I've written before about the newly pure-play Beam Inc. as a potential acquisition target. My skepticism came from looking at it from the industry side, and sizing-up the potential buyers such as Pernod and Diageo.
But another way of looking at it is from the perspective of Beam Inc.’s largest shareholder, Pershing Square Capital Management, which is led by activist investor Bill Ackman. Shanken reported today that Pershing Square held 20.8 million shares of Beam Inc., worth about $1.13 billion, at the close of 2011. That's roughly one-eighth of Beam’s current market capitalization.
In his third quarter letter to Pershing investors last November, Ackman wrote, “Beam now has many strategic alternatives available, including a sale of the business, a merger with another spirits company, and the acquisition of other brands. We believe the spirits industry will see significant consolidation over the next several years, and Beam’s leading global positions in Bourbon and Tequila could entice several bidders or merger partners in the future.”
Ackman added that Beam is now “the world’s only pure-play, publicly traded global spirits company that is not family controlled or influenced—in other words, it is a very scarce asset.”
Beam has said repeatedly that it intends to be an acquirer and not a seller, which is how I see them going as well but, obviously, Ackman has a lot more skin in the game than I do.
The company’s comparable net sales rose 8% to $2.3 billion in 2011, led by a 7% increase for Jim Beam, as well as double-digit growth for Maker’s Mark, Courvoisier and Teacher’s and an exponential jump for its Skinnygirl cocktail brand.
Though burdened for many years as part of an old-fashioned diversified conglomerate, Beam's biggest growth spurts came by acquisition. In 1987, Beam was essentially a single-brand company (Jim Beam bourbon). That year it acquired struggling National Distillers, primarily to get the DeKuyper liqueurs brand, but it picked up a broad portfolio in the process, including several more whiskeys (e.g., Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, Old Overholt).
Then, in 2005, Beam teamed up with Pernod to divide up the assets of Allied Domecq. That brought into Beam's stable many of the brand's that are now contributing to Beam's success, including Sauza Tequila, Maker's Mark Bourbon, Courvoisier Cognac, and Teacher's Scotch.
Ackman is probably right about more industry consolidation, as the business becomes fully globalized. If, for example, the Beckmann family were to deprive Diageo of Jose Cuervo in the current contract negotiations, Beam would be able to plug two of the biggest holes in Diageo's portfolio, American whiskey and tequila. That might prove irresistible to both Diageo and Mr. Ackman.