NEW YORK (The Deal) -- Now that a Kraft Heinz (KHC) investor has all but ruled out an acquisition of Mondelez International (MDLZ), the door is open for other conglomerates to make a play for the cookie and candy maker.
Financier Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) holds a big stake in Kraft Heinz, recently said that before the Pittsburgh-based ketchup maker dips back into the M&A hunt, it will take a couple of years to digest the merger that created it.
Kraft Heinz is the result of a recent combination of Kraft Foods Group and H.J. Heinz, and is partially owned by Brazilian private-equity firm 3G Capital and Berkshire Hathaway.
Buffett added that Mondelez would also be expensive to acquire, considering where the food company's stock is trading.
Mondelez, though, remains under pressure from New York-based hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management LP, which earlier in August disclosed a 7.5% stake worth nearly $5.57 billion in the Deerfield, Ill.-based food conglomerate.
Pershing Square, headed by corporate agitator Bill Ackman, is but the latest activist to take a bite out of the confectionery group. The firm is likely placing a bet that Mondelez will be a target in the consolidating food industry.
Mondelez is something of a perennial target. For example, activist Nelson Peltz has urged Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo (PEP) to buy the company. PepsiCo is one of the few companies in the food sector with the size and balance sheet to buy something as large as Mondelez.
PepsiCo, though, hasn't shown any interest in Mondelez. If Peltz couldn't persuade the soda company to gobble up the maker of Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Cadbury chocolate, it's not clear what would change the thinking of PepsiCo management.
But industry watchers insist that a Mondelez sale is still possible. Nestlé SA (NSRGY), is a possible acquirer. The Vevey, Switzerland-based food giant could use Mondelez to bolster its presence in snacks and candy.
According to data provided by Bloomberg, Nestlé has a market cap of about 230 billion Swiss francs (nearly $236 billion), close to CHF8.9 billion in cash and about CHF21.2 billion in debt, as of March 31, while generating EBITDA of almost CHF16.4 billion for the fiscal year ended Dec. 31.
Industry sources also identify General Mills (GIS) as a potential suitor. The Minneapolis-based food group is a leading maker of everything from yogurt to cereal and could use its stock as acquisition currency. General Mills only has about $300 million in cash, about $9.2 billion in debt and around $3.4 billion in EBITDA as of May 31, according to data provided by Bloomberg. It has a market cap of nearly $35.4 billion.
One industry expert said that executives at General Mills and other food groups are worried about being acquired by Kraft Heinz once it is ready to start buying again. Making a play for a competitor is one way to preserve independence.
General Mills could also set its sights on another company that would represent a transformative deal, but would be easier to absorb than Mondelez.
As Buffett pointed out, a hurdle to any deal not only for Kraft Heinz, but any potential buyer, is Mondelez's rich valuation. According to data provided by Bloomberg, the company has an enterprise value of about $92.4 billion, which includes roughly $19.3 billion in debt.
The enterprise value is a multiple of 17.1 times the roughly $5.4 billion in adjusted EBITDA generated for the 12 months ended June 30. And Mondelez is trading near a 52-week high of $48.58 per share, closing at $46.53 on August 12. That's a huge price for any company to swallow, no matter how sweet the target.