Confused by Conglomerates? Consider These Three Things When Researching Corporate Ownership.

21 May 2020 10:57

There is a difference between brand identity and corporate identity but finding the latter may prove to be more difficult than reading the name on a label. While the average consumer in a retail store may not know—or indeed have a desire to know—who owns each product in their shopping cart, there are legitimate reasons why the matter of corporate ownership may become important.

Whether by a series of opportune mergers and acquisitions, the planned purchase of an entire supply chain, or through strategic efforts to saturate a given category, the portfolio of brands a parent company may own can be confusing—if not nearly impossible—to track down.

This can create a challenge for researchers trying to match brands to corporations or a local sales manager to their global c-suite leaders. Consider the difficulty an academic researcher might have evaluating potential conflicts of interest whenever any given funding source could have financial interest in dozens of varying industries. In other cases, one industry behemoth may have acquired most—if not all—of the supply chain. How might a small- or mid-sized competitor evaluate that and engage with potential suppliers without the risk of supporting their primary competition?

Navigating the web of corporate ownership and affiliation can be complex, but there are certain paths to take to find clarity.

Follow the Trail of Reporting

Activities that bring varying brands under new parent company ownership often attract some level of media attention—even smaller acquisitions tend to get listed in local business publications. For much larger companies, however, M&A activity is likely to be covered heavily in local, national and industry-specific news.

Determining the parent company of a certain product or organization can often require looking beyond the current news cycle. A parent company may have made headlines for acquiring a brand a decade ago, but that brand could still operate the same today with little or no mention of its parent entity.

Duracell—the worldwide battery company with headquarters in the United States and Switzerland—is an example of how this happens. While the brand itself has existed continuously since the 1920s, there have been many changes in its ownership that might be hard to track, especially when only evaluating today’s reporting on the company.

The current owner of Duracell, Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., is a clear example of the diverse holdings a single company today may own. Beyond batteries, the company operates in industries as varied as insurance, building materials, food condiments and media outlets. While stories from the time of its acquisition of Duracell provide context to better understand the details of the Berkshire Hathaway transaction, even stories published in highly specific battery-industry trade journals don’t mention the brand’s ownership today.

Don’t Be Fooled by Apparent Competitors

Belgian beverage company Anheuser-Busch InBev has practically stacked the shelves in their favor when it comes to global beer consumption. While beer brand loyalists may feel a competitive rivalry between what they consider domestic or imported, craft or classic, many of these beer brands—as diverse as Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois—originate from this same parent company.

In fact, owning seemingly competing products in the same category isn’t all that uncommon. U.S.-based Proctor and Gamble owns two diaper brands, at least four fabric detergents, multiple shampoos and several competing detergents and cleaners… among many others. This is an “illusion of choice” that often goes unnoticed by consumers.

For researchers, the challenge comes from finding quality source materials that bypass branding in favor of data.

Use Resources to Help Connect the Chain of Ownership

Researching corporate ownership may feel a lot like genealogy and following the trail of corporate affiliation can certainly branch out like a family tree. One brand’s parent company can have another parent company that is held by yet another organization on top of that. This can go on for many “generations,” and can potentially complicate research. Especially as partially owned companies, sister companies and joint partnerships come into play, bypassing information geared toward consumers and looking at more direct industry filings can prevent research from being derailed by chaos.

The information exists, but finding it can be difficult. Public financial records, regulatory disclosures, press releases and investor reports all disclose information that—when analyzed together—can help determine corporate affiliations. Additionally, researching executive and board staffing can provide hints to corporate affiliations as well. While many legal entities can exist in the chain of corporate ownership, because they have unified operations, they will often have the same people in positions like chief executive or chairperson.

Using research tools that bring these information sources together can help make the corporate ownership research process less manual than mapping out an entire corporate tree and scouring company biographies and announcements.

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