Nowhere is that more true than in Pittsburgh, where the maker of the eponymous ketchup and baked beans was founded in 1869. At a press conference on Thursday, Bill Johnson, Heinz chief executive, was forced to repeat several times that the company’s headquarters would remain in a city that boomed on the back of the steel industry in the late 19th century and has since struggled as American manufacturing has retreated.
It was one of the few certainties for locals as they digested the news that billionaire investor Warren Buffett and 3G Capital, an investment firm led by Brazilian billionaire Jorge Lemann, had agreed to buy the company for $28bn (£18bn). Although Buffett was not in Pittsburgh, the $12bn to $13bn that the 82-year-old is stumping up will have gone some way to allay fears that the sale would strip Heinz of its American origins.
Almost 400 miles north on Wall Street, analysts and investors were clear why Buffett and Lemann, who is ranked Brazil’s second-richest man, had swooped on Heinz. It may be American in origin, but the past decade has seen Heinz expand aggressively overseas.
Almost two-thirds of the $11.6bn of sales it generated last year came from outside the US. Just as importantly, a fifth came from fast-growing economies such as China and Brazil.
“They are getting a company with great international and emerging market exposure,” said Jack Russo, an analyst at Edward Jones. “There had been a view that food is regional and you couldn’t be a global company, but they have been way ahead of their peers.”
Johnson, who has run Heinz since 2000 and is set to reap almost $100m from the company’s sale, has been making acquisitions in an effort to win over the growing middle-classes in Asia and South America.
In 2010, the company paid $165m for Foodstar, a Chinese maker of soy sauce, and Heinz acquired a majority stake in Brazilian tomato sauce maker Quero for $365m in 2011. The company is aiming to double its sales in emerging markets to $5bn within the next five years.
It is an ambition that is likely only to sharpen under Lemann, who was educated at Harvard University and has amassed a fortune by investing shrewdly around the world. “It takes the same effort to think small as to think big,” the 73-year-old told a Brazilian magazine. “But to think big, frees you from the insignificant details.”
3G Capital was catapulted to wider recognition in 2010 when it bought Burger King for $3.3bn, and has a reputation for squeezing efficiencies out of companies. When asked about cost-cutting plans at Heinz, Alex Behring, 3G’s managing director, would only say that the company is already run efficiently.
While sales in Asia are accelerating – they were up 15.6pc last year – Lemann and Buffett are swallowing a company that is not without headwinds.
Europe remains a major market and the weak economic backdrop and rising commodity prices prompted Heinz to close five factories in 2011. Russo says that its new life as a private company will make it easier for Heinz to move quickly to sell any European businesses should it decide to.
Johnson added that the freedom from the demands of quarterly conference calls that are part of life as a public company should benefit Heinz and allow it to make quicker decisions.
What is clear, though, is that Buffett will not have any involvement in the daily operations of the food manufacturer. “Any partnership where I don’t have to do the work is my kind of partnership,” Buffett quipped as he explained that 3G would now run Heinz.
There may still be American money behind yesterday’s historic acquisition, but Heinz is now a Brazilian show.