A tumble in a company’s share price when it announces the identity of a new CEO is not welcome news – but that is what happened to Belgium-based retailer Delhaize Group last week.
Delhaize, among the world’s top 25 food retailers, named Frans Muller, a former executive from larger German peer Metro Group, as its new chief executive. Muller will take the job in November, succeeding Pierre-Olivier Beckers, who announced in May he would step down after 15 years in the role.
Muller most recently ran Metro’s cash-and-carry business from 2008 until early this year. Delhaize emphasised Muller’s “international perspective, operational expertise, and proven ability to grow businesses”. Analysts acknowledged the expansion of Metro’s cash-and-carry arm in new markets but also pointed to its performance in more mature markets. It has had its challenges in Germany and, notably, its loss-making UK unit was sold to Booker last year.
Industry watchers also cited Muller’s lack of experience in the US, Delhaize’s largest market, where it runs chains including Food Lion and Hannaford.
To compound the anxiety about Delhaize, the retailer also announced the head of its US business, Roland Smith, is resigning. Smith has only been at Delhaize a year but has sought to shake up its US business, which has struggled. There have been signs Delhaize’s operations in the US are recovering; no wonder, then, the market reacted coolly to the management changes at the retailer.
Staying in the US, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, and Shuanghui International, the Chinese company lined up to buy the business, received a boost last week when a key government committee cleared the way for the takeover.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which scrutinises whether foreign takeovers of US assets have national security implications, has given the green light to Shuanghui’s US$7.1bn takeover of Smithfield, which was announced in May.
Some in Congress had expressed unease about a Chinese firm gaining control of a piece of the US food supply but experts in Washington expected the committee to back the deal, which, if approved by Smithfield shareholders, will be the largest takeover of a US business by a Chinese company.
All eyes now turn to Smithfield’s shareholders. Smithfield’s board has backed the takeover, with CEO Larry Pope saying it is a “great deal”, allowing the company to exploit growing demand in China.
Smithfield investors are set to vote on the takeover on 24 September. However, last week, a large shareholder, activist fund Starboard Value, claimed rival interest in the US pork group could lead to a better offer for the business. Starboard has argued Shuanghui’s bid under-values the US company and has insisted the pork processor would be worth more if it was split up and assets sold separately.
The fund has claimed it has received indications of interest in Smithfield’s assets that in total “imply a total value for Smithfield at a price substantially in excess” of Shuanghui’s $34-a-share bid.
Under the terms of its deal with Shuanghui, Smithfield can postpone the 24 September meeting if it does not get enough votes to back the transaction. Starboard Value said last week it would vote against and urged fellow investors to do the same – to allow Smithfield more time to solicit more bids. Starboard said Smithfield’s deal with Shuanghui means the deal must close by 29 November or it is ripped up. The fund said if an alternative bid does fail to come to the table it will back the Shuanghui bid – but it is looking for rival bidders to emerge.
Announcing the backing from the CFIUS, Smithfield and Shuanghui stated the shareholders meeting was still scheduled to take place on the 24th. Shuanghui CEO Zhijun Yang added: “This transaction will create a leading global animal protein enterprise. Shuanghui International and Smithfield have a long and consistent track record of providing customers around the world with high-quality food and we look forward to moving ahead together as one company.”
We will discover in just over two weeks if they can move forward together.