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So Happy Together?


As we ponder the fate of yet another significant merger to be added to the books in 2015, the timing of the deal between Ahold and Delhaize was more than a bit interesting for us, given that we’d been planning for several months to run the first installment of our new Profiles in Progress series, on Food Lion, in this issue.

The Food Lion profile — which begins on page 24 and probes the regional chain’s aim to reclaim its roar — came to pass after I attended an analyst and media day hosted by Delhaize Group in March primarily targeting reporters from the company’s native Belgium. While I’d been adequately versed on the more aggressive stance Delhaize was taking to improve its American stores prior to my visit, I walked away feeling quite impressed by both the vision and vigor the company’s new leaders were applying to the Food Lion and Hannaford divisions.

Yet while those big plans are now obviously subject to change after the widely anticipated $28 billion deal — which is set for a mid-2016 wrap-up and has seemed all but inevitable dating back to 2006, when both companies were close to combining before Delhaize walked away after its demand for a merger of equals was denied — it would seem more than a little silly to scrap the transformative strides that Food Lion and Hannaford are making in the customary merger mandates of maximizing synergies and efficiencies of scale.

Unlike some of the more complex and precarious deals that have gone down in the past year, the Ahold-Delhaize alliance was not only likely, but also logical. The tricky part, of course, is the success with which the parties will put the pieces in place over the course of years, some of which are bound to be difficult fits. But there’s always a promise that something good will ultimately come from it, and so it goes with the pending nuptials of Delhaize and Ahold.

From a geographic standpoint, while antitrust issues tend to loom large with mergers of this magnitude, only a handful of key markets along the prospective partners’ expansive East Coast footprint are facing anticompetitive issues. Other big pluses are Ahold’s market-leading position in the Netherlands and Delhaize’s second-ranked standing in Belgium (where Ahold also has a modest 30 stores).

“Consumers will likely benefit from more competitive prices and improved selection over time,” notes Keith Anderson, VP of strategy and insights for Boston-based Profitero. If all goes well, “Ahold’s expertise and capability in e-commerce, applied to Delhaize’s footprint,” can also accelerate the combined entity’s growth online in both Europe and North America, adds Anderson, in light of Ahold’s ownership of Peapod, the longest continuously operating online grocer in the United States, and, a leading online retailer in the Netherlands.

While many analysts are rightly skeptical about various aspects of the forthcoming fused international entity (Ahaize or Delhold, anyone?), I foresee ample opportunities for this marriage to be both durable and productive.

Interestingly, while the all-stock deal is prominently positioned this time around as an official “merger of equals,” The Wall Street Journal begged to differ, cautioning that it doesn’t look “terribly equitable” in view of Ahold’s taking on more debt to fund the transaction, alongside a reverse stock split that will return $1.1 billion to its shareholders. WSJ further critiqued the “notably top-heavy” leadership structure consisting “of a chief executive, a deputy CEO, a chief financial officer and no less than three chief operating officers, including two in the U.S. alone.”

Although those points are indeed valid, there are integral advantages embedded in the combined company’s newly assembled executive team, including Kevin Holt and James McCann, current chief execs at Delhaize America and Ahold USA, respectively, both of whom have been effective, stabilizing leaders. But perhaps the single biggest advantage the merger has going for it is Frans Muller, Delhaize Group CEO, who’ll take on dual duties as deputy CEO and, more importantly, chief integration officer.

To be sure, after spending several hours and a shared bus ride with the whip-smart, multilingual native Netherlander in March, I believe the most complex part of the integration process is in extraordinarily good hands with Muller, who will be charged with determining if these two companies can figure out together what they’ve each struggled with separately.

Only time will tell, and there’s clearly much more to deliberate as this latest food industry mega-pact plays out. But in the midst of one of history’s most pronounced periods of merger mania, I just can’t help but wonder, who’s next?

Meg Major
[email protected]
Twitter @Meg_Major/@pgrocer

While many are skeptical about various aspects of the forthcoming fused international entity, I foresee ample opportunities for this marriage to be both durable and productive. But only time will tell.

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