Thursday, February 19, 2009

Foster's Decides to keep Wine Businesses

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Foster's Group of Australia has decided not to sell its wine businesses at the moment, given that the economic downturn has made it difficult to find a buyer willing to pay a reasonable price for those units.

I'm not surprised that Foster's has found it difficult to achieve synergies between its wine and beer businesses, and to manage both product lines effectivley in the same corporation. Back in 2003, I wrote a paper about the wine industry in which I argued that the economies of scope across the wine and beer businesses might be somewhat limited. Here is an excerpt from that paper, which I presented at a conference in Venice, Italy:

The alcoholic beverage producers moving into the wine business have been quite explicit about the fact that they see premium wine as their next growth engine, given flat sales in their core businesses. Foster’s Group provides the best example of this strategy. They have declared a vision of becoming “a global wine company with a leading presence in every premium wine market worldwide.” In their 2001 Annual Report, the company actually has a headline that reads “Beer = Returns,” while a second headline reads “Wine = Growth.” In short, the company is quite clear that they are deriving cash flow from the mature, but highly profitable, beer business; then, they are using that cash flow to subsidize a growth strategy in the wine business. This raises an important question: does this cross-subsidization strategy enhance shareholder value? If capital markets are reasonably efficient, then shareholders can invest the cash flow from the beer business more effectively than the managers at Foster’s; cross-subsidization within the firm’s internal resource allocation process is not optimal in this case. Thus, the only way that this corporate strategy adds value for shareholders is if the beer and wine businesses are somehow more valuable together than apart, i.e. if there are sizeable economies of scope. However, the synergies appear somewhat limited. There are no production economies that are readily apparent. Moreover, the same sales force is unlikely to be able to support both product lines. The economies appear to be mainly in the distribution area. Even then, those economies seem to be limited to negotiating power, because there are serious questions about whether firms can consolidate the physical distribution of beer, wine, and spirits without compromising product quality. If, in fact, the synergies are somewhat limited, then one has to question whether it is in shareholders’ interests to cross-subsidize from the beer to the wine business.