The great brands sell-off: Once we were British

Many of the iconic brands we grew up with are now foreign-owned. And this week we lost yet another national treasure - the fish-and-chips chain Harry Ramsden's
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The Independent Online

Think of an iconic British brand. Does a Rolls-Royce purr into view, or an Aston Martin? Perhaps your thoughts turn to a more prosaic name, such as a KitKat? Or something grander, such as Harrods, The Savoy, even Manchester United? Perhaps you think the archetypal UK brand is something more everyday, such as Ty.phoo tea or HP Sauce?

But, if you think these familiar names are British, you should think again. None of them are and the money spent on them does not stay here, but goes abroad, often to an obscure private equity group or conglomerate.

This week another institution, Harry Ramsden's, joined the long list of British brands passing into foreign ownership. The fish and chip chain, founded in a hut in Guiseley near Leeds in 1928, was included in Compass's sale of its service station business, Moto, to an Australian bank and Swedish investors.

The foreign acquisition of a famous British brand, and the biggest maker of our national dish, has generated little press and no controversy.

Many other British companies are poised to fall in to foreign ownership, or have done so in the past year. The French may swoop on Alliance & Leicester within months, while a Spanish construction group has been stalking BAA, which owns Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports.

Dubai-based companies have taken over the Madam Tussauds group and the ferry company P&O - ending more than 100 years of British ownership. In March, the French cosmetics group L'Oreal consumed The Body Shop, while the glassmaker Pilkington, Abbey bank and the mobile phone company O2 have all been sold abroad.

Even the London Stock Exchange has been fighting off a foreign bid, and takeover gossip swirls around names such as ITV, Lloyds TSB and Cadbury Schweppes. Add to this the roll-call of foreign-owned UK brands: the Chinese own Rover, the Germans Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and the Americans Jaguar and Aston Martin. An Australian-born American, Rupert Murdoch, owns The Times, three other national newspapers and a television station. Icelanders own Hamleys, an Egyptian Harrods and a Saudi prince The Savoy. The American Glazers own Manchester United and a Russian oil billionaire Chelsea FC.

The Swiss have gobbled up much of our chocolate. Americans own a plethora of food brands including Weetabix, HP Sauce, and Walkers crisps. The French own Teacher's whisky and Beefeater gin.

The deals generate barely a shrug compared with the alarm and outrage that greet foreign takeovers on the Continent. In one of the better known episodes, Vodafone's takeover of Mannesman in Germany in 1999 sparked mass protests from workers and attacks from politicians. More recently, the French government was rattled by rumours that the US-owned Pepsi would bid for the food group Danone.

Business analysts put the British acceptance of foreign takeovers down to an open embrace of capitalism. Patriotism does not apply: the British look at the money first and foremost.

Part of this expansive, unemotional outlook is attributed to the Empire, when Britain looked across the high seas for trade rather than to Europe. Part of it can be ascribed to Margaret Thatcher's enterprise reforms and the selling off of state assets. Many European countries still believe in state-ownership and protectionism.

"Britain seems more international in nature," says Karen Olney, a strategist at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in London. "You look at the stock market: oils, mining companies, various pharmaceuticals: it's all very internationally driven." She believes UK business is ruled by the shareholder and shareholders make a short-term assessment of an offer: "If the price is right, shareholders are willing to sell."

Economists say that in the long run, such unfettered "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism boosts economies by encouraging the free flow of capital. Lame duck companies are abandoned by the state; strong businesses survive. Consequently, Britain has low unemployment - unlike France.

ROLLS-ROYCE MOTOR CARS

Price: £40m (branding rights)

Year sold: 1998

Buyer: BMW

New nationality: German

After the 1998 bidding war and years of legal wrangling with VW (who bought the company but not the brand for £479m) , BMW produced the first German Rolls-Royce, The Phantom, in January 2003.

OXO

Price: £632m (including other brands like Batchelor's Cup-a-soup)

Year sold: 2001

Buyer: Campbell's

New nationality: American

The now-American conglomerate Campbell Soup's portfolio acquired the staple stock cube of British kitchens - personified by the Oxo mum Lynda Bellingham cooking a Sunday roast in a series of TV adverts.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Price: £790m

Year sold: 2005

Buyer: Malcom Glazer

New nationality: American

Amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth from fans, the American sporting tycoon achieved the 97.6 per cent share ownership he needed for full control of the world's richest football club with a round of massive borrowing. At a stroke, a profitable club became a debt-ridden one.

THE MINI

Price: £800m

Year sold: 1994

Buyer: BMW

New nationality: German

A British cultural icon, and star of The Italian Job, Mini was pulled from the wreckage of Britain's car industry by the world's biggest premium car-maker, Germany's BMW.

WEETABIX

Price: £642m

Year sold: 2003

Buyer: Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst private equity group

New nationality: American

Britain's largest breakfast-cereal manufacturer, which also produces Alpen, Ready Brek and Weetos, sold out to a massive US food group because it said it was too small to deal with the supermarkets. The sale meant Britain lost ownership of Weetabix after more than 70 years.

JAGUAR

Price: £1.2bn

Year sold: 1990

Buyer: Ford

New nationality: American

The sports-car brand, which featured in the film Get Carter, became a subsidiary of the Detroit motor giant Ford, 55 years after the first vehicle with the springing big-cat motif hit the road.

HARRY RAMSDEN'S

Price: Part of £1.8bn deal

Year sold: 2006

Buyer: EQT

New nationality: Swedish

Who knows what the late Harry Ramsden would have made of the sale of his empire to Swedish private investors, the Wallenberg family as part of a much bigger deal. His restaurant empire was not even named in the press release announcing the sale.

KITKAT/SMARTIES/AERO/ROLO

Price: £2.5bn

Year sold: 1988

Buyer: Nestlé

New nationality: Swiss

Nestlé, the world's largest food and beverage firm, swallowed KitKat - the UK's number one chocolate bar - along with Smarties and Aero when it bought Rowntree of York.

THAMES WATER

Price: £4.8bn

Year sold: 2000

Buyer: RWE

New nationality: German

Hailed by Tony Blair for exemplifying the virtues of Britain's liberalised energy market, Thames Water is now a branch of the German utility RWE, which also owns npower. Many other utilities are foreign-owned, including Powergen and EDF Energy.

BASS ALE

Price: £2.3bn

Year sold: 2000

Buyer: Interbrew (now InBev)

New nationality: Belgian

A historic beer that has its roots in a Burton-upon-Trent brewery founded in 1777 is now owned by the world's largest brewery, who also happen to be the maker of Stella Artois.

TY.PHOO TEA

Price: £80m

Year sold: 2005

Buyer: Apeejay Surrendra Group

New nationality: Indian

In a deal that smacked of selling sand to the Arabs, the British company Premier Foods sold Ty.phoo Tea to an Indian firm. Britons drink 6.4 million cups of Ty.phoo tea every day.

THE BODY SHOP

Price: £652m

Year sold: 2006

Buyer: L'Oréal

New nationality: French

Protesters were furious when Anita Roddick sold her avowedly ethical retail chain to cosmetics firm L'Oréal - not because it was foreign, but because of its record on animal testing.

HAMLEYS

Price: £47m

Year sold: 2003

Buyer: Baugur

New nationality: Icelandic

Once the world's largest toy store, Hamleys' flagship Regent Street store was sold to the Icelandic investors Baugur, who have been rampaging like Vikings through Britain's high-street chains.

P&O

Price: £3.9bn

Year sold: 2006

Buyer: Dubai Ports World

New nationality: United Arab Emirates

In a move that provoked uproar in the US - where P&O runs six ports - the ferry firm famous for its channel crossings was bought by UAE's state-owned Dubai Ports World this year. The deal was subject to a High Court challenge in this country - which failed.

Research: Andrew Scheuber

HP SAUCE

Price: £470m

Year sold: 2005

Buyer: Heinz

New nationality: American

After the 1988 sale of HP Foods to Danone of France for £199m, Heinz, the American food giant, took charge in 2005. The Houses of Parliament are still pictured on the label of HP Sauce - but perhaps it should be Capitol Hill.

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