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Schh…Orangina Schweppes bound for Japan

September 22, 2009

ORANGINAThere’s an almost palpable sigh of relief in the statement from Blackstone and Lion Capital confirming the two private equity firms have received a “binding offer” from Japan’s Suntory for Orangina Schweppes.

It discloses little beyond Blackstone and Lion saying they will only be able to decide whether to accept the offer “once the necessary social, legal and
regulatory steps will have been completed”.

All that of course involves lots of red tape — so it may take some time — but you can be sure Blackstone and Lion will be doing everything they can to speed the process along — wishing the days away and hoping that their luck holds.

Finding a buyer like Suntory apparently willing to pay somewhere between $2.6 and $3 billion for Orangina at this point in the cycle gives Blackstone and Lion the perfect exit. Suntory could be paying them up to twice 2008 sales and more than they paid in 2006 to get hold of Orangina and its European brands.

The duo crow that since they took over in 2006, Orangina has “achieved industry-leading growth, both organically in its core countries and by expansion into new markets, and through strategic acquisitions of leading brands”. Volumes and sales have both risen and Orangina Schweppes is now the second largest producer in Europe’s still soft drinks market.

Blackstone’s chief operating officer Tony James said last week that the private equity group would look to get out of investments if there was an opportunity for long-term value and noted that flotations are once again a possibility.

That begs the question why Blackstone — with $28 billion in its coffers to invest — and Lion have decided to go with Suntory rather than an IPO for Orangina.

The answer may well be in some of James’ other comments on the prospects for the economy. He expects a few quarters of stronger earnings as inventory is rebuilt, but sees the recovery as “grudging and slow”.

Unlike Suntory’s binding offer, there’s nothing certain at this point about how European consumer spending will develop. No wonder the private equity partners are happy to bid farewell to their soft drinks empire. It could easily turn out to be flatter than Suntory is hoping.

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