With its rivals scrambling to catch up to it in the beer business, Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. indicated yesterday that it is intensifying its efforts to diversify away from brewing.
The maker of Budweiser beer said it was holding merger discussions with the nation's second-largest baker, Campbell Taggart Inc. of Dallas.
The companies gave no other details of their talks, which began earlier this week at Anheuser-Busch's request, according to Campbell Taggart representative Beth Ann Loewy. "There are preliminary discussions," she said. "Very preliminary."
Analysts speculated that the purchase price of Campbell Taggart, which had sales last year of $1.26 billion, might exceed $600 million.
The announcement sent Anheuser-Busch stock tumbling $5 to $49.50 on the New York Stock Exchange. Campbell Taggert rose $1 to $30.625.
The adverse reaction directed toward Anheuser-Busch on Wall Street apparently stemmed from analysts' beliefs that the acquisition of the Dallas-based baker would slow Anheuser-Busch's earnings growth and create other problems for the giant brewer.
"It just reduces the short-term investment attraction," said Martin Romm, an analyst at First Boston. "The baking industry is inherently a smaller growth industry than the beer business."
"Obviously, people who own the stock don't like it, because they are selling it," said Don Rice, an analyst at Blunt Ellis & Loewi in Milwaukee.
Romm said the addition of Campbell Taggart would expose Anheuser-Busch to commodity-related price problems that it has carefully minimized in the beer business. The price of bread is much more sensitive to changes in grain prices than beer, Romm noted, while bread prices cannot be as easily raised without enraging consumers.
"The price of bread is a very hot item," he said. "It's like a quart of milk . . . when the price of bread goes up, it still makes headlines. So it's hard to imagine how much they can raise that, how much they can push that." Moreover, he said, "there's always going to be somebody out there who undercuts the price of your bread."
But many analysts said an acquisition of Campbell Taggart could make sense for Anheuser-Busch in the long run. Analysts see the sharp growth in beer sales tapering off later this decade, as the baby boom generation--right now the primary market for the industry--ages. "If I were Anheuser, I'd want to have something else, too," Rice said.
A combination of Anheuser-Busch and Campbell Taggart would strengthen the beer company's diversification activities. Anheuser-Busch has interests in beer-can making, sports teams and amusement parks, and has lately been moving into snack foods with the Eagle brand of nuts and other products.
The acquisition of Campbell Taggart would give Anheuser-Busch a considerable addition to its food lines, besides providing it with a ready-made distribution network for its snacks through Campbell Taggart's bread-delivery system to supermarkets.
Campbell Taggart makes bread and other baked products in 63 bakeries for sale primarily in the Midwest and Southwest under brand names such as Rainbo and Manor. The company also owns a chain of Mexican restaurants and has interests in the food-service area.
Anheuser-Busch's interest in Campbell Taggart comes at a time of upheaval in the beer industry in which--as reflected in Budweiser's slogan--the St. Louis-based company is king. Several smaller brewers have merged as regional brewers have jockeyed recently for position behind Anheuser-Busch--which holds nearly a third of the beer market--and runner-up Miller Brewing, owned by Philip Morris Inc.
"It's a little bit disconcerting that when they've got the whole beer business on the run, they'd make an acquisition that would divert management's attention from their main purpose," Romm said. "I'm saying, you guys are on a terrific roll, you've got momentum, you can do whatever you want in the industry--why not improve profitability?