CEO Muller talks Ahold Delhaize
In the second full business year since the two companies merged in July 2016, net revenues reached a whopping €62.8bn, while free cash flow grew by nearly a quarter to €2.3bn.
The Zaandam-based grocer now runs a vast bricks & mortar empire with 6,770 superstores, supermarkets and convenience stores in the Benelux, Central & Eastern Europe, and the US. This reflects the long traditions behind Ahold and Delhaize as retail brands.
But the new company is also using annual capex in excess of €2bn to pursue an omni-channel strategy via click & collect as well as home delivery services bol.com and Peapod.com. Net consumer online sales on both sides of the Atlantic have now reached €3.5bn.
Given these impressive results, we asked CEO Frans Muller how he intends to top them in 2019...
"We could do five acquisitions,
if we wanted to"
We have around 50 per cent of the market in Holland. In the US statistics are harder to compile because food and online figures are frequently intermixed. But I can tell you that we already make around $1bn in annual online sales on the East Coast.
You intend to double your current online revenues to €7bn by 2021, but, like many other retailers, you don't reveal any profit figures. When will your e-commerce margins come anywhere near your bricks & mortar ones?
We have no specific timeframe, but we see a market for online and will therefore continue to grow market share. It is true that our e-commerce division is not yet accretive overall. But we already have positive ebitda margins at bol.com, and we are profitable in big cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Den Haag, where there is high population. Obviously it is harder to reach break-even on a national basis because the last mile can be particularly expensive in areas with low population densities.
Also, I would point out that customers who shop with us both in our stores and online have a higher average spend, which is a further vindication of our omni-channel strategy.
Our strong balance sheet puts us in the fortunate position where we can regularly invest €2bn in capex, exclusive of M&A, as well as return cash to shareholders. We are also able to retain a strong investment rating of BBB+ and will always be investment grade.
You stated at a recent analysts' meeting in New York your intention to make fill-in acquisitions on the East Coast of America. You are also currently waiting for the Federal Trade Commission to authorise your intended purchase of regional supermarket operator King Kullen. How many such deals do you believe you could make annually?
We will look at any opportunities which may arise in either Europe or the US. We will always be selective, but a priori there are no limitations, and we could even do five, if we wanted to, but maybe less depending on the opportunities that offer themselves.
We never comment on speculation in the media as a matter of principle.
Does it worry you that Lidl, one of the world's largest and most price-aggressive retailers, is now a direct competitor on the East Coast?
We gained market share despite increased market share from Lidl. Our great attribute is, of course, our staff in, for instance, the Carolinas at Food Lion. However, I would point out that the retail situation in the US is completely different to, for instance, the UK. In the US, Walmart has been a huge discounter for decades, Aldi already has thousands of stores, and there are also thousands of dollar stores.
Last but not least, you should also not forget that we have successfully competed with Lidl on numerous European markets for a good two decades.
Do you think after the purchase of Whole Foods in the US that Amazon will try and buy a food retailer in Europe?
It could very well be, but as neither you nor I are invited to Amazon's Board meetings, it's anyone's guess. Whole Foods doesn't have much overlap with our US stores, but, where we do compete, our fresh produce department, for instance, beats them on pricing.
There are some obvious differences here. AMS sources own label, and Coopernic doesn't buy a single tomato. It's a very simple set-up where our European partners, Leclerc, Rewe and Coop Italia, negotiate overriders with brands for services.
This is more important than you might think because there are many more things that international retailer groups can do than just negotiate buying terms with suppliers. For instance, they can cooperate on a pre-competitive level and tackle such issues as plastics, social compliance, climate impact, refrigeration etc.
How soon could European buying groups start to gain a trans-Atlantic dimension?
Clearly both suppliers and retailers will continue to consolidate, and we have already seen some French retailers who are trying to negotiate internationally throughout Europe. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess yet on how long it could take to develop.