Iconic Queensland pineapple cannery and fruit juicer Golden Circle is finally being sold to a food multinational — Heinz — in the last act of a financial folly that started with the farmers’ co-op shaking hands with Babcock and Brown.

Heinz is offering $288 million for Golden Circle — $1.65 a share, significantly more than the 40 cents they’ve been trading for on the thin National Stock Exchange and the 80 cents that Phil Cave’s private equity outfit, Anchorage Capital, paid for a controlling stake last year.

The deal shows good local private equiteers are still making very nice profits. It also raises the question yet again of why Australians seem incapable of running independent food companies as control of yet another goes offshore.

Alan Kohler nicely documented the Babcock and Brown r-pe of Golden Circle last year. Nothing like a financial engineer charging 21 per cent for a loan back when money was relatively cheap to ensure there would be few to have little sympathy for them when their own demise looms.

Anchorage Capital in turn has profited very nicely from the B&B stake, but at least in the process it also added value for the farmer shareholders. The 80 cents Phil Cave paid for control was 20 per cent less than a 100 per cent takeover offer from Coca-Cola Amatil at the time, but it’s paid off by delivering its promise of upside.

Golden Circle had to rely on selling real estate to report its first profit in four years last month. Assuming the farmers take their board’s recommendation and sell, it will be Heinz’s problem of how to make the brand operationally successful.

In today’s media release Heinz is making a rather less-than-rock-solid promise of continuing to buy the farmers’ pineapples:

Heinz has indicated its desire to maintain contracts between Golden Circle and its growers, who would benefit from potential increases in demand volume over time as Heinz grows the business.

Ah yes, “desire”, “potential” and “over time” — all interesting and rather non-specific words, but necessary to bring the farmers to the line on the vote. While Anchorage has control, it still needs farmer shareholder support as the deal is being done by a scheme of arrangement requiring support of 50 per cent of the shareholders voting as well as 75 per cent of the voted shares.

Queensland pineapple farmers can be strange folk — they jumped into bed with Babcock and Brown — and Heinz’s Australian operation is headquartered in Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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