Owen Killian’s days look numbered after latest share slide

Aryzta boss seems to have lost his Midas touch with North American cookies to blame

Owen Killian's days in charge of Aryzta may be numbered following the latest collapse in the company's share price.

He had been struggling to halt a slide in investor confidence even before Tuesday’s profit warning sent shares into near free-fall.

The company's ongoing woes may relate to cookies. A few years back it was forced to shift the production of more than 100 million cookies for fast food chain Subway from the US to Europe.

This left it with significant undercapacity in the US, which it has unsuccessfully tried to fill by selling its own bakery products directly to retail chains.


However, this put it in direct competition with clients, which were selling into the same space, prompting some to retaliate by dropping Aryzta as their supplier.

The company makes a rather opaque reference to the phenomenon in its trading statement.

"Otis Spunkmeyer [one of its brands] branded strategy has triggered co-pack volume losses earlier than anticipated. This resulted in significant negative operating leverage at the Cloverhill facility [one of its flagship bakeries in the US]."

The upshot is another set of poor numbers from North America and further pressure on Killian, who described the company's performance as "unexpected and extremely disappointing".

Uneasy shareholders

At the end of last year Aryzta parachuted in Gary McGann as its new chairman to allay uneasy shareholders.

Combined with a modest turnaround in the share price, the move appeared to have quelled a brewing shareholder revolt and protected Killian from the drop.

The Roscommon native is credited with turning the former Irish Agriculture Wholesale Society (IAWS) – a hotchpotch of flour, feed and fertiliser businesses – into a fast-moving food business via the acquisition of Cuisine de France for IR£51 million (€64 million) in 1997.

The price was viewed as astronomical at the time. However, the company's par-baked concept transformed the market and funded later acquisitions of Delice de France in 1999, La Brea Bakery in 2001, Groupe Hubert in 2005 and Otis Spunkmeyer in 2006, as well as an eventual tie-up with coffee and doughnut chain Tim Hortons.

Under Killian's stewardship, IAWS later merged with Swiss food group Hiestand to form Aryzta, morphing into a baking behemoth with a €3 billion turnover.

For the last two years, however, Killian’s Midas touch has failed him with the company lurching from one problem to the next and shareholders may have finally lost their patience.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times