Owner of Zest Soap, VO5 Shampoo Looks to Revive Faded Brands
(Bloomberg) -- The owner of Zest soap, VO5 shampoo and Binaca breath freshener wants its brands to be top-of-mind, but that’s hard to do when stores relegate them to the bottom shelf -- or drop them entirely.
That’s the dilemma facing High Ridge Brands Co., which markets a collection of personal care products whose names have lost their former clout. Some of the brands had their heyday years ago, and it didn’t help that Walmart Inc., the nation’s biggest retailer, stopped stocking some of High Ridge’s skin and hair products in its stores, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report last year.
Investors have taken notice, with High Ridge’s most junior junk-rated debt quoted at pennies on the dollar. Credit raters cite growing concern that the firm can’t keep up with its more than $500 million debt load, and a September interest payment looks particularly doubtful to S&P Global Ratings. This leaves High Ridge little time and cash to compete for attention with consumer product giants.
“When you’re trapped at the bottom of the shelf, it’s a tough world out there,” said Laura Ries, half of the eponymous brand consultancy Ries & Ries in Atlanta. “Brands are incredibly valuable, but they also don’t necessarily live forever.”
High Ridge was formed by Brynwood Partners LP in 2010 to acquire the rights to Zest from Procter & Gamble Co. in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. Over the years, it picked up other names like Coast, White Rain shampoo, Rave and Salon Grafix. Private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice bought the Stamford, Connecticut-based company in 2016 in a deal valued at $415 million.
Clayton, Dubilier & Rice declined to comment for this article; High Ridge and Walmart didn’t respond to messages.
American consumers got to know Zest soap through splashy 1980s TV commercials that boasted a wash free of soap residue -- Zestfully clean. Product development and customer tastes have changed, sparking innovations like brands that are free of preservatives or those that keep the environment in mind. Millions of Americans have stopped using Zest bar soap since 2011, data compiled by Statista show.
“Mass market hair care and and mass-market cleansing have had a difficult time,” Deborah Aitken, a consumer products analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, said in an interview. “The mid-end, there’s so much competition fighting for space.”
It’s possible to revive a faltering brand, as shown by P&G’s Old Spice. The soap and fragrance brand had been relegated to the realm of old men until an aggressive advertising campaign -- recall the shimmering man on a horse, from 2010 -- helped re-position it. Such turnarounds are hard to pull off, and they’re expensive: The campaign included TV, print, social media and personalized videos, and featured supermodel Fabio.
High Ridge doesn’t have the same financial heft as P&G. High Ridge doesn’t publicly report earnings, but in March 2017, Moody’s pegged annual revenue at about $370 million. At the time, S&P predicted debt would remain below 7 times Ebitda -- a key measure of profitability for debt holders. By mid-2019, the ratings firm estimated debt at more than 20 times Ebitda.
Two years ago, High Ridge brought in Patricia Lopez as chief executive officer to help turn things around. Her background includes managing brands for P&G, Estee Lauder and Avon such as Aerin, Pantene, Head & Shoulders, Pampers and Gillette, High Ridge said.
Getting shelf space at a store like Walmart can be a make-or-break matter for consumer goods, and the fierce competition includes costly “slotting fees” demanded by some retailers to open up space. At High Ridge, about 40% of revenue came from just two stores -- Walmart and Dollar Tree Inc. -- according to a Moody’s report from last year, which said that level of concentration limits the company’s bargaining power over shelf space relative to big competitors.
A spike in the price of palm oil -- a major ingredient in soap -- also hurt the company in 2017, and the following year High Ridge began having problems with one of its major soap suppliers, according to S&P.
When S&P downgraded High Ridge to CCC- in May, the ratings firm predicted a default or restructuring.
“They’re obviously struggling,” said S&P analyst Jerry Phelan. “Their liquidity is weak and we don’t think they’re going to be able to make their next interest payment.”
About $11 million is due in September, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, followed by another payment in March 2020 and a credit line that matures in 2021.
Bonds that High Ridge sold in 2017 to help buy oral care brand Dr. Fresh are quoted around 10 cents on the dollar. A first-lien term loan was quoted below 84 cents earlier this year.
“A lot of these roll-ups have happened because companies are shedding these brands,” Ries said, noting that in 2014 P&G disclosed plans to sell as many as 100 brands. “Rolling up all these little tiny ones is tough.”
--With assistance from Matthew Boyle.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jeremy Hill in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rick Green at email@example.com, Nicole Bullock
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.