But the year is not yet over, and neither is the activity in the market, with the Big Food Group today announcing that it had written to all the shareholders in symbol store group Londis offering them nearly double the amount proposed by Ireland's Musgrave group, owner of the Budgens chain.
Under the Big Food Group proposal, Londis retail shareholders would receive a total consideration of £39.7 million, compared to £19.8 million from Musgrave. While BFG's total offer price is almost identical to that of Musgrave (£40.3 million compared to £40 million) the difference is that the Londis management would get just £0.6 million as part of the BFG deal, compared to a whopping £20.2 million under the Musgrave proposal.
BFG, which owns the Iceland supermarket chain and the Booker cash & carry business, has responded to a rising tide of criticism from many Londis store owners, complaining that they would see little of the benefits from a takeover by Musgrave while the company's management lined their own pockets.
But there is more than simple opportunism to the BFG bid. The Londis business model - independently-owned stores all trading under the same banner and supplied by a central purchasing and logistics operation - has been highly successful, and BFG has in fact adopted a similar approach over the last few years with its own Premier fascia - a network of independent stores supplied by the Booker business.
BFG has long made it known that its aim is to build up Premier into one of the top three symbol groups in the UK, and the acquisition of Londis would certainly propel it rapidly up the rankings. The acquisition of Londis - the second largest symbol group in the UK after Spar - would add around £500 million in sales to the group, BFG said.
Bill Grimsey, CEO of the Big Food Group, said that its bid would "fairly reward the retailers who have worked hard to build Londis. If our offer proceeds, Londis retailers can double the money they get for their shares whilst benefiting from being part of the Big Food Group. We strongly urge them to reject the Musgrave offer that gives £20.2 million to just four members of the Londis management team."
In the letter send to each Londis shareholder, Grimsey said that the Londis management had tried to prevent BFG from making a counter offer, which was why he was writing to store owners directly. "Your management has tried to discourage us from making any offer by pointing out that their option rights give them 51 per cent of the company on an acquisition and that they can therefore block any offer for the company," the letter read.
"However, we believe if the Londis shareholders and the wider business community make clear their views on tactics of this sort, your management will ultimately co-operate."
Grimsey added that the BFG would prove to be an excellent partner for the Londis retailers. "Our leading presence in the UK wholesale market provides us with an even larger combined buying power than Musgrave supporting £5.5 billion of sales, an equivalent product range and further advantages in chilled and frozen products."
But this is not a transaction which is likely to be completed quickly, said Bryan Roberts, analysts at M+M Planet Retail.
"There are clear benefits available to BFG through an acquisition of Londis, particularly as its Booker division is aiming to become one of the three largest symbol groups in the UK grocery sector through its Premier affiliated retailer programme," Roberts told FoodandDrinkEurope.com
."Booker has stated that it is planning 2,000 affiliated stores by the end of 2004/05, and a potential deal with Londis would be a fast-track means of attaining this target."
"There is, however, mounting competition for Londis, with the Musgrave approach already well underway and Nisa-Today's thought to be fundraising for a counter-bid, so it seems that a prolonged auction might not be out of the question. If it boils down to who has the deepest pockets, The Big Food Group could well triumph, but I suspect there may be a few more twists and turns before this episode reaches a conclusion."