Will Bumble Bee Seafoods be around this time next year? More than likely. Will it have the same owners or market clout it has today? That depends on a few things.
The tuna canner’s trouble stems from its tuna price-fixing and class-action lawsuits. It pleaded guilty in the case and was fined $25 million (€21.1 million). And that fine will increase to a maximum of $81.5 million (€68.7 million) in the event of a sale of Bumble Bee.
Of course, these costs don’t include all the associated legal costs and other hits to its balance sheet resulting from this years-long saga, that resulted in the ouster of its CEO, Chris Lischewski, and a flood of class-action lawsuits and settlements.
So, it appears, it’s time to kick this can down the road and let someone else handle the years of rebuilding needed to fix the company or, perhaps, just sell off the valuable parts of the operation and be done with it.
That’s the dilemma facing its owners, private equity firm Lion Capital, which has remained mum about a potential bankruptcy filing or possible sale of the company.
1899 – A group of seven canners in Astoria, Oregon, formed the Columbia River Packers Association ( CRPA).
1920 – CRPA began expanding its cannery in Astoria to focus on albacore tuna.
1961 – Castle & Cooke acquired CRPA and changed the name of the company to Bumble Bee Seafoods.
1985 – Castle & Cooke sells Bumble Bee in a leveraged buyout to management.
1988 – Bumble Bee is sold to food conglomerate Pillsbury.
1989 – Pillsbury sells Bumble Bee to Unicord, a Thai company.
1997 -- Bumble Bee goes bankrupt, and is sold to International Home Foods.
2000 -- Bumble Bee Seafoods is sold to ConAgra Foods as part of its $2.9 billion (€2.6 billion) purchase of International Home Foods.
2003 -- ConAgra sells Bumble Bee to a group that includes Bumble Bee management and Centre Partners Management, a private-equity firm. Chris Lischewski was selected to run the company.
2004 – Under Centre Partners, Bumble Bee merges operations with Connors Bros Income Fund, creating the largest branded seafood company in North America.
2005 – Centre Partners exited its remaining equity stake in Connors Bros. Income Fund, concluding its investment in Bumble Bee Seafoods.
2008 -- Centre Partners re-acquires Connors Bros. Income Fund for $600 million (€541 million).
2010 -- Centre Partners sells Bumble Bee Foods to Lion Capital for $980 million (€884 million).
2014 -- Thai Union Frozen Products (TUF) announced it acquired Bumble Bee for $1.5 billion (€1.2 billion). The deal was later nixed by the US Department of Justice.
Who wants this dented can?
But that is where it is. And it surely must be looking for an escape hatch. It is already shopping Canadian seafood canner Clover Leaf Seafoods, which became part of the Bumble Bee family in 2008, when then Bumble Bee owners, private equity firm Centre Partners, bought Connor Brothers for $600 million (€541.5 million).
So, let’s assume Lion has no qualms about selling off Bumble Bee, in whole or parts. After all, it finally offloaded Young’s in July, after a year of searching for a buyer. I imagine Lion never wants to smell another piece of fish again.
Certainly, another private equity firm, one with lots of courage, could step in and buy the Bee for a nice discount.
Rival Thai Union offered to buy Bumble Bee back in 2014 for $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion) – a deal nixed by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) because it would have led to a virtual monopoly.
Given the state of the company today, the selling price is likely to be half of that, according to a tuna exec I talked to, who described it as “good deal” because Bumble Bee is capable of producing an EBITDA of more than $100 million (€90.2 million).
The Italy-based Bolton Group is one likely suitor. In July it acquired US-based tuna giant Tri Marine, and the international consumer goods product company owns canned tuna brands such as Rio Mare, Saupiquiet and Isabell.
Prior to the acquisition, it had seven processing plants, and seven fishing vessels. Now it has increased its capacity with the addition of Tri Marine’s non-US flag tuna vessels, and several companies, including its subsidiaries in Singapore, Panama, Spain, and offices in Bangkok, Kaohsiung and Shanghai.
But despite Bolton’s recent purchase and deeper dive into the tuna sector, it is not a player in the US market, and the purchase of Bumble Bee would burden it not only with cleaning up the Bumble Bee mess but finding its way in an entirely new consumer market, one in which canned tuna consumption has been weakening for a decade or more.
There is also FCF Co. Ltd., a Taiwanese company that is one of Bumble Bee’s leading suppliers and owns a more than 20 percent stake in the company. Bumble Bee sources its albacore tuna through FCF, which makes a deal there at least somewhat more likely than other trade buyers.
“They have a long-time association with the company and are familiar with the business, including its strengths and weaknesses. This would be a forward integration for FCF, as they are the largest supplier for the company,” one tuna industry expert told me.
And maybe the Bee will just return to another giant consumer goods conglomerate, as it did after it filed its first bankruptcy in 1997 (for $163 million (€147 million)) – yes, this is not the Bee’s first Chapter 11.
Its past is filled with owners of this ilk, including Pillsbury (1988), International Home Foods (1997) and ConAgra Foods in (2000). Since 2008, the company has resided in the hands of private equity firms Centre Partners (2008 – 2010) and Lion Capital (2010 – as quick as they can get rid of it).
As for its rivals, Chicken of the Sea and Starkist (although if you collude to fix prices are you really rivals any more?), neither of them is likely to swing a deal given the DOJ’s decision in 2015 nixing the Thai Union-Bumble Bee deal for anti-competitive reasons.
According to one tuna expert, Bumble Bee is the US market leader in white meat tuna. Starkist is the leader in pouch and light meat, and Chicken of the Sea is in third place in both light meat and white meat.
Is there any tuna left in the can?
Despite all of its troubles, Bumble Bee still sells lots of cans and pouches of tuna (and other seafood). By most estimates, it has annual sales exceeding $1 billion (€902 million), which is attractive.
Still, there are plenty of liabilities any new owner will have to deal with. There are likely liabilities that have still not been quantified, for example, those arising out of the anti-trust case and other recent issues, such as accusation of breaking state laws like California or New York for false claims related to the dolphin-safe labeling and consumer fraud.
A bankruptcy process would seem to be a logical way to put a value on all of the salable assets, one tuna expert told me.
“The liabilities, existing or those still not settled, will be funded by the value of those assets," the expert said.
"The attraction of the bankruptcy proceeding is that the assets to be sold by the company will be 'free and clear' of all claims.”
We won’t know the next chapter in the story of this 120-year-old company for some time, but one thing is certain, the next owner of Bumble Bee has its work cut out for it.
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