River Ranch debt-free after Taylor Farms buy

08/17/2010 06:00:04 PM
Ashley Bentley

Although acquisitions aren’t new for Salinas, Calif.-based Taylor Fresh Foods Inc., its latest buyout, of River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC, is its first in three years and one of its biggest ever.

The salad and vegetable processor and distributor, also based in Salinas, will continue to operate under the River Ranch name as a wholly owned subsidiary of Taylor, said Bruce Taylor, chairman and chef executive officer.

“There will be some changes, but for the most part they will continue to operate as a separate entity,” Taylor said.

Taylor plans to work through potential changes in personnel and operations in the next few weeks, he said.

“We’ll look for areas on the manufacturing side where we can simplify,” Taylor said. “But we’re still going to have two separate operations, two separate plants.”

With the addition of River Ranch and recently established New Leaf Food Safety Solutions LLC, Taylor Farms operating companies number in the double digits.

Taylor said the companies have been working on the deal, which closed late in the day Aug. 13, for two months. River Ranch was owned by five different banks, which made negotiations take longer than expected, Taylor said.

River Ranch was established as a limited liability company in 2002, when the company’s executives and local investors purchased River Ranch Fresh Foods Inc.’s assets from parent Albert Fisher Group PLC.

Five years ago, the company was purchased by a group of private equity firms on the East Coast, Taylor said.

“They took on quite a bit of debt, and over the course of the years, the banks ended up forgoing the debt for ownership in the company,” Taylor said. “Basically, (the banks) decided it was time to get out, so they instructed the River Ranch board to go find a buyer.”

Taylor would not release the terms of the acquisition but said he purchased a debt-free company.

“The banks took the debt back with them,” Taylor said. “Moving forward, they’ll be very solid financially.”

Taylor Farms was one of about twelve companies on River Ranch’s list of potential buyers, Taylor said.

River Ranch has operations in Salinas and El Centro, Calif., but it was the El Centro location that was especially attractive for Taylor.

“It’s really the only desert operation in California,” Taylor said. “If you look at one of my main concerns in Arizona with labor, we think it might be important to have an operation in California so we can make sure we’ve got product for our customers.”

The other attractive aspect is River Ranch’s commodity business, Taylor said.

“Our customers have been asking us to add commodities in consolidation, and this is going to allow us to do that well,” Taylor said.

While the two companies will maintain separate sales staffs, Taylor said a few Taylor Farms employees should make the transition to River Ranch to bolster what is already going on there.

River Ranch’s business is split about 50-50 between retail and foodservice Taylor said. Its brands include Popeye spinach and fresh-cut vegetables, as well as its own namesake brand and a handful of private-label programs.

Bruce Knobeloch has been leading River Ranch as chief operating officer since rejoining the company in February. Knobeloch was laid off from his position as vice president of marketing the year prior, when River Ranch cut 2% of its work force during the height of the recession.

John Bowman, a board member, served as interim president until recently, Taylor said.

“We’re still trying to sort out who’s going to do what there,” Taylor said. “We think Bruce has done a terrific job there, and we think very highly of him.”

A few changes are already decided, though, Taylor said. Under the new ownership, River Ranch should be expanding its commodity programs.

“Over the last couple years they’ve been reducing their commodity volumes, but we’ll take that area and ramp that up again,” Taylor said.

Taylor said he also expects River Ranch to continue to be innovative on the value-added side, which is also the primary focus for Taylor Farms.



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