Beatrice Cos. Inc. is selling more than Peter Pan peanut butter, Max Factor cosmetics and Tropicana orange juice these days. The company itself is officially for sale.
William W. Granger Jr., chairman of the giant Chicago-based consumer products company, said yesterday that Beatrice will solicit takeover bids from interested suitors. He also said Beatrice will negotiate with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., the New York investment firm that improved its unsolicited takeover bid for the company by raising it to $47 a share on Monday.
However, Wall Street sources said Beatrice privately has been talking with interested parties for almost two weeks, since KKR made its initial $45-a-share, $5.4 billion takeover bid. The private conversations apparently have not produced any satisfactory competing bids.
One Wall Street source said Beatrice's announcement is designed to give the company additional time to solicit competing bids. It also should give Beatrice additional bargaining power in negotiations with KKR. But Wall Street analysts, who have grown pessimistic about the prospect for other bids, said no new suitors have surfaced. The lack of suitors reflects that KKR's latest bid, worth more than $5.5 billion, is a high price, given that Beatrice has more than $2 billion of debt on its books, analysts said.
In a statement released after the Beatrice board of directors met, Granger said recent events have forced the company to seek a buyer.
"In taking this action, the Beatrice board is recognizing the realities of the situation forced on Beatrice by the unsolicited proposals by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the unusual trading in Beatrice stock in recent months, and the large accumulation of Beatrice shares by institutions, arbitrageurs and speculators," Granger said. "Despite the uncertainties caused by the current situation, Beatrice will do everything possible to protect its employes, customers and suppliers."
Granger said there is no assurance that a transaction will take place and that Beatrice will continue to pursue a restructuring program on its own. That program, designed to reduce the amount of debt on the company's books, includes the possible sale of Beatrice's Avis car rental business.
The KKR group seeking to acquire Beatrice includes former Esmark chairman Donald P. Kelly, who would be named chairman of Beatrice if the bid is successful. Since Kelly would replace several top Beatrice executives with his Esmark management team, some top Beatrice executives have been trying to defeat the proposal.
Beatrice, which had sales of $12.6 billion and net income of $479 million in the year ending Feb. 28, has been the target of takeover speculation since former chairman James L. Dutt was ousted by the company's board of directors in August. He was replaced by Granger, a former Beatrice executive who Wall Street analysts expected to guide the company through a difficult period, but who was not perceived to be a permanent replacement for Dutt.
Beatrice stock rose 1 3/4 yesterday to 44, as more than 5 million shares changed hands in very active trading.