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Food majors, PE funds look to snack on Balaji Wafers

Global food majors PepsiCo and Mondelez, along with their Indian counterparts ITC and Britannia, have been approached for a large bite of Balaji Wafers – a 37-year-old homegrown wafer, namkeen and savoury brand that dominates the western states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Goa with over 65% market share.
Rajkot-headquartered Balaji, run by the Virani family, has recently mandated Ernst & Young (E&Y) to locate an investor. The company and its advisors are in early-stage talks with several FMCG companies as well as a clutch of consumer-focused private equity funds.
Confirming the development, Balaji Wafers MD Chandu Virani told ET: “An FMCG company with presence in this category will seek that we offload majority stake and continue to run the company for at least next five years. They would meanwhile continue to buy out leftover stakes until they understand the business completely. There could (also) be PE partners who would buy 25% stake.”
Even though the promoters are keen to retain a partial stake after selling majority control in the company, most of the potential suitors have made it clear that they would ideally want a 100% stake. Depending on the final valuation, the promoter family too may consider such a proposal, said sources aware of the ongoing discussions.
According to Virani, the unlisted Balaji clocked a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore in 2012-13 by concentrating on just five western states, and his advisors E&Y have valued the company at a significant premium of three-and-a-half times sales at Rs 3,500 crore. The company has plans to invest Rs 200 crore in the next two years to expand to the south and north Indian markets by setting up local manufacturing units. It has three units in Gujarat.
Larger pan-Indian companies are interested in Balaji in order to gain access to a popular regional brand, its distribution and top line. The packaged salty snacks market is estimated to be at Rs 9,500 crore while the exact size of the unorganised snacks market is unknown. The nimbler operations play on low price points, indigenous flavours and quick turnaround time when it comes to replicating innovations by the bigger corporations.
A Cadbury spokesperson said in response to ET’s query: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on market rumours. In India, we operate in chocolates, biscuits, beverages, gums and candy. As a global business operating in India, it’s not unusual for companies such as ours to get several such requests.”
“We do not comment on speculation about M&A,” said a PepsiCo spokesperson.
The ITC spokesperson declined comment. Emails sent to Britannia went unanswered at the time of going to press.
Over the past three decades, Balaji’s strategy of marrying aggressive price and local flavours with distribution ensured that it was able to withstand intense competition from bigger players like Pepsi, Haldiram or even ITC. In their home market Gujarat, Balaji has a 90% share of the wafer market and 70% of the namkeen market. Industry players reckon that suiting specific palettes and flavours by offering the right product mix has been the other Balaji secret. So if its masala wafers or “khatta meetha” namkeen cater to the Gujarati sweet tooth, for Maharashtra the focus is on “chaat masala” and for Rajasthan it’s been a spicy portfolio of snacks. These products then ride on a network of 700 distributors, 8 lakh stockists and 400 farmers who supply potatoes to the company through contract farming across three western states to maximise its reach.
In Gujarat alone, the company operates over 150 trucks and 3,500 minivans. “The Balaji wafers or namkeens come for as less as 1 and 5. That’s an unbeatable proposition and even forced MNCs to change their Kurkure strategy. For value-conscious consumers, naturally, they have become a household name,” said the CEO of a leading snack food company.
“For any bigger player, Balaji could offer a considerable play in the Indian namkeen market. They are dominant in the highly urbanised western states that have higher disposable income and a large vegetarian population,” said Asitava Sen, senior director and head of food & agribusiness research and advisory, India, Rabobank Group.
This is not the first time Balaji has courted suitors. “Three years ago, PepsiCo had a couple of rounds of talks. But the negotiations fizzled out, mainly on valuation,” said a company insider. But now, with the second generation of the Virani family not keen to pursue the family business, the owners may finally sell out, added an investment banking official close to them. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
Newer entrants to the snacks food market like the country’s largest biscuit maker Parle Products is unlikely to consider a bid. “But Mondelez may be looking at packaged snacks as a logical extension to its business in India, and could be interested in the deal,” said an industry official.
“Compared with an industry average of Rs 80-100/kg, Balaji’s operating gross margins are just Rs 20-30/kg. That’s unsustainable if you are looking to scale up the business,” said a senior official from a rival multinational highlighting the potential hurdles to the deal. “Aligning their distribution to that of ours may be a problem because they deal directly with distributors, not necessarily through organised channels,” added another CEO of a top food company that has been identified as a likely suitor.
After its negotiations with Balaji, Pepsi, for example, restructured its food division to set up a mass-priced, low-cost traditional business under its Lehar brand, mainly to fend off regional competition. PepsiCo leads the organised salty snacks market with its Kurkure and Lehar namkeen brands and may desist paying top dollar.
Source: Economic Times

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