Martin Glenn: Captain Birdseye sets sail for a deal

He has shaken up the frozen food group but will strong trading figures be enough to entice a buyer?

Martin Glenn picks his words carefully. Captain Birdseye hasn't quite sailed his last, but the bearded mariner who launched a million kids' teatimes is stuck in dry dock for now.

It's not that he isn't popular. Another captain sells frozen vegetables, rice and fish for Mr Glenn's company, Iglo, in Italy and Germany. But at home in Britain, it has adopted a different tack to warm up the category's image.

"We are not going to get rid of him but we felt that the Captain was too much of a nostalgia play," said Mr Glenn, Iglo's boss since the business was bought outfrom Unilever in 2006.

A polar bear called Clarence (named after Clarence Birdseye, an American who developed the quick-freezing process) has taken the Captain's place, with impressive results.

Annual figures due next week will show Iglo made profits of close to €320m (£260m) in 2011, showing the first full-year benefit of the acquisition of Findus in Italy, and up from a pro forma €305m. Despite shoppers watching what they spend, Iglo, which sold 31,000 tonnes of frozen peas in Britain last year, increased sales of its three main categories – fish, poultry and vegetables – by 4 per cent.

After freshening up the Birds Eye ranges, cutting costs and dropping under-performing products, now comes a bigger test for Mr Glenn, 51. Permira, Iglo's private equity backer, is putting the business up for sale. Will its strong trading figures be enough to thaw out a chilly environment for takeovers?

"A good business will always find a buyer and we are a good business," he said confidently.

With a background in marketing, what's on the box was as important to Mr Glenn as what was in it. Advertising plugged the fact that the firm's frozen veg contained 40 per cent more Vitamin C than the fresh equivalent. Iglo also added sustainable pollock to its fish fingers.

He put greater emphasis on convenience, such as the company's Bake to Perfection range that includes things like salmon in a lemon and herb sauce.

It has all helped shake off the impression that frozen meant cheap, cheerful and not particularly nutritious. Jamie Oliver's campaign against the turkey twizzler has a lot to answer for.

The belt tightening that led to more home cooking has also been a help.

"As people are feeling more under pressure and thoughtful, frozen has a natural role to play, because it doesn't get wasted," said Mr Glenn.

For all the innovation, he freely admits that putting a zip on a bag of peas was a real "mark of brilliance" when it was introduced last year. Iglo sells nearly as many peas in Italy as it does in Britain – something to do with the southern European appetite for risotto. Although it is mainly a savoury company, Iglo still sells the odd Arctic Roll for those with a sweet tooth.

Permira, which also owns the fashion label Hugo Boss and All3Media, the TV producer behind Hollyoaks, paid £1.2bn for the company in 2006. It had been part of Unilever, home to Dove soap and Magnum ice-cream, since 1957, but began suffering when consumers acquired a taste for chilled ready meals. Permira then spent another £675m for Findus Italy four years later. Analysts expect the combined group to be sold for close to £2.5bn.

Iglo prepared itself for a sale by restructuring its junior debt last year, reducing annual interest payments by £30m. At roughly €1.4bn, its borrowings have been falling.

What Mr Glenn needs is someone to bankroll his ambitions to carry on consolidating the sector. An information memorandum was sent out to buyers last week.

Iglo has been linked to the French division of debt-laden Findus Foods, owned by the private equity group Lion Capital. A deal would boost Iglo in the only European market it is in that it doesn't lead.

"We think they need to sell something at some point," Mr Glenn adds. But he's not in a hurry.

Scale helps to push back against the supermarkets, who have a reputation for squeezing branded players. Mr Glenn isn't so bothered – although he wishes they'd put as much effort into promoting frozen goods as they do with chilled.

"It is a free market," he said. "Aren't we tough on our suppliers? Everyone is. The retailers respect you if consumers are buying your products. It is not a relationship, it's a power game."

Mr Glenn should know: his career has taken him down most of the aisles of the supermarket. He joined Cadbury from university, later switching to Mars' pet foods arm. There, one of the launches of which he was proudest is cat milk. The rationale was simple: "Cats are lactose intolerant and there's loads of lactose in milk, so let's sell lactose-free milk and charge a lot more for it," he said.

Then 15 years at Pepsico followed, where Mr Glenn rose to become UK president, and lifting the market share of Walkers crisps from 29 per cent to 67 per cent. His greatest claim to fame is recruiting Gary Lineker to promote Walkers Crisps, an association that continues to this day.

"Walkers was a good business, but it wasn't famous. We did some research asking if Walkers was a person, who would it be? It had to be someone democratic and of the people."

Kevin Keegan cropped up in conversation, as did, improbably, Dennis Waterman. Then Mr Glenn reviewed some old footage of a 1984 marketing campaign that ran regionally featuring sportsmen including darts player Eric Bristow and Lineker talking about their love of crisps.

At the time, Lineker was playing for his hometown club, Leicester City. Who better to front Walkers' No More Mr Nice Guy campaign?

"He was in the right place at the right time and it gave him a lot of other opportunities," admits Mr Glenn.

You could interpret Mr Glenn's own timing as similarly lucky, but that would be unfair. His peers in the food industry hold him in high regard. Still, he hopes any buyer of Iglo will take him with them.

"The business benefits from having some consistency. I am running a mini multinational and there is just a tonne more to do," he said.

Captain Birdseye would agree – even if his company's current skipper is trying to set sail for Britain's supermarkets without him.

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