Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives. Can the supermarket giants win you back? ... While consumers have long associated the stuff on the labels they can’t pronounce with Big Food’s products—the endless strip of cans and boxes that primarily populate the center aisles of the grocery store—they now have somewhere else to turn (more on that in a bit). And that has brought the entire colossal, $1-trillion-a-year food retail business to a tipping point. ... Shoppers are still shopping, but they’re often turning to brands they believe can give them less of the ingredients they don’t want—and for the first time, they can find them in their local Safeway, Wegmans, or Wal-Mart. Rather than carry traditional products with stagnant sales, chains like Target are actively giving increasing space on their shelves to a slew of New Age players like yogurt-maker Chobani, Hampton Creek (which sells a popular plant-based mayo), Nature’s Path, Amy’s Kitchen, and Lifeway Foods, which makes a yogurt-like drink called kefir. Retailers are creating their own brands too.
The 3G management model that Buffett so admires is worth a close look because it’s on track to eat the food industry. At its heart is meritocracy, broadly defined. Every employee must justify his existence every day. That’s great news for the very best performers; they are promoted with speed that’s unheard-of in lumbering old food companies. ... Underperformers get fired with the same alacrity. Budgeted costs also are evaluated unsparingly every year, or more often, and are eliminated if they’re no longer judged worth incurring. ... More important than the actual savings is the message. “We think and act like owners of our business, treating every dollar as if it were our own,” the company tells prospective employees. ... A central feature of this model is that it can’t work forever. It builds value only by buying more companies. ... So what’s next? Anyone who might know is not saying. Speculation in the industry is that since AB InBev can expand only outside its industry ... Another, larger factor could frustrate Kraft Heinz’s search for a much-needed takeover target: The entire food industry is “3G-ing” itself before Kraft Heinz can do it to the companies. Ever since 3G bought Heinz, every major U.S. foodmaker has announced an initiative to reduce its overhead significantly. 3G embraces a demanding discipline called zero-based budgeting, in which every unit’s budget is assumed to be zero at the beginning of each year, and every proposed expense must be justified anew.