,卡夫亨氏的通胀调整后收入将基本持平。

如今的卡夫亨氏生动地展现了3G模式的精髓。它或许是世界上最擅长通过削减成本,专注于最有前途的机会来创造价值的公司,但并不擅长实现内含式增长。在这种模型中,一家企业的业绩增长往往集中在它刚刚被收购后的几年中。分析师预计,今后几年,卡夫亨氏的利润增速将逐渐收窄。

这就是为什么鲨鱼必须不停地游下去。即使食品行业正在经历巨变,即使竞争对手逐渐让自己成为略微不那么开胃的猎物,卡夫亨氏或许仍然能够找到足够大的收购目标,从而让这种模式在未来几年继续维系下去。

但假如卡夫亨氏正式演变为食品行业的百威英博,再也无法找到收购对象,那将会发生什么事情?眼下,一种不动感情的理性分析显示,这种风险还是很遥远的事情,折现到现在的话,它几乎可以忽略不计。(财富中文网)

作者:Geoff Colvin

译者:Kevin

Predictably, 3G does not favor grand corporate digs. It moved Kraft out of its lush suburban Chicago campus into one-­quarter the space, occupying five floors of a downtown skyscraper. The floor plan is mostly open—lots of desks, few offices.

So far this sounds like a typical private equity strategy of slashing costs at a portfolio company and preparing for an exit in five years or so. But 3G is far from typical. To understand its unique MO and what it might portend for Kraft Heinz and the food industry, consider its highest-profile investment, AB InBev.

Lemann and his two partners, Carlos Alberto Sicupira and Marcel Herrmann Telles, bought a Brazilian brewer called Brahma in 1989. Then Brahma bought a big competitor, Antarctica, in 1999, and merged it with the giant Belgian brewer Interbrew in 2004, creating InBev. Its brands included Bass, Beck’s, Labatt, Skol, Stella Artois, and many others. Then, in an act of breathtaking ambition, InBev bought the world’s biggest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, in 2008 for $52 billion. And then, even more remarkably, AB InBev bought the world’s No. 2 brewer, SAB Miller, in the third-largest corporate acquisition in business history, paying over $100 billion. The deal closed last fall and gives AB InBev some 200 brands, including three that are marketed globally: Budweiser, Corona, and Stella Artois. The company brews almost one-third of all the world’s beer.

Note a few key elements of how this was done:

• Unlike other PE firms, which have an exit in mind from the day they buy a company, Lemann and partners have stuck with their beer venture for 28 years and counting.

• While the mergers with Interbrew and Anheuser-Busch required the partners to dilute their stake, they still dominate the board, with four of the 15 directors.

• The pattern is buy, squeeze, repeat. The 3G managers developed extraordinary operating skills and greatly increased the value of every company they bought, but they were not great innovators. They achieved growth through acquisitions—not organically.

And there’s the rub: A central feature of this model is that it can’t work forever. It builds value only by buying more companies. “It’s like the shark that can’t stop swimming,” says a director of another major foodmaker. But AB InBev can’t apply the model further because it’s so big that antitrust authorities would never let it buy another significant brewer. So what’s next? Anyone who might know is not saying. Speculation in the industry is that since AB InBev can expand only outside its industry, its next target will be Coca-Cola.

Thus the great question: Is Kraft Heinz intended to be the AB InBev of food, dominating its industry so completely that the only remaining players are minor? 3G plays its cards very close to the vest—Hees declined to be interviewed for this article—and does not even offer earnings guidance to investors. But all signs say yes. The Brazil Journal blog reported in November that 3G is raising $8 billion to $10 billion to buy a global consumer goods company through Kraft Heinz. (3G won’t comment on the report, naturally.) Regardless of whether the report is accurate, an acquisition fits the pattern. It’s how 3G creates value. Plus, it’s about time. The firm bought Kraft two years after buying Heinz, and now it has been almost two years since the Kraft acquisition.

Investors are so sure that Kraft Heinz will make a big acquisition that they’ve priced one into the stock. By looking at analysts’ consensus forecast of profits, it’s possible to calculate a stock price that fairly reflects the present value of that future profit stream. When the EVA Dimensions consulting firm ran that analysis for Fortune on the basis of economic profit (after-tax operating profit minus a capital charge), it got a stock price for Kraft Heinz of $59. Actual recent stock price: $87.

The only way Kraft Heinz is worth that much is if it generates far more economic profit than anyone expects the company, as constituted, to generate. That is, investors are already betting on another big 3G-style acquisition. EVA Dimensions CEO Bennett Stewart concludes, “Kraft Heinz needs to add another Kraft Heinz, and at the right price—and the sooner the better.”

The whole U.S. food industry is speculating on who’s next. The leading candidate, somewhat ironically, is Mondelez, which would be remarrying its ex, Kraft, after only five years. Activist investor Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square hedge fund bought $5.6 billion of Mondelez stock just weeks after the Kraft Heinz merger closed, in what was widely regarded as a bet that Mondelez was 3G’s likeliest next target. (Ackman and Mondelez declined to comment for this article.)

For 3G, Mondelez’s attractions are several. Most important, it would help Kraft Heinz achieve one of its top priorities, expanding outside the slow-growing U.S. market. Kraft Heinz does only 30% of its business abroad; adding Mondelez would raise that number to 48% for the combined company. It would increase Kraft Heinz’s business in the fastest-growing food markets, the emerging economies, from 12% to 26% of sales. Mondelez also offers an attractive opportunity for 3G to work its operational magic because its Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) margin is only 18.3%, the lowest of the main potential targets. (The others are Kellogg, Campbell Soup, General Mills, and infant formula maker Mead Johnson.) That leaves a lot of room for Kraft Heinz to raise the margin toward its own towering 30%. One more advantage: Mondelez seems unlikely to resist a deal at the right price. Its board includes activist investor Nelson Peltz and Carlyle Group managing director Patrick Siewert, both ardent value seekers.

It’s easy to see why rumors of an imminent deal keep popping up, most recently in December (causing Mondelez’s stock price to jump 5%). But a closer look reveals at least one significant challenge to a deal. Mondelez’s widely dispersed global footprint could be a problem as well as an attraction. The 3G efficiency machine works best on big, coherent operations, not on far-flung operations in 165 countries. Dramatic improvements, which Kraft Heinz would need to produce, could be hard to achieve.

Other potential targets all pose problems as well. General Mills, which investors seem to consider the second-best bet for a deal, is slow growing and wouldn’t noticeably increase Kraft Heinz’s international exposure. Mead Johnson’s Ebitda margin is already almost as high as Kraft Heinz’s. Campbell Soup has a dominant shareholder, the Dorrance family, and much of Kellogg’s stock is held by two trusts, any of which might fight a merger, even at a good price.

Another, larger factor could frustrate Kraft Heinz’s search for a much-needed takeover target: The entire food industry is “3G-ing” itself before Kraft Heinz can do it to the companies. Ever since 3G bought Heinz, every major U.S. foodmaker has announced an initiative to reduce its overhead significantly. 3G embraces a demanding discipline called zero-based budgeting, in which every unit’s budget is assumed to be zero at the beginning of each year, and every proposed expense must be justified anew. What do you know? Soon after the Heinz deal, Mondelez adopted zero-based budgeting, trumpeting the expected savings to Wall Street. When Kraft Heinz was closing down plants and laying off workers last summer, General Mills announced it would close five plants and eliminate 1,400 jobs.

Back when 3G was rolling up the beer business, it was taken less seriously—an out-of-nowhere striver. Now everyone in the food business sees it coming and adapts. With fewer excesses left to wring out of target companies, the 3G model might not be as profitable as it used to be.

Kraft Heinz can still find opportunities, mostly because competitors can’t or won’t run the 3G playbook as well as Kraft Heinz does. The unsentimental reasoning with which the company closes plants is applied more broadly. For example, virtually every big company has too many projects underway, and they’re hard to pare back because each one has a constituency. Kraft Heinz trims them anyway under the mantra “fewer, bigger, better,” concentrating resources where they’re most effective; it’s worth the price of disappointing some people.

Not many companies would put everyone including executives on a simple $50 per diem for food while traveling. But doing so not only saves money directly, it also frees managers from low-value hours of inspecting expense reports for rule violations. The company’s extreme meritocracy is too intense for many corporate cultures, but it attracts exactly the people 3G wants— “fanatics,” as they put it. Management guru Jim Collins, who has worked with 3G for over 20 years, believes fanatics are key to 3G’s success. “Such obsessed people do not become the most popular people, as they often intimidate others,” he writes, “but when fanatics come together with other fanatics, the multiplicative effect is unstoppable.”

Combine those policies, relentlessly enforced, and the result is operational superiority. Major competitors are diminishing Kraft Heinz’s lead, but it’s still a big lead.

THE GREATER THREAT to Kraft Heinz becoming the AB InBev of food is its ability or inability to handle the long-term shift in consumer tastes. The growing preference for fresher, healthier products is a crisis for Big Food, and some players are taking risks to confront it aggressively. Campbell Soup under CEO Denise Morrison is betting heavily on fresh foods, though it has little expertise in that area. Hormel, famed for Spam, has performed extraordinarily well by creating such utterly un-Spam-like products as peanut butter snacks, a pea-based protein shake, and a food service burger made with chicken, quinoa, and kale.

But Kraft Heinz isn’t going that way. Under the policy of “fewer, bigger, better,” it’s focusing innovation on a few “big bets” that are mostly tweaks of famous, old Big Food products: Jell-O (invented in 1897) reformulated without artificial flavors, dyes, or preservatives; shelf-stable mac and cheese (1937) made with better cheese; Velveeta (1918) cut into smaller blocks. Those products are performing well, but they seem a tepid response to the industry-shaking reality of growth shifting strongly from the center of the supermarket, where those products reside, to the perimeter, where the fresh foods live.

Weak innovation is one reason Kraft Heinz has been shrinking, not growing. Revenue in 2016 was likely about 3% less than in 2015, which was almost 6% less than combined Kraft and Heinz revenue in 2014. The company gave up some business willingly as it focused on the best uses of capital. But that process is mostly done, and analyst forecasts for this year and next show inflation-adjusted revenue as flat.

Kraft Heinz today illustrates the essential 3G: quite possibly the world’s best at creating value by eliminating costs and focusing on the most promising opportunities, but not adept at growing the top line organically. In such a model, performance is front-loaded in the years right after an acquisition. Analysts expect Kraft Heinz profits to increase by smaller percentages each year.

That’s why the shark must keep swimming. Even as the food industry changes—and as competitors learn how to make themselves slightly less appetizing prey—Kraft Heinz can probably find enough acquisition targets to keep its model going for years.

But what if Kraft Heinz fully becomes the AB InBev of food and someday finds nothing left to buy? For now, the unsentimental, analytical response is to note that such a risk is a long way off, and discounted to the present, it doesn’t amount to much. 

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