Campbell’s eyes United Biscuits deal

CAMPBELL’S, the American maker of tinned soup and pasta sauces, has emerged as a potential bidder for part of United Biscuits (UB), the manufacturer of Jaffa Cakes.

Campbell’s has hired Centerview Partners to look at UB’s biscuits division, which includes the McVitie’s and Jacob’s brands and could be worth up to £1.5bn. The US food giant is less interested in UB’s snacks arm, which makes Hula Hoops crisps, or its northern European operations.

UB’s private equity owners, Blackstone and PAI Partners, hired banks JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs to conduct a strategic review of the business last month. Sources emphasised the process was ongoing and could result in the buyout houses deciding not to sell the asset.

The takeover specialists paid £1.6bn for UB in 2006, and are considering splitting the company into its biscuits and snacks units to make it more attractive to buyers. The biscuits segment provides around three quarters of UB’s £1.3bn turnover.

Although UB grew its business profit by 13.7 per cent to £223.4m and bounced back to a £35.4m pre-tax profit last year, it comes laden with £1.2bn net debt. Accounts filed at Companies House also reveal its pension schemes swung from a £42.9m surplus to a £153.3m shortfall, which could discourage some bidders.

Campbell’s is not the only name in the frame. Kraft – which was advised on its purchase of Cadbury by Centerview – Kellogg, PepsiCo and India’s Britannia are also thought to be casting their eyes over UB.

UB was formed in 1948 from two Scottish companies and employs just under 8,400 people in the UK, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.