Abris Capital Partners did not acquire a majority stake in Polish canned fish company Graal in February 2017 with ESG considerations in mind.
As partner Wojciech Jezierski says: “Abris launched its ESG programme five years ago – just after our investment in Graal.”
However, since embracing ESG, Abris has developed a reputation for ambitious initiatives, including a commitment to becoming net neutral by 2025.
“Once we began properly planning our ESG strategy, we were able to implement all the ESG valuation creation elements into a value creation plan for Graal,” says Jezierski.
Most attention was paid to operational improvements, with governance the immediate focus. Until Abris came in, Graal was run by its founder. “The first element of our ESG focus was on the introduction of a proper corporate governance model. So we introduced supervisory boards, proper articles of association, a COO and CFO,” says Jezierski.
As with all its portfolio companies, an ESG scoring system was introduced, which takes data from portfolio companies across 650 metrics and distils them into a rating. Abris declined to comment on Graal’s rating.
On the environmental side, Abris mandated a suite of changes to reduce energy consumption, such as modern lighting and insulation. It also improved heat recuperation from steam production and installed photovoltaic plants in Graal factories.
The key environmental improvement related to water consumption. Abris found that vast amounts of water was being wasted across different factory processes. Before Abris’s intervention, consumption fluctuated between 2.2 and 2.9 litres of water per can of seafood manufactured. After a year’s worth of changes, consumption was reduced to an average of 1.07 litres per can.
“It was lots of small things,” recalls Jezierski. “We did not drastically change the operations, but making small changes in a hundred places makes a big difference [to water consumption].”
Many of these measures focused on education. The firm introduced a programme for leaders developing training on ethical behaviour and change management. “A significant part of our success in terms of water consumption was simply raising awareness that water costs are important. It was not only about management, but also about training and education, and building the awareness of employees,” explains Jezierski.
In February this year, Abris sold the business to German dairy company Müller. The sale price was not disclosed, but Abris said it netted 3x cash on cash returns from the exit.
The question is: what role did ESG measures play in increasing the company’s value?
Jezierski is clear that, when it comes to operational improvements, financial and sustainability considerations can go hand-in-hand. “Water consumption is a huge thing, not only environmentally, but also financially.” Graal saved approximately PLN1.9 million (€410,000; $440,000) of water costs in its first year after measures were introduced.
“For governance, it’s difficult to say what the impact was in terms of the valuation of the business – but without governance, the rest simply wouldn’t be possible,” he explains.
That said, Jezierski is reluctant to attribute the successful exit to the ESG initiatives: “It would be too much to say that the ESG programmes we introduced attracted the particular buyer. However, we are strong believers that without ESG transformation, some businesses are not sellable. The buyer has a fish business in Poland – they are a strategic investor and they have synergies in terms of sales, production and access to market. But their awareness of sustainability is really strong and I’m convinced that they will continue to prioritise ESG.”
Abris has refined its approach to ESG since beginning its journey with Graal. The GP began gathering portfolio emissions data in 2021. By then, Graal was primed for a sale, and was exempt.
Attitudes to ESG have developed in recent years and the education regime required at Graal may not be necessary everywhere. Nevertheless, Jezierski believes that there is wisdom to be harvested from the firm’s story with Graal. “One of the lessons learned is that we are now even more committed to education, and to ensuring that every business across our portfolio understands the importance of ESG from day one.”