Business World

Thursday 14 December 2017

Unilever shares slump after food giant Kraft Heinz call off $143bn mega merger

The Anglo-Dutch company dropped around 7pc on the London Stock Exchange (Stock picture)
The Anglo-Dutch company dropped around 7pc on the London Stock Exchange (Stock picture)

Ben Woods

Shares in Unilever have slumped after US food giant Kraft Heinz called off its proposed $143bn mega-merger with the consumer goods firm.

The Anglo-Dutch company dropped around 7pc on the London Stock Exchange following a joint statement by the two companies on Sunday which said Kraft Heinz had "amicably agreed" to withdraw its proposal.

Unilever had issued a strongly-worded rebuttal on Friday after the Chicago-based company tabled an offer representing an 18% premium on Unilever's closing share price on February 16.

If successful, the deal would have been the biggest acquisition of a British company on record based on offer value.

A joint statement by the two companies read: "Unilever and Kraft Heinz hereby announce that Kraft Heinz has amicably agreed to withdraw its proposal for a combination of the two companies.

"Unilever and Kraft Heinz hold each other in high regard."

Kraft Heinz brands include Heinz Tomato Ketchup and Philadelphia cheese, while Unilever owns store-cupboard staples such as Marmite, PG Tips and Hellmann's.

The proposed tie-up was expected to meet strong political opposition, with Prime Minister Theresa May said to have asked officials to look at the deal before it was abandoned.

Mrs May vowed last year to devise a ''proper industrial strategy'' to defend UK companies from being snapped up by foreign firms.

US and Asian businesses have ramped up their interest in buying British following the pound's 17pc plunge against the US dollar since the Brexit vote.

George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said it was surprising to see the deal shelved just one business day after the news broke.

"The deal was set to top £100 billion, so the size premium would always have been a consideration - especially since Warren Buffett, one of the biggest names behind the bid, hardly has a reputation for paying anything other than the price he sees fit.

"What exactly happened in this whirlwind of a story is yet to be fully revealed, but it looks like Unilever isn't just playing hard to get.

"It was always going to be a difficult pitch to convince shareholders to relinquish their grip on Unilever, given the expectations for the company to keep churning out resilient growth in the years to come."

Kraft came under fire in 2010 after pledging to keep a Cadbury factory open in Somerdale near Bath, only to change its mind soon after securing a £11.5bn hostile takeover of the UK chocolate firm

In 2012, the business spun off the Dairy Milk-maker into a new company called Mondelez.

Kraft Heinz was born three years later after Kraft Foods became the subject of $45bn takeover by HJ Heinz Co, owned by US business magnate Mr Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital.

Kathleen Brooks, research director at City Index Direct, said managers at Kraft Heinz would be "spitting feathers" after their proposed offer was leaked on Friday.

"We expect the chief reason to drop the bid was concern about the political atmosphere in Britain, which is currently against foreigners making bids for 'national treasures', even half-Dutch ones like Unilever.

"Also, the leaked announcement sent Unilever shares surging 15pc on Friday, so a protracted battle for ownership would have made it an expensive deal for Buffet and co. at Kraft Heinz."

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