Asahi Said to Be Near Agreement to Buy Independent Liquor for $1.2 Billion

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Asahi Group Holdings Ltd., Japan’s largest brewer by volume, is close to an agreement to buy New Zealand’s Independent Liquor for about NZ$1.5 billion ($1.2 billion), two people with knowledge of the matter said.

A deal may be announced as early as Aug. 18, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. Takayuki Tanaka, a spokesman for Asahi in Tokyo, declined to comment. A transaction of that size would be Asahi’s biggest, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Japanese beverage makers including Asahi and Kirin Holdings Co., the country’s biggest by market value, are expanding abroad as a declining and aging population hurts domestic demand for beer and soft drinks. A strengthening yen, which hit a postwar record of 76.25 to the dollar in March, boosts Japanese companies’ buying power abroad.

“Japan’s market is mature, so it is inevitable for Japanese brewery companies to seek M&A chances overseas,” Mitsushige Akino, who oversees about $600 million in Tokyo Ichiyoshi Investment Management Co., said by telephone.

Asahi submitted a bid for Independent Liquor on Aug. 4, a person familiar with the matter said the following day. Independent Liquor, owned by Unitas Capital Pte. and Sydney- based Pacific Equity Partners, distributes brands including Woodstock bourbon, Whyte & Mackay scotch, Carlsberg and Tuborg beers as well as pre-mixed drinks in New Zealand and Australia.

Schweppes Beverages
Amanda Lee, a spokeswoman at Financial Dynamics, Pacific Equity Partners’ external media adviser, declined to comment on a possible sale of Independent Liquor.

Asahi declined 0.1 percent to close at 1,588 yen in Tokyo trading. The stock has gained 1 percent this year, compared with a 13 percent slide in the broader Topix index.

The brewer’s biggest acquisition has been its purchase of Cadbury Plc’s Schweppes Beverages business in Australia for 550 million pounds, or about $808 million at the time, which was completed in April 2009.

Asahi has lagged behind Kirin, Japan’s biggest beverage maker by market value, in expanding overseas. Asahi has spent more than $2 billion abroad in the past five years, compared with Kirin’s more than $12 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Kirin on Aug. 2 paid 3.95 billion reais ($2.5 billion) to gain a stake in Schincariol Participacoes e Representacoes SA, Brazil’s second-largest beermaker.

Overseas Sales
Asahi last month agreed to buy the water and juice businesses of P&N Beverages Australia Pty Ltd. and New Zealand drink maker Charlie’s Group Ltd. (CHA) for $309 million to expand overseas as sales growth declines at home.

“Developing markets like Brazil or India are still volatile, so I think it is safer and easier for Asahi to focus on Oceania,” Akino of Ichiyoshi Investment said.

Kirin made more than 23 percent of its 1.7 trillion yen in 2010 sales abroad, while Asahi generated 6.6 percent of its 1.5 trillion sales in the same period overseas, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The yen traded at 76.87 as of 5:01 p.m. in Tokyo. The Japanese currency may rise past the record it reached in March, spurred by investor flight to haven assets, Eisuke Sakakibara, formerly Japan’s top currency official, said yesterday.

Group of Seven nations jointly sold the yen on March 18, the day after it reached an all-time high amid speculation Japanese companies would repatriate funds to cope with a record earthquake days earlier. Japan unilaterally sold its currency on Sept. 15 in its first intervention since 2004.