Britain for sale?

Linda Yueh
Chief business correspondent


The UK is "open for business" is the message that is being sent by the government.

It is already the case that many British brands are foreign-owned. But, it's a two-way street. The UK has its share of global companies and makes a tidy return from overseas investments.

First, in recent years, many of Britain's best-known brand names have been snapped up by foreign companies.

The car industry is a particularly good example. The UK's most prestigious marques, Rolls Royce and Bentley, have been respectively owned by BMW and Volkswagen since 1998.

Four years earlier, BMW had acquired the ailing Rover group. Unable to turn it around they broke it up in 2000 only keeping the Mini which has proved to be a commercial success.

Ford bought Land Rover while MG Rover was sold first to the Phoenix Consortium for a tenner before being rescued from administration by the Chinese Nanjing Automobile Group in 2005.

Ford had purchased Jaguar in 1990, but sold it along with Land Rover to India's Tata Motors in 2008.


Aston Martin, however, is back in British hands. Well, sort of.

The Oxfordshire-based Prodrive led a consortium which bought the company from Ford in 2007. However, Ford maintained a 10% stake and the financing for the deal mainly came from US and Kuwaiti backers.

Last year, 37.5% was sold to an Italian private equity company.

Such is the way with big business today. A company from somewhere might be owned by another company from somewhere else, whose investors in turn come from all around the world.

It makes the question of ownership hard to pin down.

Last year, a survey conducted by the trade magazine The Grocer and the research firm Nielsen found that of the biggest 150 biggest grocery brands in the UK, just 44 are home-owned.

And of the 91 brands created in the UK, only 36 were still owned by British companies. The rest have been gobbled up by foreign multinationals and private equity groups.


This follows a series of high profile takeovers of famous British brands.

HP brown sauce was the inspiration of Frederick Gibson Garton, a Nottingham grocer in the late 19th Century.

It was so-called after he learned of it being consumed in the Houses of Parliament. In June 2005 the brand became part of the Heinz empire.

And to show what goes around comes around, Heinz itself was purchased earlier this year by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway and the Brazilian global investment fund 3G Capital.

Last year, the Chinese company Bright Foods took a controlling 60% stake in Weetabix Ltd, which also owned the Alpen and Ready-Brek brands.

Branston Pickle, of which 28 million jars are sold every year in the UK, was acquired by the Japanese firm Mizkan who, by the way, already owned Sarsons Vinegar and Hayward's Pickled Onions.

Cadbury, founded in Birmingham in 1824, was bought by the American Kraft Foods in 2010. It was then spun off into Mondelez International - Kraft Group's international snack and confectionary business.

Britain's other large confectioner Rowntree Mackintosh, founded in York in 1862, had been bought by the Swiss conglomerate Nestle in 1988 only one year after becoming a public company.


In 2008, the alcoholic drinks company Scottish & Newcastle was jointly purchased by Heineken of The Netherlands and Carlsberg of Denmark.

Traditionally British brews such as Newcastle Brown Ale, John Smith's Bitter and Strongbow Cider are now part of Heineken UK, so basically owned by the Dutch.

One of the clear trends is that international brands are becoming increasingly owned by a small number of very large conglomerates. For instance, Pepsico, the Coca-Cola Company, Kraft, Nestle, Mars, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever own a staggering number of the world's most recognisable brands between them.

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, owns over 400 brands by itself.

This goes to show that big business increasingly dominates the global landscape. But it is also the case that Britain has a number of its own global titans. When it comes to acquisitions involving British and foreign companies it is not just a one-way street.

Two way street

Guinness is synonymous with Dublin and Ireland. Smirnoff originated from a Moscow distillery in the 1860s and is now one of the best-selling brands of vodka around the world.

Both brands are owned by Diageo, one of the UK's top 100 listed companies and headquartered in London.

The company also owns 34% of Moet Hennessy. This means that leading French champagne brands Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, as well as Hennessy cognac are a third owned by a British company.

Britain has plenty of big companies that have expanded aggressively around the world.

Vodafone is the second-largest mobile phone company in the world in terms of numbers of subscribers with a presence in over 70 countries.

Only China Mobile, with its large captive market, has more. The group has gobbled up plenty of its foreign rivals and often rebranded them as Vodafone along the way.

The largest acquisition was in 2000 when it bought the German company Mannesmann for £112bn.

At the time, this was the largest corporate merger in history and is still the largest by some considerable distance in UK corporate history.

The deal caused unrest in Germany as never before had such a large company been acquired by a foreign owner.

Further disquiet was caused when Vodafone reneged on a pre-merger deal to maintain the Mannesmann brand and rebranded the company Vodafone D2.


Tesco is the third largest retailer in the world after Wal-Mart and Carrefour.

It has as many outlets outside the UK as it does within it, with operations in 14 countries across Europe, Asia and North America. Tesco has already been in China, where it owns more than 100 stores, for more than a decade.

But Britain's really big beasts are in oil and finance.

BP, formerly British Petroleum, started life as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909 to manage the empire's oil discoveries in Iran.

It now has operations in over 80 countries and is the second largest producer of oil and natural gas in the US.

In 2008 it merged with Amoco and largely rebranded their US operations as their own.

Shell is an Anglo-Dutch company with operations in over 100 countries. According to the Fortune Global 500 list, which ranks firms in terms of revenue, it is the largest company in the world ahead of Wal-Mart.


Plus, British banks and insurance companies are massive players on the world stage.

Britain's biggest bank is HSBC - the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

It is also the second largest bank in the world in terms of assets held only after the Chinese state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

It was founded in Hong Kong in 1865 as the British Empire expanded trade into China. It essentially became a British bank in the early 1990s.

The takeover of Midland Bank was conditional on it moving its headquarters to London - that was part of the calculus in any case as the handover of Hong Kong back to China loomed then.

However, it remains predominantly a global bank with subsidiaries and operations in more than 80 countries.


Standard Chartered is Britain's fifth biggest bank.

It operates in more than 70 countries but has no retail business in the UK.

In fact, most British people would have never heard of the bank if it did not currently sponsor Liverpool football club.

This makes sense, given the popularity of the English Premier League in its key overseas markets with 90% of its profits coming from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

It is a good example of a British company with a stronger presence overseas than at home.

Family silver?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently reported that more than half the shares in quoted UK companies are owned by foreign investors.

Ten years ago, only a third of the shares were foreign owned and 20 years ago the proportion was only 13%.

So why have British companies become increasingly attractive to overseas buyers?

Perhaps it because they are relatively easy to buy?

A higher proportion of companies are publicly listed so the shares can be bought and sold freely.

Furthermore, fewer British firms are controlled by family trusts than in the US and Europe.

These can form powerful controlling groups that make direct takeovers difficult if the family does not want to sell.


The British government rarely blocks deals even if there is a "strategic" argument for so doing.

The privatisation programmes starting in the 1980s made many utility and infrastructure companies public companies and left foreigners free to buy shares.

Four of the big six energy companies, including most of the nuclear industry, are foreign owned. The same goes for British seaports, airports and railways.

More recently the fall in the value of the pound has made British companies cheaper to acquire.

When foreigners buy shares in or takeover a British company, the profits and dividend payments are transferred overseas.

There is a suspicion that these earnings are enhanced by outsourcing jobs to cheaper parts of the world and re-routing profits through jurisdictions with lower tax rates.

Thus, there is a recent push for tax reform and the government wants to publish a roster of ownership.


However, foreign ownership may also bring benefits.

Research by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics show that foreign-owned plants are, on average, more productive than domestically-owned establishments.

Multinationals can bring fresh ideas and expertise, such as new technologies and management practices. The same goes for British multinationals setting up in foreign countries.

The Spanish bank Santander already owned the Abbey National but there were few complaints in 2010 when it absorbed the Bradford & Bingley and the Alliance & Leicester building societies to become one of the largest UK retail banks.

At the time there was considerable relief it was prepared to use its balance sheet to avert two further potential Northern Rocks. Foreign investment is unsurprisingly welcomed when there is a need for cash.

In any case, Britain still owns far more direct investment assets overseas than vice versa. The ONS estimates that Britain currently has £1.1 trillion direct investment assets overseas, £300bn more than the rest of the world owns in the UK.

Britain also typically enjoys a surplus in investment income.

Since 2000, inflows of investment income have averaged 13.5% of GDP compared to outflows which have averaged 12.4% of GDP. This means each year Britain has received a net flow of investment income equal to 1.1% of GDP from the rest of the world.

It just goes to show that Britain has a long history of successfully buying other countries' family silver.