Fulfil Nutrition proves a sweet deal for Italian chocolate giant Ferrero

Multimillion-euro deal is vindication for growth strategy of founder Barry Connolly

International confectionery group Ferrero has acquired Irish protein bar group Fulfil Nutrition in an all-cash transaction.

The deal will see the Italian chocolate giant take over all Fulfil's business outside North America, which Fulfil founder Barry Connolly and Hershey will continue to control. US company Hershey bought a minority stake in the business in 2019.

Ferrero issued a brief statement confirming the two sides had reached a “definitive agreement”. No price was confirmed but industry sources suggest the business would be worth more than €150 million.

That will mean a major pay day for Mr Connolly, who is the majority owner of the business, as well as for AIB, which acquired part of the shareholdings of cofounders Tom Gannon and Niall McGrath, who exited the business in 2018 after a dispute over how aggressively to pursue international expansion. The bank holds about 20 per cent of the business.

Hershey, which holds a stake of about 5 per cent, will also get an early return on its investment.

Ferrero, the maker of Kinder Chocolate and Nutella, said the deal would enable it to expand in a new market segment, "meeting the evolving needs and trends of consumers".

"As part of the transaction, the Ferrero Group will take over the brand's iconic portfolio and plans to retain the management and the employees of the business," the company said. Fulfil employs about 40 staff in Ireland and Britain.

TicTac plant

The deal is subject to competition authority approval and is expected to close in the next few months.

Ferrero already has a presence in Ireland with its TicTac sweets plant in Cork, where it employs about 270 people.

The deal will allow the Irish brand to compete on the global stage with Mondelez, which acquired UK high-protein bar Grenade last year, and Mars, which owns the Kind brand.

Sales of Fulfil’s bar are understood to have bounced back from a pandemic slump that saw sales crash from €29.7 million in 2019 to just under €22 million in 2020. Sales in Ireland were understood to have recovered fully last year, with British growth bringing group turnover close to €38 million.

It is now understood to be the top-selling “impulse confectionery” brand in the Irish market, ahead of Cadbury and Mars, and No 5 in the UK. Sales in each market are understood to be about a million cases .

Fulfil has also breached the Dutch and Belgian markets, with sales in Australia and the Middle East accounting for a more modest share of turnover. It is also expanding in North America with Hershey.

The group’s success in breaking into the highly competitive UK market is seen as the catalyst for the Ferrero takeover, proving the case for Fulfil being more than simply a local Irish success story.

Salmonella closure

Following the Mondelez-Grenade deal and the full acquisition of Kind by Mars a year earlier, Fulfil attracted attention from both private equity and trade buyers. The company was said to prefer the option of a privately owned family group such as Ferrero over other suitors.

Ferrero’s sales in the year to August last were €12.7 billion. It employs about 39,000 people across 107 companies selling in 170 countries.

Fulfil is not its first acquisition in what is known as the "better for you" market. It acquired British cereal bars and granola maker Eat Natural in its last financial year.

The Italian firm was ordered to shut a plant in Belgium by local authorities earlier this month, after an investigation into dozens of cases of salmonella linked to its Kinder chocolates. The company recalled several batches of Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs and other products from shelves in Ireland, Britain, Spain and the United States just ahead of Easter weekend.

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle is Deputy Business Editor of The Irish Times

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