Overseas investors look to UK food sector

Overseas investment in UK firms has been spurred by the falling pound

Overseas investors are showing an increased appetite for UK and Irish food and drink firms – aided by a low pound exchange rate following the Brexit vote – but clouds are gathering on the horizon as concerns rise about the sector’s continuing access to labour from the EU.

According to the latest research from financial advisory firm Grant Thornton, there has been a jump in the number of UK and Irish businesses acquired by overseas investors, accounting for over a third (34%) of deals (13 of 38) completed in the third quarter of 2016.

This compares with 18% of deals in the previous second quarter (eight of 44), and 24% of deals (13 of 55) in the first quarter.

With the weakening of the pound following the EU referendum result, overseas investors’ interest in UK companies has been heightened by the fact they can pay 15–20% less for assets, Grant Thornton noted.

The largest deal in the third quarter was the acquisition of Tyrrells by US-based Amplify Snacks for £300M, which the advisory firm said also reflected the current demand in the market for premium snacks.

Overall, the total number of deals recorded in the third quarter of 2016 declined a modest 14% compared with second quarter. This also represented a 38% fall when compared with the same quarter in 2015, which reported 61 deals.

No mega-deals

The total disclosed deal value for this quarter was £560M, with no mega-deals reported.

“We have seen continued interest from overseas investors this quarter, which has been an increasing trend in the food and beverage sector in recent years,” said Trefor Griffith, head of food and beverage at Grant Thornton UK.

“With the EU referendum result prompting the recent devaluation of sterling we have seen a further boost in appetite as the UK has become more price competitive and attractive to overseas investors.”

Sterling’s recent drop in value also offered further opportunity for the sector through exports, Griffith claimed.

He added that a more competitive exchange rate could help boost British companies’ export performance which, when focused on and prioritised effectively, is proven to drive companies’ success.

Food export strategy

Meanwhile, the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) has called for the government to deliver on its food export strategy as quickly as possible.

The call followed a survey of BFFF members, which revealed that 55% of the respondents currently export, but only 45% saw Brexit as an opportunity to increase overseas trade.

The survey also highlighted concerns about the availability of labour, with several companies saying that the vote had already made it harder to recruit staff. It was a theme echoed by Griffith.

“Although Brexit negotiations have yet to commence, the impact on the labour market is already being felt,” said Griffith.

“The [food] sector relies heavily on overseas labour and finding enough skilled workers is already a challenge as the majority of domestic workers are reluctant to take on manual labour in the sector.

“If a significant number of EU workers leaves the UK, then we will see an increased pressure on wage levels as labour shortages become even more acute.”

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