* Archive page for historical reference only. This profile is no longer being actively updated. See active page here *

Weetabix (UK)

Profile subscribers click here for full profile

Weetabix remains the UK's best-selling breakfast cereal brand and the #2 overall in that sector behind Kellogg's. The company's other brands include Alpen muesli and Weetos. Until comparatively recently Weetabix was also one of Britain's largest family-owned companies, guarding its privacy with great care as a defence against the fierce competition which has raged in the cereal market since the late 1980s. In late 2003, the business was acquired by private equity investors. Almost ten years later they agreed to sell the business to China's state-owned Bright Food. However, that deal never really gelled, and in 2017 Bright Food agreed to sell on its shares to US food group Post Holdings for £1.4bn.

Advertising

Who handles advertising? Click here for agency account assignments for Weetabixfrom adbrands.net.

Competitors

See also Food Sector index for other competitive companies

Brands & Activities

Against the odds, Weetabix established itself as the UK's best-selling cereal during the early 2000s, despite relentless pressure from much larger competitors. The secret of the company's success has long been its emphasis on healthy eating, and its perennial popularity among families. Most buyers of Weetabix today were probably brought up on the brand themselves, and it retains a special place in the nation's affections. It remains to be seen how long that advantage can be maintained in the face of continuing competition.

Historically, Weetabix was the largest British-owned cereal manufacturer (until its sale to American and then Chinese investors), producing a portfolio of well-known brands. In recent years the group has slimmed down its range, merging several smaller products into the dominant Weetabix and Alpen masterbrands. The company's eponymous lead brand became the UK's best-selling individual cereal in 2000, overtaking Corn Flakes. It was overtaken by Special K in 2007 for the first time in seven years, but regained a narrow lead in 2008, which it has managed to keep ever since, and indeed strengthen, especially in the face of declining overall sales in the UK cereal sector. According to figures from Nielsen (in The Grocer), it was still the top-selling cold breakfast cereal brand in the year ending October 2016, and the only Top Ten cold cereal product not to suffer a decline in sales. IRI estimated a 1% increase to £139m.

The original Weetabix product accounts for around half of total branded sales. The product is also available in a range of flavoured Weetabix Mini variants (previously Minibix), and also as Weetabix Organic (rebranded in 2002 from what was previously separate brand Nature's Own), Weetabix Crunchy Bran, Weetaflakes, Oatibix and Oatiflakes, premium Weetabix Gold (introduced in 2006). Recent flavoured additions to the portfolio include Weetabix Chocolate, Weetabix Golden Syrup and Weetabix Banana. Weetabix Protein was launched in 2016. In an unusual brand extension, the company launched a big push in the breakfast drinks sector in 2014 with the launch of Weetabix On The Go, containing a blend of soluble wheat fibre and skimmed milk. Sales were just over £10m in ye 2016.

The company's #2 brand is Alpen muesli, with UK sales of around £31m. That product is now available in a number of different breakfast cereal forms, including Alpen Crunchy Bran (previously another separate brand, Advantage), Alpen Crunch and flavoured variants, as well as in cereal bars. Weetos chocolate cereal is targeted specifically at the children's market, and had sales of £14m. The group still owns the Ready Brek hot porridge brand, a household name in the 1960s and 1970s, but its market share has dwindled in the wake of strong competition from PepsiCo's Quaker, and it had been more or less discontinued by 2016. In addition to its own brands, the company is one of the country's largest manufacturers of private-label cereals, and is the main supplier to several of the leading supermarket chains. Figures are not available for the company's private label business.

There are various reasons for Weetabix's strength. One is that the company has always carefully restricted its product range in the belief that specialization is the key to success. In 1995, the company marketed seven main brands; 12 years later there were only four, after standalone brands were absorbed into the Weetabix and Alpen portfolios. Another reason for Weetabix's resilience has been private ownership. Until 2003, group chairman Sir Richard George and his family controlled all the company's voting shares, although a small number of non-voting shares were traded publicly on the small Ofex exchange. The company was also extremely secretive, giving very little away about its business. George himself made it a point of honour never to speak to the press on any subject. Although slightly less secretive since it was acquired by what is now Lion Capital, its private status allowed it still to hide more sensitive trading information from the eyes of rivals.

Weetabix and Alpen have international distribution in around 80 countries. Weetabix has a share of around 4% of the French breakfast cereals market, and the main Weetabix range is now marketed in the US as Organic Weetabix, along with flavoured Minibix. The company also markets Alpen and Grainfield's natural cereals in the US and Canada. Local subsidiary The Weetabix Co Inc also provides cereal and grain-based ingredients to almost two-thirds of North America's top 50 food processors and supplies several US supermarket chains with own-label cereals. The company also owns cereal bar company Barbara's Bakery. Canadian premium cereal manufacturer Northern Gold Foods was sold in 2005.

Financials

The company has grown strongly in recent years. When Richard George became chairman in 1982, sales were £55m a year, with profits of just over £1m. Despite fierce competition in the UK breakfast market, revenues had grown to £383m by 2003. Despite competition and price-cutting, profits were up almost 14% to a company record of £50.6m. At the end of that year, the European arm of investment firm Hicks Muse Tate & Furst agreed to acquire the group for £642m. In 2004, that unit was spun out as independent firm Lion Capital, which remained the controlling shareholder in parent company Latimer Group. In 2012, Lion agreed to sell a 60% stake in the business to Chinese group Bright Food. The deal valued Weetabix at £1.2bn including debt. Asia-based investor Baring Private Capital acquired the remaining 40% in May 2015.

For 2013, the first year of ownership by Bright Food, revenues rose by 3% to £366.4m, while operating profit before exceptionals was up 2% to £102.5m. The company called its performance "ultimately satisfactory" despite "probably the most difficult and challenging year for the business in a decade".

The following year saw a number of new challenges - the annual report highlighted "a year of significant upheaval... which made life very difficult for us as a business". Turnover for 2014 slipped 4% to £352m, while net profit fell 3% to £99m. Performance declined again in 2015, with turnover slipping to £346m and net profit to £85m. The group said that its core brands had continued to perform well, but that several private label contracts had been cancelled as a result of fierce competition on pricing from other suppliers. Just under 84% of revenues were generated in the UK, and another 11% in EU markets. Global revenues including joint ventures and North American operations were £433m.

In 2017, Bright Food and Baring agreed to sell on their shares in Weetabix to US food company Post Holdings for £1.4bn (including debt), not much more than they originally paid for the business.

Background

Weetabix cereal biscuits were actually developed in Australia at the very beginning of the 20th century, where they were known as Weet-bix. They remain a popular Australian breakfast cereal to this day, still manufactured by the Sanitarium Health Food Company of Melbourne. British entrepreneur Frank George developed his own version of the Weet-Bix in 1932, and launched them in Britain under the name Weetabix, even using Australian wheat to make the biscuits. (This continued to be the case for the next 35 years until the rise in prices of Australian wheat made imports prohibitive during the 1970s).

Weetabix was originally marketed as a baby food because of the way the biscuits soaked up milk, making them easy to eat, and Weetabix gradually became a family staple. For the next 50 years or so, Kellogg's and Weetabix remained the two most successful players in the British market. Continental style muesli Alpen was launched during the 1970s. (Reportedly, the product was devised by a company marketing manager after he spent a summer holiday in the French alps and discovered local home-made muesli). Frank George continued as chairman until his death in 1970, and was replaced first by his son, and then by grandson Richard George, who took control of the business in 1982. Richard George expanded the portfolio further in 1991 with the acquisition from Lyons Tetley of Ready Brek, an oat-based cereal designed to be mixed with hot milk, first introduced in the UK in the 1950s.

In the mid-1990s Weetabix acquired a license to market American cereal Chex in the UK, but later dropped the brand because of poor sales. In 1997, it introduced Fruitibix, and various spin-off brands, followed in 2000 by Nature's Own, a range of organic cereals. However 2001 was a tough year for the group, as competition within the sector grew more intense. Most damagingly, several contracts to supply supermarkets with private-label cereals came under threat from rival GranoVita, while traditional cereals lost a further chunk of their market to new-style cereal bars. Weetabix reported a fall in profits to £48.5m.

In 2002 the company announced that it was dropping the separate branding of its Minibix and Nature's Own products, and would rebadge them under the main Weetabix umbrella. This was followed by a similar exercise in 2003 to rebadge the Crunchy Bran and Advantage brands under the Alpen umbrella. Meanwhile the company won a long-running legal battle in Canada to register the Fruit Dots trademark for cereal. For 10 years, Kellogg's had argued that the brand was too similar to its own Fruit Loops product. A Federal Court finally overruled Kellogg's objections.

The George family finally agreed to sell out to Hicks Muse Tate & Furst in late 2003. George himself made around £45m from the deal, while other family members shared a further £84m. There were tentative plans to merge Weetabix with another Hicks Muse investment, Premier Foods, but these were subsequently abandoned.

Last full revision 1st July 2016

* Archive page for historical reference only. This profile is no longer being actively updated. See active page here *


All rights reserved © Mind Advertising Ltd 1998-2020