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Foster’s does not rule out takeover talks with SABMiller

* CEO Pollaers says SABMiller offer was too low to bother with
* Says rejection of SABMiller bid did not mean it would not engage in talks
* Foster's rebrands beer business, tweaks name
* Shares trading barely above SABMiller's rejected offer (Adds analyst quotes, details)

Australian brewer and takeover target Foster's on Friday did not rule out takeover talks with suitor world No.2 SABMiller , but said the spurned $10.4 billion offer was so low it was not worth discussing.

Foster's new Chief Executive John Pollaers, facing a barrage of questions from analysts and shareholders at a business lunch, defended the board's decision to reject the deal and focus on restoring Foster's share in a declining Australian beer market.

"The value put on the table was so far away from reality that it wasn't worth engaging (with SABMiller)," Pollaers said.

But he added: "We are not saying that we would never engage. Our interest is the shareholders' interest."

Foster's, one of the last big prizes in a consolidating global beer market, has high margins and a 50 percent market share in Australia, where it brews the Victoria Bitter, Crown and Pure Blonde brands.

But it has been losing share as consumers switch from traditional brands to premium and craft beers, and on Friday Foster's launched a new logo, rebranding its main beer business with a minor change in name.

Pollaers said the brewer had the support of shareholders for its strategy of focusing on growing the business and not being distracted by the offer on the table.

But not all agreed.

"I would have thought if anyone approaches, you talk to them because you never know what can come of it," said Craig Young, portfolio manager at Tyndall Investment Management, which owns Foster's shares.

Reporting its first-quarter earnings last week, SABMiller, the maker of Miller Lite, Grolsch and Peroni, kept the market guessing if it will sweeten its bid.

Foster's rejected SABMiller's A$9.5 billion ($10.4 billion) offer last month and refused to enter discussions.

With no other bidders emerging since then, analysts have said SABMiller may be reluctant to bid against itself and could use Foster's upcoming annual results on Aug. 23 to put pressure on the Foster's board to negotiate.

SABMiller said in June it had shown no intention of going hostile, and it expected to engage the Foster's board in further talks.

It offered A$4.90 per share for Foster's, and after trading to a 10-month high of A$5.23, the shares have cooled in the absence of a rival bid to a slim premium over the offer price.

The shares dipped to A$4.98 on Thursday, recovering a bit on Friday to close at A$5.05, up 1.4 percent in a broader market down 0.9 percent.

STABILISED MARKET SHARE

Australia's beer market has declined in recent years, as consumers turn to wine and premixed drinks. But Foster's also has a large stable of traditional beers that are losing share to craft brands, and to main rival Kirin's Lion Nathan.

Pollaers said on Friday Foster's has stabilised its market share for the first time in 10 years and expects the beer sector to return to modest growth.

"We believe that once Australia moves through this period of economic uncertainty, the beer category will return to the long-term trend of modest growth," he said.

The past 12 months have been the most volatile the brewer has seen, mostly due to extreme weather conditions, including an unusually cool and wet southern hemisphere summer.

Pollaers took over as chief executive in May, after being the managing director of the beer business where he was the sixth chief in seven years.

"The company line is, Pollaers has to put his head down and he's got to regenerate the beer business and he has to put at the back of his mind the fact that SAB has approached them," said an analyst who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Still, Pollaers answered questions for nearly half an hour, longer than his formal speech at the business lunch, and nearly all of them on the company's rejection of SABMiller.

Foster's has forecast its beer volumes in the latest six months to June would decline 3-4 percent, a slight improvement from the December half, but severe floods across eastern Australia earlier this year could have further weakened sales.

The brewer rebranded its beer business on Friday with a minor tweak to the brand name.

The beer business will be called Carlton United Brewers, a slight change from the original Carlton & United Breweries, in what Pollaers said was a renewed focus on beer following the split from the wine unit, Treasury Wine Estates .

TWE was listed separately on the stock exchange in May.

1 Aug. 2011

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