Baxters Food Group has moved to boost its share of the billion-dollar North American soup market with the family-owned firm's first overseas acquisition.

The Fochabers, Morayshire-based company has paid an undisclosed sum for Soup-Experts, said to be Canada's leading manufacturer of ''private label'' soups, supplying a customer base which includes Costco, Safeway and the Canadian government.

Baxters plans to use the Canadian company's Quebec factory, which employs over 150 staff, to manufacture its own branded products within six to 12 months. Baxters exports to North America but said it currently has a ''minimal'' share of the Canadian and US soup markets, which are estimated to be worth Cn $400m ((pounds) 171m) and $3.1bn ((pounds) 1.7bn) a year respectively. Baxters has a 13% share of the UK's tinned soup market.

The Canadian business will continue to be led by the current management team and will retain its private label business. Baxters would not disclose SoupExperts' turnover or profitability, citing commercial confidentiality.

Commenting, Norman Soutar, group managing director of Baxters, said: ''SoupExperts is a well-established private-label operation.

However, the real growth opportunities lie in the branded soup market and this acquisition will provide the manufacturing facilities and ultim- ately the springboard, for our expansion in this market.''

SoupExperts was founded in 1975 as a branded regional sauce manufacturer, refocusing on ''private-label'' food products in the early 1990s.

Its acquisition by Baxters reflects the Scottish company's ambitious growth plans, which executive chairman Audrey Baxter has said will transform the company into a (pounds) 300m business over the next 15 years.

Baxters, founded in 1868, has increased turnover by more than 50% since she took the helm four years ago.

In 2003, Baxters posted a one-third increase in pre-tax profits to (pounds) 6m on sales of (pounds) 72.4m, a rise of 9%.

Turnover presently stands at (pounds) 85m, boosted by last year's acquisition of Colchester-based CCL Foods, which makes con-diments and pickles under the Peppadew, Simply Delicious, Olivaise and Mary Berry brands. It also makes dressings for PizzaExpress.

Baxters also bought the assets of the WeightWatchers chilled and ready-made meals ranges in 2003 after the previous owner went into liquidation.

Norman Soutar, who be-came the first non-Baxter to head the company when he joined the firm in July, immediately signalled his intention to overhaul the way the firm approaches foreign markets by developing a chain of overseas factories.

Until now, the vast majority of Baxters' products have been made in the UK, with the exception of a small pickled pepper operation in South Africa.

Soutar predicted that Baxters' overseas sales should rise from (pounds) 4m to (pounds) 80m by 2019, a faster rate of growth than home sales.

The target appears tough because export income actually fell in 2003, from (pounds) 4.9m to (pounds) 4m, which the company blamed on a downturn in Australia. Last October, Baxters expanded its retail business with the opening of its first ''lifestyle'' store at Edinburgh's Ocean Terminal shopping centre.

The food company will occupy the anchor site at a new (pounds) 10m retail and tourist destination under development at Tullibardine distillery, near Gleneagles. That store is expected to open in early summer 2005.