Buffett made a splash, but the biggest Heinz story is yet to come

Reading the beans.

Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann have teamed up to buy Heinz for $28 m — making this the fourth largest food and beverage acquisition of all time.

As if this wasn’t enough to excite the M&A markets, Buffet has been dropping not-so-subtle hints that he’s planning some more big moves, telling CNBC that he was “ready for another elephant.” Shares of other food companies rose yesterday in anticipation of more merger activity.

Buffet, the so-called “sage of Omaha”, isn’t known for making bad calls and Heinz has had a good few years, largely on the back of rising sales in Asia, which increased by 15.6 per cent last year.

That said, there’s something peculiar and anachronistic about the enduring success of Heinz’s most famous products. I should mention that beans on toast is my comfort dinner of choice — and yet I find it bizarre that processed beans in gloopy, sugary sauce didn’t follow spam off our shelves to be replaced by new and funky exotic produce like pasta, hummous and avocados.

Not only have baked beans survived the UK’s culinary dark ages to the modern day, but unlike fish fingers and dreaded turkey twizzlers, they aren’t only fed to children too young to know better. According to the Heinz website, 1.5 million cans of Heinz baked beans are sold in the UK every day.

H J Heinz, who founded the company in 1869, bankrupted himself trying to sell horseradish to the American public before he stumbled upon his winning ketchup recipe. Heinz ketchup too has proved remarkably enduring, although our attitude towards it has changed — it was first designed to disguise the taste of rotting food, now it’s simply seen as the natural accompaniment to horse, I mean, beef burgers.

According to Forbes, Heinz’s CEO William Johnson smothers his broccoli in ketchup, which can only illustrate a scary level of commitment to the brand.

The first UK supplier of ketchup was Fortnum and Mason. Today if you were silly enough to head to the Knightsbridge store for ketchup, you’d probably have to make do with some kind of hand-squeezed Sicilian organic sun-blushed plum tomato relish priced its weight in gold. At the same time, the growing trend for posh burgers and a confused nostalgia for American-style diners (think of hip London joints like Dirty Burger, Burger & Lobster, Meat Liquor etc) means that Heinz is enjoying something of a revival among foodies too.

Not all of this is down to chance. Like Coco-Cola (also owned by Buffet) the recipe for ketchup varies according to each country’s palate — in the Philippines it contains banana. The company’s plans to expand in Asia and South America — its aiming to double sales to emerging markets in five years — was preceded by strategic acquisitions such as Food Star, a Chinese soy sauce manufacturer in 2010, and Brazilian tomato sauce maker Quero.

It will be interesting to see how the impressively adaptable brand weathers the transition back to private company and its global expansion — will Johnson be kept on as CEO? How hard will Buffet and Lemann seek to squeeze Heinz to cut costs? (Lemann has form here) How much will Heinz be affected by rising commodity prices? Will an ever-more global Heinz outgrow its Pittsburgh roots? And — most important for us here in the UK — are the 2,700 jobs at Heinz’s Wigan branch safe? Buffet’s takeover has made a big splash, but one senses there are bigger Heinz stories to come.

Sophie McBain writes for Spear's magazine.

Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.