International investors' fascination with the agri-business sector continued in 2013, further highlighting an area where Ireland is poised to play a central role on the global stage, due to this island's core expertise in high-quality food production and processing.
According to a report released by Dealogic -- which tracks financial-sector sponsored M&A -- activity in the agri-business sector reached $42.3bn (€30.8bn) in the first 11 months of the year, more than double the previous record of $18.1bn established in 2007, when the sector started to attract attention, as food prices spiked around the world.
One notable deal was the decision by Joh A Benckiser -- the investment arm of the billionaire Reimann family -- to buy DE Master Blenders for €7.5bn ($9.8bn). DE Master Blenders is the Dutch tea and coffee company which owns the Douwe Egberts brand. Deals like those illustrate that global financiers no longer regard the agri-business sector as a plodding counter-cyclical investment.
In our experience, Irish agri-business companies are becoming increasingly active in the M&A space, driven by the imminence of the EU milk production cap being lifted in 2015. On the one hand, Irish companies are well-positioned to expand, because of the highly-competitive nature of the dairy industry in Ireland and the world-class expertise within our leading food and food ingredients companies, such as Glanbia and Kerry. However, the flip-side of the equation is that Irish companies must expand in this brave new world, or risk being swallowed up by international competitors.
The advantage that Irish companies enjoy -- an advantage shared by our Dutch and Danish neighbours -- is that for many years, the requirement to produce traceable high-quality food has been a disadvantage to our producers. We believe that this requirement constituted a "factor disadvantage," whereby disadvantages in the home market can make a national industry more competitive internationally. For example, a lack of space led Japanese manufacturers to develop the concept of just-in-time inventory management, which gave Japan an international competitive advantage when applied internationally.
Equally, even though our food producers have been hamstrung by traceability and food quality standards for years, we are now seeing the rise of a global consumer -- who demands the same level of quality and traceability as a European consumer. We have found that this discerning new middle class also demands dairy products, meat and high-quality processed foods of a kind that local manufacturers cannot satisfy.
The Irish Dairy Board has responded to the needs of these global consumers, by acquiring 75pc of the shares of Al Wazeen Trading, in October of this year. Al Wazeen Trading Company is a Saudi Arabian dairy importer sales and distribution business, which supplies dairy products to food service and wholesale customers.
The Irish Dairy Board -- an Irish dairy co-operative, with annual turnover of more than €2bn, which promotes the Kerrygold brand worldwide -- acquired Al Wazeen as part of its strategy to establish a manufacturing hub for its products in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Middle East, with its rapidly increasing population and increasingly sophisticated urban middle class, provides a significant market for Irish dairy commodities. The strategy to manufacture high-quality dairy products locally using imported milk commodities also supports Saudi Arabia's food security and water conservation initiative.
The lessons of the Al Wazeen acquisition can be extrapolated to agri-business investments globally where the introduction of high-quality products through a strong local partner is a requirement for success.
However, Irish companies will not have it all their own way in emerging markets, because international players such as Danone, Arla and Fonterra are also forming joint-ventures to gain a strong foothold in these markets. Nor will investors in emerging markets shy away from acquisitions, as the Saudi market-leader Almarai has shown through its acquisition of Argentinian corn and soya producer Fondomonte SA in 2011, for over $75m (€54.5m).
Malachy Mitchell is Managing Director of Farrelly & Mitchell, a specialist food and agribusiness consultancy