* South Africa’s Brait has said will sell within five years
* Iceland has second biggest share of Britain’s frozen market
* Another IPO seen as unlikely
By James Davey
LONDON, March 10 (Reuters) - The founding family of Britain’s Iceland Foods could seek to regain outright ownership when South African investment company Brait disposes of its stake, the frozen food specialist’s joint managing director said.
It would be a vote of confidence in a sector under pressure from German discounters Aldi and Lidl, wage growth and an uncertain economic outlook.
Some 63% of Iceland is owned by Johannesburg-listed Brait with the balance held by Malcolm Walker, who founded the supermarket group in 1970, his son and joint managing director Richard Walker and other management.
Brait, under pressure to reduce debt, said in November it planned to sell its stakes within five years in several British companies, including Iceland.
“There’s no end of options,” Richard Walker told Reuters when asked if the family could seek to regain full or near full ownership of a business that trades from almost 1,000 stores.
He did not provide any timelines.
He also said amalgamation in the sector was “probably inevitable”, even though Britain’s competition regulator last year blocked Sainsbury’s attempt to take over Asda for 7.3 billion pounds ($9.51 billion).
Iceland is Britain’s ninth biggest supermarket in overall grocery market share, but it is second only to industry leader Tesco in frozen food and it could benefit from consumers stocking up on products that have a long life because of anxiety about coronavirus.
Even with only a minority holding, the Walker family controls the running of the business through a shareholders’ agreement.
Walker senior-listed Iceland on the London Stock Exchange in 1984.
It merged with wholesaler Booker in 2000 and was purchased by a consortium led by Icelandic investor Baugur in 2005.
Baugur collapsed after the financial crisis and in 2012 Malcolm Walker was among those who bought it back from the liquidators of failed Icelandic banks in a deal valuing it at 1.55 billion pounds.
“Over the last 50 years dad’s owned 100% of the business, he’s owned 0% of the business, he’s been kicked out and not been involved, it’s been a public company where he’s been the boss, and he’s had joint venture partners,” Richard Walker said.
One option Walker all but ruled out was a return to the stock market through another initial public offering. He said the family had not enjoyed the City requirement of quarterly reporting, which was at odds with a company focus on the longer term.
“You can’t be as flexible or disruptive or fleet of foot and you also can’t be our mantra which is ‘long-term greedy’,” he said.
Another issue is Iceland’s debt. The firm ended its third quarter with net debt of 738 million pounds.
Iceland’s turnover rose 2.5% to 2.42 billion pounds in the 40 weeks to Jan. 3, an outcome ahead of the market, driven by new store openings. However, core earnings fell 8% to 81 million pounds, partly because of voucher promotions.
Overall sales were positive in its fourth quarter, despite fragile consumer confidence and bad weather. ($1 = 0.7689 pounds) (Reporting by James Davey; editing by Barbara Lewis)