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M&S Buys Logistics Supplier – Why?

 Supply Management reported this week that retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) is buying Gist, a logistics business.  Gist apparently do much of the food logistics work for M&S, but clearly all has not been well. M&S said its food supply chain “remains less efficient and, we believe, higher cost to serve than our competitors”.  Stuart Machin, the CEO, said “M&S has been tied to a higher cost legacy contract, limiting both our incentive to invest and our growth”. 

But it seems a rather strange move to buy the firm rather than perhaps;

  1. Negotiating a better deal with Gist so that performance and cost is more in line with that achieved by M&S’s competitors; and / or
  2. Finding alternative suppliers if Gist can’t or won’t meet those requirements.

I know that changing suppliers is not easy when it is clearly a large and strategically important contract. But it is not impossible.

Let’s dig into the transaction more deeply than Supply Management did. Gist is currently owned by Linde – the largest industrial gas company in the world.  But how did Linde end up as owners of a transport firm? According to Wikipedia,

“In 1969, the BOC Group acquired GL Baker, after it expressed interest in its use of liquid nitrogen in chilled containers. The company was renamed BOC Distribution Services in 1991, before being rebranded as Gist Limited ….  Gist was acquired by Linde as part of its 2006 acquisition of BOC.  Following the group’s merger with Praxair to form Linde plc, Gist continues to operate as a separate entity under Linde”.

Gist declared profits of £24.3M on 2020 revenues of £472M (2021 results are not yet published). The M&S website tells us that “M&S is acquiring the entire share capital of Gist for an initial consideration of £145m in cash. A further amount of £85m plus interest will be payable in cash from the proceeds of the intended onward disposal of freehold properties or, at the latest, on the third anniversary of completion”. 

Another £25M might be payable under certain conditions and somewhat confusingly, “M&S has the ability to retain the freehold properties should it wish to do so in which case the full amount of £110m plus interest will be payable.” So I assume the basic deal does not include the freeholds.  

The big question is how M&S got into this position in the first place. It is a pretty dramatic step to spend over £200M to get out of a logistics contract! I can’t think of a similar case. Going back to the original M&S strategy here, you can imagine why a firm might go for the “strategic partnership” option in this spend category, rather than either insourcing or using a more dynamic multiple-supplier strategy. “Playing the market” might give the buyer more competitive leverage when it comes to negotiation, but might have some less positive practical implications compared to a longer-term partnership.

But how on earth do you get into a  situation where you are apparently locked into “a higher cost legacy contract which expires in 2027”? The M&S announcement also says this.

“The Gist business being acquired generated a proforma EBITDA of c.£55m in the year ended December 2021, with the majority of profit reflecting management fees recharged to M&S under contractual arrangements, which will be eliminated upon consolidation to M&S”.

So “the majority” of Gist’s profits come from M&S.  You would think the firm would therefore be in a powerful position to re-negotiate this onerous contract?  But you can also see that Linde may not have had much interest in owning a non-core logistics business – perhaps they just said, “we’re not moving on the contract, but if you want to buy Gist, we’ll do you a good deal”.

And in the short-term, it does look like a pretty good deal, if you can pick up £55M EBITDA for £230M!  But the downsides of owning your own logistics firm need considering. Some analysts would consider it a distraction from the M&S core business – as a retailer of food,  clothing and homeware. What makes the top management think they can run a logistics business, and how much attention and time might it divert from that core business?  

Secondly, Gist may well find that other retailers do not want to use a firm owned by their retailing rival. It’s hard to see Tesco, Sainsburys or Waitrose rushing to Gist’s door.  Might M&S ownership cause an exodus of other customers, which could be an issue even if they aren’t as important as M&S itself?

I have no personal interests here, but I see this as a worrying sign. It must have been a pretty bad deal with Gist, or M&S was incapable of managing the contract to their own satisfaction.  Neither gives you much confidence in the firm’s commercial nous. I’d also worry about the distraction factor going forward. So unless M&S can explain better what they are up to, I’d put this down as a (potential) Bad Buying case study.

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