Unilever Sells Spreads Business to KKR for $8B

The business has been in decline as consumers turn to natural fats such as butter but KKR believes it has "a firm foundation for future growth."
Matthew HellerDecember 18, 2017

Margarine has been losing out in its battle with butter but that didn’t stop KKR from making an $8 billion bet on Unilever’s spreads business.

The private equity giant outbid other buyout funds for such brands as Flora, Country Crock, Blue Band, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. The business employs 2,300 people around the world and represents about 7% of Unilever’s global business.

Unilever had been shopping the unit as part of an effort to streamline its operations and improve performance in the wake of the unwanted $143 billion takeover bid from Kraft Heinz, which left it looking vulnerable. The $8 billion sale to KKR is the largest leveraged buyout in Europe announced this year.

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“After a long history in Unilever we decided that the future of the spreads business would lie outside the group,” CEO Paul Polman said in a news release.

“The [sale] marks a further step in reshaping and sharpening our portfolio for long-term growth,” he added. “The consideration recognises the market leading brands and the improved momentum we have achieved.”

One of the original two firms that merged to form Unilever in 1929 was Margarine Unie. The Anglo-Dutch conglomerate now owns hundreds of brands, including soap powder Persil, food product Knorr, Lipton tea, and Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream.

The spreads business has been in decline as consumers turn to natural fats such as butter. Global sales of butter are expected to rise by 9% over the next five years, whereas sales of margarine are projected to stay flat.

But overall U.S. sales of margarines and spreads still came to $1.81 billion last year, according to industry tracker Euromonitor International.

“The strength of the portfolio of [Unilever’s] consumer brands in spreads provides a firm foundation for future growth,” said Johannes Huth, head of KKR’s operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “We look forward to deploying our global network and operational expertise to support the business’s growth ambitions.”

Reuters noted that Unilever “has taken steps to stem the decline [of the spreads business] and the unit is very profitable.”