The foods division of Unilever has gone through many names, most recently Unilever Bestfoods, which was the badge given to most regional units following the merger in 2001 of Van Den Bergh Foods and other operating businesses worldwide with the similarly broadly based Bestfoods. However the Bestfoods tag was later phased out in favour of the main Unilever name. The group is the world leader in several sectors including savoury products and dressings (with brands including Knorr, now its single biggest brand, and Hellmann's), in branded margarine and spreads (with Rama, Flora among others), in tea (with Lipton and PG Tips), and in global ice cream with its Heartbrand portfolio. However, Unilever has also quit numerous other sectors since the mid-2000s, selling less profitable brands or businesses, including the Iglo Birdseye frozen foods business in Europe, Ragu pasta sauces, meat snacks, olive oils and Slim-Fast meal replacement products.
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Adbrands Daily Update 6th Feb 2019: Unilever announced another niche purchase within its foods division. The group confirmed a deal for UK-based healthy snacks manufacturer Graze. The business originally launched in 2008 as a subscription service delivering personalised seed and oat snack boxes to customers' homes. It still offers that service but has branched out into packaged snack bars and bags sold through major grocery channels. Parent company ND1T reported revenues of £72m for the year ending Feb 2018. No terms were disclosed but media reports suggested a price tag of £150m-£200m.
Adbrands Daily Update 20th Dec 2018: Acquisitions by Unilever's foods division are few and far between these days, and usually involve niche or specialist market segments. The latest is no exception: Dutch company The Vegetarian Butcher (or De Vegetarische Slager at home) specialises in meat-free foods like "vegan nochicken nuggets" or "vegan smokey hotdog". It already produces vegetarian meatballs for Unilever, marketed in the Netherlands under the Unox range. No price was disclosed.
Adbrands Weekly Update 5th Oct 2017: In another rare addition to its food portfolio, Unilever agreed to acquire Brazilian organic cereals and snacks brand Mae Terra for an undisclosed sum.
Adbrands Weekly Update 27th Apr 2017: Unilever made a comparatively rare addition to its food portfolio - it has mostly been shrinking that division in recent years - with the acquisition of Sir Kensington's, a US company making upscale ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, including vegan mayo. (That name! Ugh! It will need to be changed if they want to market the range in the UK).
Adbrands Weekly Update 23rd Mar 2017: The UK's Sunday Times newspaper reported that Unilever is "lining up" the sale of its margarine portfolio for up to £6bn. No firm evidence was offered for the story, but it follows a wide-ranging review of Unilever's business following the shock takeover approach by Kraft Heinz earlier this month. The margarine business has for several years been one of the weakest remaining parts of Unilever's foods portfolio. Other poorly performing brands have already been sold, and in 2015 Unilever carved out the "Baking Cooking & Spreading" unit as a standalone entity to encourage better performance. This has not been forthcoming. Kraft Heinz could be among the possible bidders for that business, though a private equity buyer is more likely.
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Free for all users | see full profile for current activities: Until 2001, the food business of Unilever was known mainly as Van Den Bergh Foods, named after Jacob and Henry Van Den Bergh, brothers who established a UK operation for their Dutch margarine business in 1870. At home the brothers were in competition with rival family company Jurgens, and finally the two Dutch companies agreed to merge as Margarine Unie. After Word War I, the Dutch business found itself facing a new competitor, an offshoot of the well-established British laundry business Lever Brothers. Lever required the vegetable fats used in margarine to make soap, and had taken the decision to diversify to maximise the uses for their core ingredient.
In 1930, Margarine Unie and Lever Brothers merged to form Unilever, although their various subsidiaries around the world continued to operate along side each other within the group. In the UK, Van Den Bergh and Jurgens stayed separate businesses, and remained that way for another 50 years, marketing their rival brands Blue Band and Stork. Meanwhile, Unilever continued to add other food businesses to its portfolio. In 1943, the group acquired Batchelors. Founder William Batchelor had started the company at the end of the 19th century to sell tea, but gradually diversified into soups and other foods. Batchelor died in 1912, and the business passed to his 22 year-old daughter Ella Gasking who ran it for the next 30 years, adding a wide range of other convenience foods. In 1912 the business added dried peas, and introduced the first canned processed peas in the 1920s. After buying the business, Unilever oversaw a move into packet soups at the end of the 1940s.
Unilever's biggest food purchase came in 1984 with the acquisition of Brooke Bond Oxo. This was itself the combination of two other businesses who had merged in 1968. The Liebig Company had been founded in 1865 to market an affordable beef extract devised by Baron Justus von Liebig. The name Oxo was introduced in 1899. (Supposedly the letters were a random mark chalked on a crate of what was previously known as Liebig's Extract or Lemco). Originally a liquid, the first dehydrated cubes of Oxo were introduced in 1910. Brooke Bond was a long-established tea company. It was founded in 1869 by Arthur Brooke, who named his tea shop "Brooke, Bond & Co" because he thought the additional name sounded more important. He blended his own tea and sold it for out of shop use under the Brooke Bond name. Despite occasional setbacks the business grew, and by 1900 had become a major UK wholesaler of teas. The company re-entered the packaged tea market in the 1920s, and PG Tips (launched 1930) and Brooke Bond D (1935) became hugely popular household brands.
In 1988 Unilever combined the fast-growing Brooke Bond Oxo foods business with sister company Batchelors as Brooke Bond Foods. Four years later the margarine companies Van Den Bergh and Jurgens were folded in with meat and diary products business Mattessons Wall's to form Van Den Bergh Foods. Stork was still Jurgens' lead brand, but VDB had gradually phased out Blue Band to be replaced by Flora, originally launched in 1964. Further consolidation in 1995 led to Brooke Bond Foods being absorbed by Van Den Bergh Foods. The same year, the company acquired Colman's mustard from household products company Reckitt & Colman.
Already the best-known mustard product in the UK, Colman's range was boosted further by Unilever's acquisition of French mustard company Amora Maille in late 1999. VDB also took over responsibility for the various Bestfoods brands operating in the UK, following that company's acquisition by Unilever in 2000. The two companies merged as Unilever Bestfoods in 2001.
As a condition of approval of the Bestfoods takeover, Unilever was obliged by regulators to sell off a number of its best-known local food brands. Following several months of negotiation, the deal was agreed in January 2001. Campbell's Soup Company was the winning bidder (narrowly outgunning Nestle). The US company paid €1bn in cash to acquire both the core UK brands Oxo and Batchelors. Other brands included in the deal were Lesieur mayonnaise, Royco soups in France, Heisse Tasse in Germany and Bla Band in Scandinavia. In 2002 another clutch of local brands was offloaded when Associated British Foods paid €406m for Mazola corn oil, Argo corn starch and a small portfolio of other related brands, mostly operating in North America. (ABF subsequently acquired Unilever's Mexican oils business as well).
In 2003, the group agreed to buy out the 50% shareholding held by Japanese partner Ajinomoto in joint venture CPC/Aji Asia, which markets a range of former Bestfoods products in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan. See full profile for current activities
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