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March 4, 2007 10:03 pm

Bacardi eyes Sweden’s Absolut

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Bacardi, maker of the world’s leading rum brand, has written to the Swedish government saying it wants to buy Swedish spirits group Vin & Sprit, the owner of Absolut vodka, according to Bacardi chief executive Andreas Gembler.

“V&S and Absolut especially would be a terrific fit for Bacardi,” Mr Gembler told the Financial Times. “Of the few global brands that are really left to acquire, V&S – and in particular Absolut – obviously represents a jewel for a company like ours.”

On Friday Sweden’s centre-right government asked parliament for formal permission to privatise V&S, which is wholly-owned by the government.

It remains unclear how a privatisation would occur, but it could include a sale or an initial public offering. Analysts have valued a sale of V&S, which derives most of its profits from the Absolut brand, at about €4.3bn ($5.7bn).

Absolut is the world’s second-biggest premium vodka brand globally by sales volumes after Diageo’s Smirnoff. Absolut sales grew from fewer than 2m over two decades ago to more than 9m cases in 2005 as vodka has become more popular, according to Impact, a drinks newsletter.

Mr Gembler said he would like to see the Swedish government sell V&S “as soon as possible” and he was hopeful it would be on the market by autumn.

But last month Bengt Baron, chief executive of V&S, said the Swedish group was growing strongly as an independent company and warned the government not to rush into a sale.

Mr Gembler claimed that the privately-held Bacardi would not need to pursue an initial public offering to buy V&S.

“There is no need today for an IPO,” he said. “We have absolutely no problem in financing any deal of this size. The banks who have lent money in the past and who are lending money today would be happy to help us in this situation.”

Pursuing an IPO has long been a sensitive subject for Bacardi, because it would dilute the family’s control of the Bermuda-based group. Bacardi’s 500 shareholders are all family members.

The move by Bacardi, whose brands include Martini vermouth, Dewar’s whisky and Bombay Sapphire gin, comes as other spirits groups also position themselves to buy V&S.

France’s Pernod Ricard has said it would consider acquiring Absolut, though it would have to give up its international distribution rights to Stolichnaya vodka. The US’s Fortune Brands, which owns Jim Beam bourbon and Sauza tequila and has a distribution joint venture with V&S, is considered a leading contender.

US companies Constellation Brands and Brown-Forman are also likely to look at Absolut.

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