Acquisitions and machinations — the Norwalk year in business
January — Xerox-Fujifilm machinations
Connecticut’s biggest corporate drama kicked off in early January, after the Wall Street Journal reported talks between Xerox and Fujifilm about a possible merger. Norwalk-based Xerox reached a $6.1 billion sale agreement in short order, with billionaire investors Carl Icahn and Darwin Deason leading a proxy fight for control of the Xerox board to scotch the deal. During an ensuing court battle, the Xerox board ceded control, with Bob Keegan and Jeff Jacobson resigning as board chair and CEO and Icahn installing Greenwich executive John Visentin to lead Xerox as CEO and the tech industry icon maintaining its Norwalk headquarters.
February — General Mills pounces on Blue
After a mere 15 years in business, Blue Buffalo Pet Products got a bigger offer than Xerox, with General Mills putting up $8 billion to take over the Wilton pet food maker. Founded in 2002 by Bill Bishop and his sons after experimenting with recipes for a pet dog named Blue, the company successfully established an image of providing healthy food that pets liked. Blue Buffalo went public in 2015, and near the end of its run as an independent company locked horns with industry giant Purina and parent Nestle over marketing claims. Under General Mills, Blue Buffalo is intensifying its efforts to expand into mass retail channels like supermarkets.
March — Pepperidge Farm gets stable mate
The run of billion-dollar mergers continued in March, with Campbell Soup completing its $6 billion acquisition of Charlotte, N.C.-based Snyder’s Lance and pairing it with Campbell’s Pepperidge Farm division in Norwalk. Campbell’s new snack’s division added household names like Cape Cod and Kettle chips, Pop-Secret, Emerald nuts and of course Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels. Under pressure from a hedge fund for further shakeups, Denise Morrison stepped down in May as CEO of Camden, N.J.-based Campbell’s, with the company subsequently putting its Bolthouse carrot and juice brand on the auction block, and considering an outright sale.
April — Norwalk readies opioid lawsuit
The city of Norwalk hired a pair of law firms including Danbury-based Ventura Law to handle a legal complaint against opioid makers including the Stamford-based OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, with thousands of other municipalities nationally having sued in an effort to recover costs they are incurring in the opioid epidemic. In Connecticut, 264 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016. OxyContin had its main office in Norwalk for a quarter century before relocating to Stamford in 2000. In February, Purdue Pharma announced it had ceased marketing OxyContin to physicians, while continuing to make the drug available.
May — Del Frisco’s buys Barcelona, bartaco
After reaching a $325 million deal to purchase the Norwalk-based owner of Barcelona Wine Bar and bartaco, founded in 1996 by Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz and serving tapas and other fare with roots in Spanish and Latin cuisine. Del Frisco’s has vowed to build a national brand for Barcelona and bartaco with at least 250 new restaurants, even as it closed a Del Frisco’s steakhouse in Stamford this year. Del Frisco’s has already relocated Barteca corporate staff to its own headquarters in Irving, Texas. By year-end, Del Frisco’s was under pressure from investors to sell the chains amid concerns of debt it took on to fund the deal.
June — Dolce Norwalk becomes Lakota Oaks
A Los Angeles firm sold in June the Dolce Norwalk conference center for $19 million to a group organized by the facility’s namesake founder Andy Dolce, with the facility adopting the Lakota Oaks name under CEO and Norwalk resident Sam Haigh. The Dolce Norwalk site was once a seminary before becoming a corporate conference center, in time coming under the management of Wyndham Worldwide with revenue totaling $10 million in 2017. Haigh told Hearst Connecticut Media this year he would be interested in expanding Lakota Oaks’ charter from conferences to a general hotel and restaurant if the city were willing.
July — Industry legend pops up in Norwalk
Lured by a southwestern Connecticut beverage industry heritage that includes Diageo, Nestle Waters and Sobe to name a few, Reed’s chose the Merritt 7 Corporate Park as its new headquarters, leaving its longtime home in Los Angeles where Chris Reed became a legend building a folksy alternative to soda giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. Under new CEO Val Stalowir who chose Norwalk, Reed’s has added zero-sugar varieties of its namesake ginger beer and Virgil’s root beer, while adding cans to its bottle lineup. Merritt 7 will have a major opening next year when FactSet moves its headquarters to the nearby Towers office complex.
August — Norwalk YMCA to get new life
A Westport-based developer that has been building senior communities throughout southwestern Connecticut reached a deal on its most ambitious project yet, a $100 million conversion of the former Norwalk YMCA on West Avenue into a residential center tied closely to nearby Norwalk Hospital whose Danbury-based parent Western Connecticut Health Network owns the property. Maplewood Senior Living envisions an architecturally distinctive building with 250,000 square feet of space on five floors. Maplewood is targeting a 2021 opening for the facility, which would add a few hundred jobs in Norwalk.
September — ASML continues Wilton build
Moving its corporate offices across the street into temporary quarters at the former headquarters of Sun Products; beginning construction of a parking garage for employees; opening a new testing lab next door — all in a year’s work for ASML, the Netherlands-based maker of big machines that imprint circuitry on semiconductors. At its longtime plant and new corporate offices on Danbury Road in Wilton, ASML now employs more than 1,600 people and is looking to hire more, both entry-level jobs as well as senior-level engineers and managers even as the company expands in Taiwan and other locales.
October — SoNo comings and goings
Cantiki Taco Deck opened in mid-October at the former Washington Street home of Johnny Utah’s which shut down earlier in the year after a police raid to round-up underage drinkers. The “tropical oasis” was one of several South Norwalk newcomers this year, alongside sibling eatery Bourbon Raw Kentucky Kitchen and Raw Bar taking over the former Killer B Burger storefront. Others include Bandido Mexican Restaurant; El Rancho; Evarito’s Mexican Kitchen and Bar; La Calle; Makondo Latin Restaurant & Bar; Our House; Public Wine Bar; SoHo Bar; and Pokemoto serving the Hawaiian delicacy poke made from marinated seafood.
November — Frontier swoon continues
Four years after acquiring AT&T’s Connecticut operations, Frontier Communications continued to absorb massive losses here and nationally, even as the beleaguered telephone company comes under intensified pressure from Altice USA readying to roll out fiber optic broadband and TV services across the region. Under CEO Dan McCarthy, Norwalk-based Frontier reported a $426 million loss in the third quarter, while admitting to state regulators earlier this year it overestimated by $112 million a reported 2017 loss for its Connecticut operations. Like Altice and other cable rivals, Frontier continued what has been a steady diet of rate hikes.
December — SoNo Collection in 2019?
Even as South Norwalk saw the departure of several smaller retailers including Klaff’s, the Lillian August SoNo Annex and Kaas & Co. - A Taste of Holland exiting 2018, all eyes were on the SoNo Collection mall under construction just south of Interstate 95, with questions unanswered from new owner Brookfield Property Trust on whether the mall will be done in time for the 2019 holiday shopping season, as envisioned by original developer GGP prior to its August sale to Brookfield. In the meantime, South Norwalk retailers continue to brace for disruptions expected from the coming replacement of the Walk Bridge over the Norwalk River.
Compiled by Alexander Soule; includes prior reporting by Robert Koch and Paul Schott.