Takeover fever cartoons
To mark the 30th anniversary of the takeover of Rowntree by Nestlé, the Rowntree Society put on an exhibition of cartoons that appeared in the national newspapers between April and June 1988 during the takeover period.
This was a takeover battle that got unprecedented levels of coverage. No takeover or even business issue since has grabbed the attention of the cartoonist to this extent.
Over 50 cartoons depicting the events of 30 years ago are featured, drawn by some of the most famous cartoonists of the day including: Giles, JAK, Calman, Banx, John Springs, Kipper Williams, Gibbard and a very early Matt.
The exhibition shows how different cartoonists in a variety of newspapers portrayed events as they happened.
Chocolate, children, ‘Have a Break’, The Milky Bar Kid, cuckoo clocks, money, gnomes and ‘Save Rowntree’ are used by the cartoonists to inject humour and satirical wit into the newspaper coverage. The politicians of the day including Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine and Lord Young appear along with the heads of Rowntree (Ken Dixon), Nestle (Helmut Maucher) and Suchard (Klaus Jacobs).
The exhibition was a part of the University of York’s Festival of Ideas 2018, and was curated by Liz Grierson, Chair of the Rowntree Society.
See our Gallery of images of the exhibition.
Background to the takeover
Foreign companies wanted to take Rowntree over because it was both profitable and successful. Rowntree & Co had a history of taking over foreign confectionery companies itself: for example, it acquired Menier Chocolate of France in 1971 and Hoadley’s Chocolates of Australia in 1972. Also, between 1981 and 1987, Rowntree had invested nearly £400 million in upgrading its manufacturing facilities and developing high-volume, product-dedicated equipment for several of the company’s leading global brands.
The company was able to fight off an earlier takeover by the US company, General Foods, in 1969, due in large part to the fact that the Joseph Rowntree Trusts collectively held a controlling interest in the shares, and they had a long term commitment to the Rowntree business.
Rowntree were unable to fight off the Nestlé bid in 1988, by then the Trusts overall holdings as a percentage had decreased due to the increased value of the company, and some divestment of Rowntree shares. The final price offered by Nestlé for the shares was seen as generous and was recommended by the Rowntree Management.
The government argued that protection of UK companies was against the public interest (notwithstanding the protectionism of other governments in the world) and did not refer the proposed takeover to the Mergers and Monopolies Commission. It is also thought that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration of the time was unwilling to come out in favour of Rowntree, on political grounds. This has been backed up by a recently released government memo from the time, which talks of a source close to Downing Street describing the company as ‘just a load of pinkos’ (a derogatory term for people whose politics lean to the left).