Bye, buy British: Beloved names with foreign owners

As Cadbury, a national treasure, faces an overseas takeover, Greg Walton and Mark Leftly reflect on how other beloved names have fared with foreign owners
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The Independent Online

Kraft, the US processed-cheese and Toblerone maker, is close to being the latest in a long line of overseas groups to take over a beloved British name. This particular sale, involving as it does the maker of such popular, everyday snacks as Dairy Milk, has taken on an extraordinarily emotive edge.

Even our Secretary of State for Business, Lord Mandelson, a champion of globalisation as a European Union commissioner, is furious that confectionery group Cadbury has turned its back on nearly two centuries of heritage in exchange for £11.6bn. Descendants of the Cadbury family have denounced the Americans for simply looking for short-term gains. The company's fine British traditions, it is argued, are in danger of being consigned to the history books.

Though the UK made its wealth by expanding its empire through trade, this little truth has not checked anger from unionists and right-wingers. Arguably, it was another confectionery takeover, when Swiss giant Nestlé bought Rowntree more than two decades ago, that kicked off the modern era of UK firms turning from hunter to hunted. Certainly, memories of that sell-out refuse to fade. And last year, the collapse of the UK arm of Baugur Group, the Icelandic investor that owned British toy shop Hamleys and House of Fraser, further damaged the image of the overseas owner.

Kraft could still see its bid rejected by Cadbury shareholders, many of whom believe that chairman Roger Carr is selling the company on the cheap. But, barring a last-minute miracle, the Quaker-founded firm is almost certainly set to become American.

Still, not all overseas takeovers of big UK names have been failures. Here are some of the biggest of recent years – and our own completely unscientific verdicts, with marks out of five – on the new owners' British success or failure.

Alliance Boots

United states

It would be easy to have a go at KKR, the retailer's private-equity owner. In restructuring the company after an £11.1bn buyout in 2007, 1,500 jobs were lost from its pharmaceutical arm. But that was probably necessary, and the financial results are testimony to the strategy: Sales were up 15.5 per cent to £20.5bn in its last full-year results.

££££

Manchester United FC

US

The Glazer family loaded up the club with debt upon purchasing the Red Devils in 2005, and they recently launched a £500m bond issue. But the club is profitable, and has won three consecutive Premiership titles, plus the 2008 European Champions League.

£££

Asda

US

American behemoth Walmart forked out £6.7bn for Asda in 1999 and has been a good owner. While Tesco remains dominant, Asda has fought off Sainsbury's to take and retain the number-two spot. Doug McMillon, president at Walmart's international division, has certainly boosted morale with effusive praise.

£££££

Merlin

US

Merlin Entertainments is second only to Disney in amusement attractions; its brands include Madame Tussauds and Legoland. In 2005, Blackstone paid £102.5m for the Dorset company and its Sea Life centres. The strategy should result in Merlin raising at least £2bn from a partial London Stock Exchange listing this quarter.

£££££

Liverpool FC

US

Liverpool is burdened by the £237m debt Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks borrowed to buy the club in 2007. Plans for a new stadium stalled, while the pair's antipathy has led them to look to dilute their stakes. There are fears that the team won't reach the Champions League, and that stars will be sold.

£

BAA

Spain

Strikes were just averted after Grupo Ferrovial – the Spanish construction group that bought Heathrow and Gatwick operator BAA in 2006 – closed the final salary pension to new workers. Gatwick has been sold and more airport sales will follow. It's not Ferrovial's fault – the Competition Commission has long thought BAA a monopoly.

££

O2

Spain

O2 ditched its heritage when it demerged from British Telecom in 2001. It stayed independent for just over four years, with Telefonica then forking out £17.7bn. Arguably, O2's brand recognition has actually increased since the takeover, with more than £21m UK customers.

££££

Abbey

Spain

Patriots were outraged by the recent rebranding of 700 branches of Abbey and Bradford & Bingley to Santander. The Spanish parent's consolidation of British banking started with Abbey in 2004 and continued when the UK system required saviours in 2008. Though its name is going, profits at Abbey have been on the up.

£££

ICI

Netherlands

Chemical firm ICI accepted an £8bn buyout from the Netherlands' AkzoNobel in 2007. Under the deal, Henkel of Germany paid £2.7m for ICI's adhesives and electronic materials arms – splitting the brand.

££££

Powergen

Germany

German-based utility firm E.ON bought Powergen for $7.4bn in 2001, creating the world's second-largest power company with the approval of British regulators. Since then, E.ON has announced it will close the former Powergen call-centres, with 600 job losses. It also cut 200 other jobs.

££

Corus

India

Tata boosted its worldwide steel operations when it bought Corus in 2007, but has since closed a factory on Teesside. Tata Steel has suffered as the need for construction materials plummeted. Thailand and India drove the group's profits, and management is said to be disappointed with the new British unit.

£

Jaguar Land Rover

India

Indian conglomerate Tata bought the struggling Jaguar Land Rover businesses from Ford for $2.3bn in 2008. Job cuts soon followed. In September, Tata Motors announced plans to close one of the Midlands factories. JLR is still losing £60m a quarter.

£

P&O

Dubai, UAE

Dubai's DP World took over British ports operator P&O for a cool £3.9bn in 2006. In November, the group's parent company, Dubai World, revealed that it had to restructure $26bn of debts. However, the ports division is one of the group's few success stories.

£££

Manchester City FC

Abu Dhabi, UAE

Even by Manchester City's standards, it's been a crazy few years. First, Thailand's then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, took over. Then, Sheikh Mansour of the UAE bought him out. Blues fans are delighted that the Sheikh spent £120m on players last summer.

££££

Chelsea FC

Russia

The billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich has put more than £700m into Chelsea since he bought the club in 2003. The team has since won the league title twice. Abramovich recently wrote off his outstanding £340m of loans to the club, bringing it closer to operating at a profit.

££££

Pilkington

Japan

Glassmaker Pilkington retained its UK office and brand when taken over in 2006 by Japan's Nippon Sheet Glass. The company's St Helens plant remains an important part of the UK's glass industry, though the combined group has forecast losses of £310m in the year to March, and cut its global workforce by 6,200 in 2009.

£££

Thames Water

Australia

The former FTSE-100 favourite has not been in British hands since 2000, when Germany's RWE paid £4.3bn for the utility. In 2006, a consortium led by Australian bank Macquarie bought it for £4.8bn. Macquarie was praised for a £1bn investment programme announced in 2007.

£££

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