Unilever pursues another $1 billion deal, this time with Honest

September 16, 2016 10:57 AM


(Bloomberg Gadfly)—Unilever has gone A-List.

After snapping up Dollar Shave Club, the cheeky razor blade subscription service, for $1 billion in July, Unilever has expressed an interest in buying actress Jessica Alba's natural consumer products company.

The mooted price tag for Honest, which sells mostly through online subscriptions and co-founded by Alba, is more than $1 billion—significantly less than a $1.7 billion valuation put on the company in a fundraising round last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Honest, No. 132 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, had 2015 web sales of $261.1 million, according to data. The Journal reports that Honest generates sales of $300 million, so if the deal does go ahead, Unilever would still be paying a pretty top-notch price. Deals worth $500 million to $2 billion for food, beverage, personal care and household goods targets struck over the past two years had a median revenue multiple of 2.1 , according to Bloomberg data. Unilever declined to comment.

The possible purchase continues the trend for fusty consumer goods companies to snap up companies that make sort of products that appeal to millennials—and pay up to do so.

This has already led to some pretty pricey M&A. Think Danone's $10 billion purchase of WhiteWave, the U.S. maker of dairy alternatives, and Johnson & Johnson's $3.3 billion acquisition of Vogue International, maker of OGX shampoo. Most recently, Prosiebensat.1 snapped up dating website Parship Elite for 300 million euros ($335.1 million).

At least Unilever buying Honest would fit with its strategy of lessening its reliance on food and developing its higher-margin personal care business. So far it has focused on premium skincare, adding brands such as Murad, Dermalogica and Ren to its stable.

Honest would provide it with an entrée into the market for natural household and beauty products, as well as diapers. Many of Honest's products are for children. That's a particularly fast-growing part of the market, says Deborah Aitken, analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, as raised health awareness and increased demand for natural ingredients in adults transfers to the sorts of products they want for their children.

Unilever chief executive Paul Polman has also put sustainability at the heart of his strategy. So in finding a home in Unilever, there might be less of a clash between Honest's green goals and the constraints of a big corporate parent.

With Honest selling mostly online, Unilever would increase its exposure to selling via the internet. That should also give it better information about customers, particularly the many millennial mothers who buy from Honest.

But as well as the price tag, the potential deal has other risks. Last year Honest defended its sunscreen in a blog post on its website, amid complaints from consumers that they got a sunburn after using the product. Unilever will need all its product innovation and development skills to make sure such incidents don’t happen on its watch.

Investors so far seem less than enthusiastic. Shares in Unilever fell slightly on Friday morning. In contrast, they rose on the day when the company announced the Dollar Shave deal. Dollar Shave, No. 238 in the Top 500, won the E-Retail Marketer of the Year award at the second annual Internet Retailer Excellence Awards in early June. Dollar Shave Club also took home the E-Retail Growth Award at the inaugural Internet Retailer Excellence Awards in 2015 after growing its sales 242% year over year in 2014.

But given the huge increase in the market for children’s products, the Unilever-Honest deal makes some sense. And as my colleague Chris Hughes has argued, the task of building nimble startups from scratch is just too onerous for the big consumer goods companies. They have little choice but to acquire if they are to reach young customers.

As Honest may demonstrate, that means an A-List price tag too.




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