Unilever rejects $143 billion Kraft Heinz bid as without merit

Bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup of U.S. food company Kraft Heinz are offered at a supermarket of Swiss retail group Coop in Zumikon, Switzerland December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup of U.S. food company Kraft Heinz are offered at a supermarket of Swiss retail group Coop in Zumikon, Switzerland December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

By Martinne Geller

LONDON- Unilever (ULVR.L) rejected a surprise $143 billion takeover bid from U.S. food company Kraft Heinz Co (KHC.O) on Friday, saying it saw no reason to discuss a deal which it said had no financial or strategic merit.

But while Unilever, the maker of Lipton tea and Dove soap, said the $50 per share offer undervalued it and recommended its shareholders take no action, Kraft Heinz said it looked forward to “working to reach agreement on the terms of a transaction”.

Analysts saw this as a sign Kraft was open to a higher bid, although the Anglo-Dutch company said in a statement it saw no basis for further talks. Unilever shares jumped as much as 14 percent to a record high. They were up 13 percent at 37.79 pounds ($46.92) at 1338 GMT, short of the offer price.

A combination of the two multinationals would be the third-biggest takeover in history and the biggest ever acquisition of a UK-based company, according to Thomson Reuters data.

The Kraft Heinz approach comes as the global packaged food industry grapples with slowing growth, new competition from upstart brands, deflation in developed markets and increasingly health-conscious consumers.

Unilever has a larger presence than some peers in emerging markets, which were once the big driver of industry growth, but which have slowed in recent years. It is also feeling the after-effects of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

Although Kraft is smaller than Unilever, with a market value of $106 billion as of Thursday, it is 50.9 percent owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRKa.N) and 3G Capital, the private equity firm that also controls Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR). It has been widely expected to do a deal this year, given earlier reports that 3G had raised a new fund.

3G has orchestrated a string of big deals rocking the food and drink industry, including Anheuser-Busch InBev’s takeover of SABMiller and the combination of Kraft and Heinz.

FAST FORWARD

Unilever said Kraft’s proposal represented an 18 percent premium to its share price on Thursday, the day before news of the bid was announced in a stock market statement.

It said Kraft’s proposal included $30.23 per share in cash, payable in U.S. dollars, and 0.222 of a share in a new enlarged entity per Unilever share.

“This is cheap money meeting industrial logic,” Steve Clayton, manager of the HL Select UK Shares fund at Hargreaves Lansdown, which owns Unilever shares, said.

A deal would offer opportunities to combine marketing, manufacturing and distribution in addition to cutting costs.

“Kraft Heinz are attempting a massive push on the Fast Forward button…to acquire the sheer scale of brands that Unilever represents through one-off acquisitions could take decades,” Clayton added.

REUTERS