Young's Seafood eyes China expansion as sale speculation intensifies

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Young's Seafood is planning to cast its net into the Chinese market as speculation intensifies over a multi-million pound sale of the business.

Chief executive William Showalter said the company was in talks with potential partners over an export push into the Asian nation after expanding the brand across supermarket shelves in America.

The food industry veteran refused to be drawn on rumours suggesting Britain's biggest seafood firm could be snapped up by Princes' Japanese-owner Mitsubishi Corporation.

However, he said it would not "take a huge leap of faith" to expect the group's backers to start looking at "strategic alternatives" in the near future.

It comes as the Grimsby-based firm ploughs forward with an American expansion after partnering with Pennsylvania-based frozen fish supplier The Fishin' Company to bring its products to US retailers such as Walmart.

Speaking to the Press Association, Mr Showalter said: "We see China as a big opportunity.

"As we speak, we are exploring discussions with partners in that market and we would look to deploy a similar model to the one that we are using in the United States.

"Continental Europe is probably next on our list.

"When we sold our continental European business to Nomad Foods in November 2015 we committed to them to not sell frozen branded product into any of the markets where our Findus business had competed, but that prohibition expires in November this year.

"It would be our desire to look at opportunities in continental Europe once we are able to freely trade there."

Sources told PA in December that Young's private equity owners were working with boutique investment house Stamford Partners on a potential exit.

The Grimsby-based food producer was bought by Lion Capital, Bain Capital and HPS Investment Partners (UK) from CapVest in 2008, as part of a £1.1 billion takeover that included the Findus brands.

Lion broke up the operation in 2015, striking a £500 million deal to sell the European arm of Findus to Birds Eye-owner Nomad Foods, leaving it with the Young's operation in the UK.

Asked about the future of Young's, Mr Showalter said: "I am not announcing any sales processes or reacting to some of the media speculation that has been out there, but I think it would not take a huge leap of faith for somebody to expect that at some point in the not too distant future the current owners of the company would look at what their strategic alternatives were."

Young's, which employs about 2,000 staff across seven sites, is facing a critical moment as it awaits clarity on how Britain's Brexit negotiations will impact the fishing industry.

Mr Showalter, who was the chief finance officer of Findus before becoming Young's chief executive in 2015, said the company was helping the Brexit process by sitting on Government taskforces.

He said it was important that any Brexit deal prevented lorries becoming stacked up at the border because the vast majority of the seafood eaten in Britain was not caught within UK territorial waters.

On a brighter note, he said higher inflation driven by the Brexit-hit pound had caused demand for its frozen food products to grow, as shoppers sought out cheaper alternatives to chilled fish.

Young's, which has a history dating back 200 years, recorded turnover of £496.5 million in 2016 and booked earnings of £21.2 million, according to the latest accounts filed at Companies House.