Hot IPO Market Is Tough Competition for Consumer-Hungry Buyers

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Acquisitive companies competing to buy hot consumer and retail targets are facing another hurdle: a booming public market that’s attracting high-growth companies to list instead of sell.

When Jessica Alba’s skincare maker The Honest Co. went public this year, it did so after first exploring a sale, according to people familiar with the matter. When the company’s investors realized the IPO value would be higher than what it could get from buyers, Honest scrapped the sale and went for the listing, the people said. A representative for Honest declined to comment.

“The public market valuations for growth companies are sometimes higher than what strategic players are willing to pay,” said Tony Kim, a partner at Centerview Partners focusing on consumer products. “Strategic buyers have one eye on the market, but think valuations are pretty rich.”

Hot IPO Market Is Tough Competition for Consumer-Hungry Buyers

Brands in the sector, including food makers, pet-supply manufacturers and home furnishing companies, raised more than $4 billion through initial public offerings so far in 2021, compared to $3.6 billion during the same period last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Direct-to-consumer names that sell through e-commerce channels have been less affected by the pandemic than brick-and-mortar stores, and have managed to deliver results for investors that have bought into their growth potential. Their success could persuade others to take the public market track.

Shares of Figs Inc., which sells medical scrubs online, have almost doubled since its IPO last month, in one of the biggest gains by a major listing this year.

Oatly Group AB, the oat-milk maker that made headlines with its unconventional Super Bowl commercial, went public at a valuation more than seven times its estimated revenue in 2022. Traditional packaged food makers, such as Nestle SA, trade at about 3.9 times revenue. Oatly’s shares have jumped more than 50% since its May debut.

Hot IPO Market Is Tough Competition for Consumer-Hungry Buyers

“The absolute strength of the capital markets is in some way disintermediating the traditional M&A markets with IPOs and SPAC transactions,” said Cathy Leonhardt, a managing director and co-head of PJ Solomon’s global consumer retail group.

More IPOs are on the way. Doughnut chain Krispy Kreme Inc. is set to price shares on Wednesday, while eye-wear brand Warby Parker Inc. and sneaker maker Allbirds Inc. are also making preparations to go public this year.

On Running, yogurt company Chobani and trendy salad chain Sweetgreen Inc. are working on plans to join them, Bloomberg News has reported.

On thing they’re all benefiting from as they head to market: A boost from the rebounding economy.

“The consumer is back. They want to buy things that make them feel good, to celebrate,” Leonhardt said.

Dual Tracks

Traditional M&A could still be in favor when sellers, particularly financial sponsors, seek cleaner, quicker exits versus the slower, dribbling sell-down of an IPO.

In the first half of the year, strategic and financial buyers announced $84 billion in M&A transactions in the U.S. That’s more than double the same period last year, when the start of the Covid-19 pandemic slowed dealmaking to a trickle.

KKR & Co., the owner of supplement maker Bountiful, sold part of the business to Nestle SA just days before the company was supposed to go public, letting it monetize a big chunk of its investment faster.

Robust dual-track processes -- where companies pursue a possible sale alongside a listing -- have helped potential M&A targets boost their asking prices, advisers said.

This played a role for skincare brand Paula’s Choice, which explored an IPO before selling to Unilever Plc this month for a reported $2 billion. The sale of a stake in Bountiful Co. to Nestle valued the company at nearly $6 billion.

A potential U.S. tax hike could also encourage sales processes.

“For many private, founder-led companies, if they had not explored a sale previously, the threat of a capital gains increase has motivated them to explore a sale,” said Dana Weinstein, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s head of consumer, retail and business services investment banking.

Sanderson Farms Inc., a publicly traded poultry producer with some family ownership, is exploring a sale and has received approaches from Continental Grain Co.’s Wayne Farms and others, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Representatives for Sanderson Farms and Continental Grain declined to comment.

Hot IPO Market Is Tough Competition for Consumer-Hungry Buyers

Corporate divestitures are shaping up to be busy for the rest of the year. Shoemaker Adidas AG is looking for a new owner for Reebok after owning it since 2005. Unilever is selling its tea business along with some non-core personal care assets.

“It’s good corporate hygiene to be constantly evaluating the portfolio and divesting under-performing businesses, the result of which will be increased M&A activity for higher-growth assets,” JPMorgan’s Weinstein said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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