Bill’s has looked to bring some clarity to its future development over the last few weeks, with the break-up of its joint managing director structure. However, is this standout concept facing its first “bump in the road” and will The Ivy Collection muddy the water further? At the same time, AB Inbev has put a number of SABMiller’s premium brands, including Peroni, Grolsch and Meantime, in to play, in order to push through its £71bn acquisition before it comes under the gaze of European competition officials. But where will all three brands end up and what will become of MillerBrands?

Press releases as a rule of thumb are meant to answer questions and not throw up more. So imagine my surprise when the below release appeared in my inbox at the end of last month: Bills has promoted joint Managing Director Roberto Moretti to Chief Operating Officer. The announcement comes as the restaurant group continues its expansion in the UK, opening its 70th site in Bishops Stortford on 30th November, with a second site in Manchester opening the same day in the Trafford Centre. Bills is also opening its 72nd site in the Birmingham Bullring on 7th December to round off a fantastically successful 2015. Roberto, who has been with the company for, over three years, said: “The business has grown exponentially in recent years and were thrilled to have reached our 70th site milestone. Im proud to be heading up the Bills family and future growth whilst staying true to our values and amazing culture”. Bills currently employs 2,880 staff, which is due to rise to nearly 3,000 with the three upcoming openings. Ends

I think I used sparse at the time to sum the above up. The obvious question that arose was what does this mean for the other joint managing director Scott MacDonald? An hour or so later came the answer; he is still managing director, but now, like rest of the management team he would report into Moretti. This episode, along with the pair’s admission to me earlier in the year that the company was to pull back on the numbers of sites it was to open, suggests that a brand that has run smoothly, if not spectacularly since Richard Caring invested and Moretti and MacDonald were brought into run it, was facing its first bump in the road.

Let’s get this straight from the start, Bill’s is a great concept; this fact was backed up over the weekend when it appeared at number 14 in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list with 107.98% sales growth over the last years. Opening c60 sites over the last three years, being on track to post full-year turnover close to £90m in its current financial year and having a current run rate EBITDA of over £14m are also glowing endorsements of MacDonald and Moretti’s work.

However, it now feels like the group is going to have to face some hard yards to get a sale process, which the majority of the sector expected to happen this year, up and running over the next 12 months. The promotion of Moretti, who comes from a branded restaurant background, can be viewed as a clear rallying point for future investors. However, as seen recently with YO! Sushi, private equity is being even more selective when it comes to the makeup of which management team it will back, which doesn’t rule out the possibility of a more established chief executive eventually coming on board at Bill’s.

The promotion of Moretti, is also the first high-profile move away from the traditional management set up deployed by Andy Bassadone and Chris Benians, where a food-focused employee is matched with an operations-focused one, see also Strada (Bassadone and Benians), Cote (Alex Scrimgeour and Harald Samuelsson) and Jackson & Rye (firstly Hannah Bass/now Graham Ford and Mark Askew).

Then there is the fast-growing Ivy Collection, the umbrella vehicle for the roll out of the Ivy Market Grill and Ivy Café concepts. Bassadone and Benians have kept their distance from Caring’s new roll out vehicle up to this point, but their recent appointment as directors to Troia Ltd, the company set up to oversee the new format’s growth will come as no surprise too many. Described in some quarters as a “premium Bill’s” or in others as “what Browns should have become”, the group has been busy over the last few months, bulking up the format’s operations, acquisitions and recruitment roles and its pipeline, with further openings being pursued in Wimbledon, Bristol, Cardiff and Guildford.

With Cote already launched before Strada was sold, and Bill’s on board and in expansion mode before Cote was disposed of, the development of both Jackson & Rye and the Ivy Collection is following a similar pattern. However, the current focus on the latter does raise questions about the further rollout of the former, and especially one off openings - Grillshack in Soho and Limeyard in Ealing.

The sale of Cote first time around to CBPE, which some have described as tortuous, may also be playing a part in the timing of Caring’s exit from Bill’s, especially as his former investment was then acquired by BC Partners for c£250m under two years later. He won’t want a repeat of that situation, especially for a concept (Bill’s) that many believe has more growth potential than its former sister brand. After three years with its foot hard on the expansion pedal it is only right that Bill’s should be allowed the time to ease off the throttle to allow time to assess its next stage of development and whether it has the right set up in place to navigate the road ahead. It has an interesting 12 months in front of it.

No time to waste

The announcement of the divestiture of SABMiller’s interests in Miller Coors to its partner in the venture, Molson Coors for $12bn at the same time as AB InBev announced that it had reached agreement on it £71bn acquisition of SABMiller, highlight that it wasn’t going to hang around in making sure that all the pieces are in the right place for the deal to complete next year. Facing a $3bn break-up clause, is also providing the Stella Artois and Beck’s owner with a powerful incentive to facilitate the SABMiller deal.

News this week that Peroni, Grolsch and Meantime will also be placed on the market underlines that fact. The thinking is that by keeping them AB InBev would have too great a share of premium beers and the European Commission has a history of looking at specific segments of the market in merger cases. The Peroni and Grolsch had already been flagged up as possible disposal candidates, and although Meantime has only been under SAB’s wing for six months, aftre being acquired for in excess of £50m, it will be seen by some as providng an attractive kicker to potential suitors, especially as it is thought AB InBev will look to offload all three in one deal.

One question is what will happen to MillerBrands, if or should that be when, a deal goes through? In Peroni SABMiller’s dedicated UK arm will have lost its main brand, the one it has pushed successfully into the mainstream over the last few years. The deal would leave it with Pilsner Urquell, Kozel (both which are gaining traction) and at present a collection of lesser-known brands.

Heineken, the leader in the market, should be ruled out as a possible suitor due to similar competition questions AB InBev is trying to avoid. Carlsberg was a known admirer of Meantime, but it is struggling with a “deteriorating macroeconomic climate” in Russia and Ukraine, and has been cautious in the past when it comes to bigger deals and reaching the required valuations.

Stifel analyst Mark Swartzberg said he thinks Danish brewer Carlsberg is the most likely bidder for a combined acquisition of Peroni and Grolsch, although a split transaction whereby Heineken acquires Peroni and Carlsberg buys Grolsch is also possible in his eyes. He values the two brands at $3.2bn.

All three brands would currently fit with Molson Coors’s UK portfolio, complimenting Staropramen, Carling and Doom Bar. With the possible fallout from MRO still hanging over the pub sector’s head, having a stronger portfolio of brands would allow the company to further strengthen its position in the tenanted market. It has already gone to the well once to acquire SABMiller’s interest in Miller Coors, it may be a stretch for it to go again so soon, although it would be surprising if the opportunity wasn’t at least floated in the meetings for said deal.

C&C Group has cash on its balance sheet and is weak in England. A deal for all three brands would give is real scale in the market place in one go, although it like Carlsberg currently has its focus on turning around its business in another part of world, in this case the US.

All of which leaves private equity as possibly the most likely destination for the three brands. Whatever the outcome, there is plenty to ponder in the meantime.