Lactalis is looking to snap up cheese brand Leerdammer from French rival Bel Group, the companies announced today (19 March).

The two dairy majors said they are in “exclusive negotiations” having signed “a unilateral promise to purchase a business”. The deal would see Lactalis buy the brand and related assets with shares it holds in Bel.

Under the terms of the transaction, Lactalis is to acquire the Leerdammer brand, plus assets in four countries – Royal Bel Leerdammer NL, Bel Italia, Bel Deutschland and Bel Shostka Ukraine – in exchange for a 23.16% stake in Bel. After the completion of the deal, Lactalis will hold a 0.9% shareholding in the business.

Privately-owned Lactalis, the world’s largest pure-play dairy company, said it plans to grow Leerdammer further using its “global scale” and by taking the brand into “new high-growth world regions”.

In their statement announcing the deal, the companies said Leerdammer’s “sales and earnings have nearly doubled” since Bel bought the brand in 2002. 

Emmanuel Besnier, Lactalis’ chairman, said: “We’re excited by the prospect of building on the growth of this iconic brand that people adore. This deal gives us an opening into the Dutch cheese market and production in Holland via three manufacturing plants. The transfer to us of Bel’s Italian, German and Ukrainian sales subsidiaries will boost our facilities in these countries benefiting both Leerdammer and other Bel product sales on these markets.”

The deal will see Lactalis distribute Bel brands in Germany, Italy and Ukraine.

For Bel, the planned disposal is another move in the reshaping of its business. In 2016, the Babybel and Boursin cheese owner bought French chilled-foods business MOM. In 2019, the company unveiled plans to “transform its business model” and look to build a “broadened portfolio of dairy, fruit and hybrid products” including plant-based items. Last year, Bel snapped up French plant-based start-up All in Foods.

Bel chairman and CEO Antoine Fievet said: “In line with our strategic priorities, we continue to grow our business and take on three further market segments, namely dairy, fruit and plant-based, and so reinforce our healthy snacking major player position. With this asset sale deal we reaffirm our independent family business model that gives us freedom to take a long-term view. For Leerdammer, this deal means a unique chance to have the backing of Lactalis, dairy products world number one, which will have the wherewithal to support it for its upcoming challenges.”

The companies said they would start talks with staff, while the deal is subject to regulatory approval. They expect the transaction to be finalised this summer.