Unilever pays $20.3bn to buy out Bestfoods

Unilever secured the biggest takeover in the global food industry for 12 years yesterday when it agreed to pay $20

Unilever secured the biggest takeover in the global food industry for 12 years yesterday when it agreed to pay $20.3 billion for Bestfoods, the prized target in the rapidly consolidating US market.

The Anglo-Dutch margarine-to-detergents group increased its offer from $66 a share to $73 and will assume about $4 billion of Bestfoods' debt. The deal will bring Unilever's Flora margarine and Lipton tea brands together with Bestfoods' Knorr soups and Hellman's mayonnaise.

The acquisition, seen by many Unilever analysts as the precursor to a break-up of the group, will propel its foods business into second place behind Nestle in the league of global food businesses.

Unilever's interest in Bestfoods emerged last month when the New Jersey-based group rejected an all-cash $18.4 billion offer as financially inadequate and not in the best interests of its shareholders.

Yesterday's announcement will be seen as a victory for Charles "Dick" Shoemate, chairman and chief executive of Bestfoods. The Unilever offer is a 44 per cent premium to the Bestfoods' closing stock price the day before Unilever's offer became public.

Mr Shoemate persuaded Unilever to raise what many had seen as a generous initial bid price by doggedly pursuing alternative deals as possible defence strategies.

People close to the talks credited Mr Shoemate with transforming the former Corn Products Company into a group with a rare stable of global brands, spread into some of the fastest growing international markets.

The deal also promises to reshape the global food industry in a way not seen since Kohlberg Kravis Roberts took over RJR Nabisco in 1988. Large-scale takeover activity in the sector had all but dried up but many analysts are predicting that the Unilever deal will encourage a new round.

The deal is the third the group has announced in less than two months. In April it announced that it was swallowing SlimFast Foods, a dietary supplement maker, for $2.3 billion and Ben & Jerry's Homemade, the ice-cream maker, for $326 million.

Those deals came in the wake of the group's decision to cull a number of lesser products and focus on 400 "power brands".

Irishman Mr Niall Fitzgerald, Unilever chairman, yesterday denied the group was taking on too many management challenges at once. However, some analysts were sceptical. "The operational risk in undertaking your biggest ever acquisition at the same time as your biggest ever restructuring is very significant," said one. "And we won't really know for sure whether or not it has been a success for two or three years."

Mr Fitzgerald denied the deal should be seen as a precursor to a split of the home and personal care divisions and the food arm. He expected the transaction to enhance cash earnings per share in the first full year of operation.

The combined company would have had 1999 revenues and operating income of about $52.3 billion and $6.2 billion, respectively.

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