Produce giant Chiquita Brands International said Monday that it will buy Irish rival Fyffes in an all-stock deal valued at $526 million, making the Charlotte-based company the world’s largest banana supplier.
The merger is sure to raise a stink in an industry dominated by a small bunch of suppliers. Chiquita, Fyffes, Dole Food and Fresh Del Monte control more than 80 percent of the world’s banana trade, according to the United Nations.
Chiquita estimates that the acquisition will result in annual revenue of $4.6 billion and produce operational savings of about $40 million by the end of 2016. The deal, which is expected to close by the end of 2014, has been approved by both boards. It is subject to shareholder and regulatory approval.
The combined company will be known as ChiquitaFyffes, with 50.7 percent of the firm owned by Chiquita shareholders and the remaining 49.3 percent held by Fyffes shareholders. ChiquitaFyffes, which will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, will be incorporated in Ireland and have an estimated value of $1.07 billion, according to the company.
“This is a natural strategic partnership,” Ed Lonergan, Chiquita’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The combined company will also be able to provide customers with a more diverse product mix and choice.”
Lonergan will become chairman of the new company, while Fyffes’s executive chairman, David McCann, will become chief executive. ChiquitaFyffes will have a combined workforce of 32,000 employees in nearly 70 countries. It also will have a strong position in pineapples, melons and packaged salads, according to the company.
“This deal will be transformative and offer exciting opportunities for the new business,” McCann said in a statement.
It is a difficult time to be in the banana business.
Exports of the fruit rose by 7.3 percent in 2012 to an all-time high of 16.5 million tons, according to the most recent data from the U.N. Innovations. Refrigeration of bananas in transport has extended their shelf life and bolstered demand.
Yet pricing pressures from supermarkets are hurting producer profits, while growers battle higher production costs in the face of rising levels of disease, analysts say.
“Two big fruit companies have felt the downward pressure of the big retail buyers on their margins, and consolidation appears to them to be a strategy for survival,” said Alistair Smith, international coordinator for Banana Link, a British nonprofit group fighting for fair banana trade. “Small farmers are under pressure from all sides, and big mergers like this can only make them more nervous about the future of their livelihoods.”
An unexpected oversupply of bananas in Guatemala and Ecuador created a soft market for Chiquita in the last three months of 2013, according to the company.
It lost $31 million during the fourth quarter, down from a $333 million loss for the same period a year earlier. Chiquita also was rocked by a persistent drought in the West that led to a shortage of iceberg lettuce and other ingredients needed for its Fresh Express-brand bagged salads.
The merger will unite two of the world’s oldest fruit distributors.
Chiquita began in 1870, when Capt. Lorenzo Dow Barker bought 160 bunches of bananas in Jamaica and sailed them to Jersey City. The company made a name for itself in 1944 by introducing the world to “Miss Chiquita,” a cartoon banana that extolled the virtues of eating the fruit.
Not all of Chiquita’s history is as bright. The company, under the name United Fruit, forced regime change throughout the Caribbean and Central America during the 1950s and ’60s to protect its interests.
Chiquita filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001, crippled by trade restrictions imposed by the European Union. That year, it paid the Securities and Exchange Commission $100,000 to resolve allegations that employees concealed a bribe paid to Colombian officials for a customs license.
Payoffs in Colombia got Chiquita in trouble again in 2007, when the company handed the Justice Department $25 million for paying paramilitary groups $1.7 million for protection in the northern Uraba region. U.S. officials got involved because the groups were on the State Department’s terrorist watch list.
Dublin-based Fyffes has been distributing bananas since founder Edward Wathen Fyffe shipped his first bunch in 1888 from the Canary Islands to London. The McCann family has run the company since the 1950s.
Shares of Fyffes rose more than 40 percent on news of the merger, while Chiquita’s shares surged more than 10 percent.