Chinese firm to take majority stake in Weetabix


British cereal favourite Weetabix is to come under Chinese ownership after a deal involving the Asian country's biggest overseas food takeover.

Shanghai firm Bright Food will take a majority 60% share of the Weetabix Food Company, placing a £1.2 billion value on the cereal giant, while current private equity owner Lion Capital will retain a 40% stake.

Northampton-based Weetabix, which also owns Alpen and Ready Brek, was founded in 1932 and was family owned until 2004 when it was bought by a Texan private equity firm.

State-backed Bright Food, which generated revenues of around £7.5 billion last year, is looking to take advantage of China's "growing appetite" for healthy foods and to drive Weetabix's growth across Asia.

Zongnan Wang, Bright Food chairman, said: "With Bright Food's strong resources and our expertise in both the Chinese and broader international markets, we are excellently placed to develop the Weetabix business."

Bright Food in 2010 considered a £2 billion deal to buy United Biscuits, the company behind Hula Hoops and Jaffa Cakes, but the talks fell through.

Weetabix Food Company, the UK's second biggest cereal manufacturer, exports to more than 80 countries, employs nearly 2,000 people and generates annual sales of more than £420 million.

The Weetabix cereal alone accounted for 7% of the UK's cereal sales, with annual figures of £100 million.

Weetabix chief executive Giles Turrell said: "While the company's focus has been on reinforcing and building on our leading position in the UK, I believe there are also substantial opportunities to further grow the business internationally, in North America, Asia and beyond."

The transaction is subject to regulatory and government approvals in China, although completion of the deal is expected in the second half of the year.

Originally an Australian invention, Weetabix has embedded itself firmly in British culture as one of the nation's most popular cereals.

Here are some facts about Weetabix:

* With annual sales of more than £420 million, Weetabix Food Company exports to more than 80 countries worldwide, with brands including Alpen, Ready Brek and Weetos.

* The Weetabix cereal alone accounted for 7% of the UK's cereal sales in 2010, with annual figures of £100 million.

* The cereal was originally invented in Australia in the 1920s by Bennison Osborne, who along with his business partner Malcolm Macfarlane decided to expand into South Africa and Britain. They founded the British and African Cereal Company Ltd in 1932 in partnership with Frank George.

* Mr George offered them the use of a disused flour mill in Burton Latimer, Northamptonshire, in exchange for shares in the company before the British and African Cereal Company name was changed to Weetabix Limited on August 7 1936.

* The cereal was promoted by the popular Weetabix Neet Weet Gang in television adverts between March 1982 and November 1989. The characters were called Bixie, Dunk, Brains, Brian and Crunch and appeared on Weetabix packs.

* Lion Capital, then known as Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, acquired the business in 2004, ending its family ownership.

* More than 60 million breakfast biscuits are made each week from more than 1,500 tonnes of home-grown wheat on 11 production lines. That is more than three billion a year. It is now the UK's second biggest cereal manufacturer.

* Wheat for Weetabix is sourced from farmers within a 50-mile radius of the company's mills in Burton Latimer. Around 365 grains of whole wheat are cooked, flattened into flakes and moulded to make each Weetabix biscuit.