How did Jimmy Goldsmith build the third largest food company in Europe?
Early life of Jimmy Goldsmith
Jimmy Goldsmith (1933 – 1997) was born in Paris, the son of Major Frank Goldsmith, a former British Member of Parliament, and one of the leading hoteliers in France during the interwar period.
Jimmy Goldsmith was educated at Eton, where he found himself somewhat of an outsider. He was not keen on academics, but he soon developed an interest in gambling. At the age of 16 an accumulator win netted the schoolboy a payout of nearly £8,000, an immense sum at the time.
Goldsmith left Eton at the age of 17 and spent five years engaged as a professional gambler. He eventually entered into debt, which his father cleared on the condition that he enlist in the army. Goldsmith completed his service with the rank of lieutenant in 1953.
Goldsmith enters the pharmaceuticals business
Following his army service Goldsmith returned to France to discover that the family fortune had been depleted. He entered into business as a pharmaceutical product wholesaler, and found success marketing cortisone tablets.
Goldsmith eloped with Isabel Patino, the daughter of a Bolivian tin magnate, in 1953. His young wife died from complications due to childbirth in 1954. Goldsmith was ridden with grief, and threw himself into his work with an almost manic energy.
Goldsmith began to manufacture generic medicines such as antacids at prices that undercut the large drug producers. The business was successful and profitable, but it grew so fast that it ran into liquidity issues, forcing Goldsmith to sell out to Laboratoires Roussel in 1957.
Goldsmith later commented, “in those days I understood very little about finance”. The loss of his first business instilled in Goldsmith a fear of failure which was to subsequently motivate him.
Goldsmith next won the licence to market Prednisolone, an anti-inflammatory drug, in Britain.
Goldsmith partnered with Selim Zilkha (born 1927) to acquire Lewis & Burrows, a 28-branch pharmaceutical chain, from Charles Clore (1904 – 1979) in 1959. Goldsmith relocated to London in order to manage the business.
Zilkha and Goldsmith next acquired the 50-strong chain of W J Harris, pram and nursery furniture specialists, in 1961. The business was renamed Mothercare.
Goldsmith sold his retail holdings stake to Zilkha in order to concentrate on pharmaceuticals in 1962.
Goldsmith enters the food industry
Goldsmith introduced a range of slimming foods in France, in direct imitation of Metrecal, a product that had already enjoyed considerable success in the United States.
Goldsmith acquired 20 percent of Procea, a British manufacturer of slimming foods, in 1963.
Charles Clore introduced Goldsmith to Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897 – 1991), who provided expansion capital.
Goldsmith had identified all of the companies as mismanaged, with strong brands that were under-utilised. Carson’s was loss-making, Holland was troubled, and Carr was under pressure from larger biscuit manufacturers. Goldsmith was able to acquire the companies at depressed prices. Goldsmith would later comment:
I wanted to break into business in a big way and the only way I could do so with my limited resources was to buy up down-at-heel companies.
Goldsmith floated his interests as Cavenham Foods in 1965. The company employed 6,000 people and produced 15 percent of all toffee sold in Britain. Goldsmith intended to develop Cavenham into a food multinational along the lines of Unilever and Nestle.
Goldsmith modernised Cavenham in order to render the business profitable. He installed a professional management team, with staff poached from blue chip consumer goods companies such as Procter & Gamble, Mars and Beechams. Six factories were immediately closed in order to leave five sites, which were modernised. Less popular product lines were discontinued, with marketing and research concentrated on the highest-selling products. Non-core assets, such as the Holland of Southport paper and plastics division, were divested.
Singleton & Cole of Birmingham, a tobacco wholesaler, was acquired in 1966. The business had entered into difficulties after the large supermarket chains had established their own wholesale networks. The merged business was the largest confectionery and tobacco wholesaler in Britain.
Singleton & Cole was sold to Palmer & Harvey for £2.4 million in order to reduce debt in 1968. The wholesale business was unprofitable and had proved a drain on capital.
The R S McColl newsagent chain was acquired, with 420 shops, for £900,000 in 1971.
Goldsmith had a mixed relationship with the British press. In the Evening Standard he was described as having “something of the bumptious undergraduate about him”. A Daily Telegraph profile regarded him as, “a highly amusing man with a distinctively forceful style”. The Economist argued that he was “regarded as altogether too theatrical, always pulling a deal out of a hat here, a continental connection there”.
Goldsmith acquires Bovril
Goldsmith identified Bovril as another business with mismanaged and underutilised assets. He particularly liked the three leading brands of Bovril, Marmite and Ambrosia. Goldsmith explained:
we think we can do more with the existing business. Bovril’s profits have not really moved since 1961. Last year they made nine percent on net tangible assets; we made 50 percent. The difference speaks for itself.
A 50 percent stake in the Cavenham retail operation was sold to Southland Corporation for £3.3 million in order to finance the acquisition. The Economist described the deal as “derisory” and a “Goldsmith bloomer”, but Cavenham needed the cash urgently.
Bovril was acquired for £14.5 million in 1971 (around £500 million in 2020 prices). The deal was transformational for Cavenham.
Eight of Bovril’s ten board members departed shortly after the takeover. Overheads were decreased. Research and development funding was redirected to support the three main brands.
Bovril had valued its dairy interests on its balance sheet at next to nothing, but Goldsmith sold them shortly after the takeover to Grand Metropolitan for £6.3 million in cash. Goldsmith strenuously denied accusations of asset stripping.
Goldsmith expands his retail interests
Cavenham acquired Allied Suppliers, one of the largest supermarket groups in Britain, for £92 million in January 1972. Allied’s Lipton tea subsidiary was sold to Unilever for £18.5 million. Goldsmith had the Allied Suppliers property portfolio revalued at £55 million.
The Cavenham biscuit interests, with 2,500 employees, were sold to United Biscuits for £4 million in July 1972. The business had lacked sufficient scale, with just 2.5 percent of the biscuit market.
1600 freehold properties, mostly acquired with the Allied Suppliers purchase, were sold for £17.5 million in 1973. Two office buildings in the City of London were sold for a further £11.7 million.
A 50 percent stake in Grand Union, the ninth largest food retailer in the United States, was acquired for £25.5 million in 1973.
Cavenham had a market capitalization of £79.7 million by 1974, and was the third largest food company in Europe, after Nestle and Unilever.
Goldsmith constantly reassessed what was central to his business. Procea was sold to Spillers for around £1.5 million in 1975.
Goldsmith received a knighthood in 1976.
Cavenham extended its ownership of Grand Union to 80 percent in 1976. Allied Suppliers was the third largest supermarket chain in Britain.
Goldsmith’s attempt to create a food multinational along the lines of Unilever ultimately ended in failure. He realised that he could never hope to dominate the food industry, but he could become a significant force in retail. Bovril was sold to Beechams for £42 million in 1980.
Goldsmith resigned as chairman of Cavenham in 1980.
Cavenham Confectionery was sold to its management for around £8 million in 1981.
Goldsmith retired from business in 1990. Fortune magazine assessed his net worth at $1.3 billion in 1991.
Goldsmith died in 1997. His obituary in the Financial Times characterised him as a “corporate buccaneer”.