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U.S. investment fund Steel Partners launched a takeover bid Friday for Bull-Dog Sauce Co., aiming to buy all outstanding shares in the leading Japanese sauce maker.

The buyout offer is likely a hostile one because Bull-Dog’s management has cast doubt on the move.

The company will announce its official position next week, sources said.

Acquiring all shares would cost Steel Partners about 28 billion yen. The fund is offering 1,584 yen per share, which is about 18 percent more than its average share price over the last one month. The offer will end June 28.

“We respect the experience and ability of Bull-Dog Sauce’s existing management team,” Steel Partners Japan Strategic Fund, the fund’s Japanese unit, said in a released statement. “We believe our offer presents a win-win opportunity for investors, the company and its employees.”

Steel Partners is already the Tokyo-based sauce maker’s biggest shareholder and holds a 10.52 percent stake.

“We think the current management is the most appropriate,” Bull-Dog Senior Managing Director Masaomi Tamiya told a news conference the same day to announce its financial results for 2006. “We doubt Steel Partners could manage us.”

Tamiya said looking for a friendly merger partner would be “an option in the future,” but the company was not currently considering it.

Bull-Dog does not have any approved defense measures for unsolicited buyout bids, including a poison pill that would allow it to issue equity warrants to dilute a buyer’s stake. This will limit the company’s options to finding a willing white knight.

If Bull-Dog finds a white knight, the move may lead to a realignment of the sauce industry in Japan.

The sauce firm had 27.4 percent of the market in 2006.

Bull-Dog officials told the news conference its group net profit for the year to March 31 rose 24.6 percent from the previous year to 500 million yen on sales of 16.7 billion yen, up 14.0 percent, after acquiring smaller rival Ikari Sauce Co. during the year.

Bull-Dog stock attracted strong buying in Friday’s morning session on the second section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, briefly rising to 1,776 yen before closing at 1,650 yen.

After Steel Partners announced the Bull-Dog buyout plan Wednesday, no stock deals were concluded the following day because buy orders far surpassed sell orders, making 1,536 yen, calculated from the issue’s daily maximum gain, the standard trading price for Friday.

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