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Kraft Heinz sees rising costs, still weighing M&A deal: CEO

FILE PHOTO: Bernardo Hees, chief executive of Kraft Heinz Co. and a partner at Brazilian firm 3G Capital, at the Berkshire annual shareholder weekend in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Stempel/File Photo

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Melissa Fares

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Kraft Heinz Co is feeling the pinch from trade conflicts and rising costs, but is still willing to consider an acquisition to fuel growth, its chief executive officer said on Friday.

CEO Bernardo Hees said in an interview that the maker of Heinz ketchup and Maxwell House coffee is "being hurt" by retaliation over U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, which Canada responded to by slapping taxes on goods ranging from sauces to coffee. Kraft Heinz has described coffee as one of its key commodities in the United States and Canada.

Hees said the company and food industry was seeking exemptions from the tariffs on specific products.

Febreze and Gillette manufacturer Procter & Gamble Co told Reuters in July that some of its products sold in Canada would be affected by the tariffs as well.

Canada's top trade negotiator and her U.S. counterpart started a third day of talks to save the North American Free Trade Agreement on Friday as differences between the two sides appeared to have narrowed.

Yet the trade conflict is adding to the pressures on Hees and industry peers trying to fatten profits even as consumers change their eating habits and U.S. inflation perks up.

Kraft Heinz topped quarterly profit and revenue estimates when it reported results last month as it raised product prices and posted higher-than-expected U.S. sales for the first time in several quarters.

Hees nonetheless said cost pressures are creeping up from labor to transportation, oil and plastic packaging. He did not specify how much he expected costs to hit the company's earnings, saying that consumption and other economic trends are "really on the right foot."

"That's why for us to have an agreement on this - it would be very positive," Hees said of U.S.-Canada trade negotiations. "In reality it takes the uncertainty out so we can invest for the long run."

Many analysts believe Kraft Heinz, controlled by Brazil's 3G Capital and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc, should include an acquisition among those investments.

Hees is a partner at 3G, which is known for engineering big mergers, such as the creation of Restaurant Brands International Inc by combining Burger King with Canada's Tim Hortons, and then imposing draconian cost cuts.

Since peaking on Feb. 17, 2017, Kraft Heinz shares have fallen more than 40 percent. The S&P 500 rose 22 percent in the same period. Hees has said the stock market will take care of itself if the company delivers.

The company's potential acquisition targets are getting cheaper and, arguably, more vulnerable. The S&P 500 Packaged Foods & Meats index is down 9 percent this year.

One possible acquisition target, Campbell Soup Co, is fighting off a proxy fight by billionaire investor Daniel Loeb's Third Point LLC. Loeb is moving to remove Campbell's entire board just one week after Campbell unveiled a strategic review, deciding to sell two businesses.

While Kraft Heinz had considered a Campbell acquisition in the past, it was not currently exploring a bid, a source told Reuters in August.

Asked about the subject, Hees declined to comment on Campbell but said valuations are more attractive than 12 months ago.

"If there would be more consolidation for the industry, we'd like to be a force behind it," he said, noting that the company would be disciplined.

"We like strong brands, we like business that can travel, and we like businesses that have synergies, that can be reinvested behind brands, product and people. When we find a combination of that, we tend to move very fast."


(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Melissa Fares; Additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis; Editing by Richard Chang)