Unilever offloads spreads business to private equity firm KKR

Private equity firm KKR has emerged victorious in a three-way battle for Unilever's spreads business, striking a 6.8 billion euro (£6 billion) deal to buy the under-performing operation in charge of Flora and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.

The US fund said the group of brands had a "firm foundation for future growth" despite sales struggling under the Anglo-Dutch company's ownership.

The sale marks another step in Unilever's effort to overhaul the business after fending off a 143 billion US dollar (£115 billion) takeover attempt from Kraft Heinz.

KKR was locked in a bidding war for the spreads unit with rival funds CVC Capital Partners and Apollo Global Management, but trumped competing offers in the third round and secured exclusive talks.

Unilever chief executive Paul Polman said: "In April of this year we set out our 2020 programme to accelerate sustainable value creation.

"After a long history in Unilever we decided that the future of the spreads business would lie outside the group.

"The announcement today marks a further step in reshaping and sharpening our portfolio for long-term growth.

"The consideration recognises the market-leading brands and the improved momentum we have achieved.

"I am confident that under KKR's ownership, the spreads business with its iconic brands will be able to fulfil its full potential as well as societal responsibilities."

The spreads business operates across 66 countries and includes a raft of household brands, including Becel, Flora, Country Crock, Blue Band, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, Rama and ProActiv.

It had a turnover of three billion euro (£2.7 billion), earnings of 680 million euro (£601 million) and assets of 1.1 billion euro (£973 million) in 2016, according to Unilever.

The deal, which must win regulatory backing, is expected to be complete by the middle of next year, with Unilever pledging to return net cash from the sale to shareholders unless a "value-creating acquisition" emerges.

Shares in Unilever closed up more than 1% on the London Stock Exchange.

Johannes Huth, head of KKR EMEA, said: "The strength of the portfolio of consumer brands in spreads provides a firm foundation for future growth.

"We look forward to deploying our global network and operational expertise to support the business's growth ambitions while continuing to follow Unilever's responsible sourcing policies, including working towards the goal of sourcing 100% sustainable palm oil by 2019."

The Marmite and Pot Noodle-maker announced in October that third-quarter sales were hit by hurricanes in the US and poor weather in Europe.

It posted a 2.6% increase in underlying sales for the period to 13.2 billion euro (£11.8 billion), below expectations and down from 3% in the first half of the year.

Unilever - which employs 169,000 people worldwide - secured a 2.27 billion euro (£1.9 billion) deal to buy South Korean cosmetics firm Carver Korea earlier this year.

It bought the business from Bain Capital Private Equity, Goldman Sachs and the firm's founder, strengthening its foothold in the Asian beauty market.