Business / Corporate

Japan's Asahi to buy London Pride brewery for $330 million


Asahi Group Holdings Ltd. agreed to buy Fuller, Smith & Turner PLC’s brewing business for $330 million, showing that despite business angst about Brexit, there’s still international demand for the most British of products — ale and cider.

Fuller shares surged as much as 25 percent, the most ever, on a £250 million deal that includes its London Pride brand, soft-drink production assets and wine wholesaling. The British company will focus on its pub and hotel operations.

Asahi’s push to expand in the U.K. runs counter to the trend among some other Japanese companies like Panasonic Corp. or Toyota Motor Corp., which have been shifting operations out of the U.K. or threatening to scale back if the country crashes out of the European Union without a deal.

Alarm about a messy exit is spreading in industries ranging from aerospace to fashion to craft brewing. Airbus SE Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders this week labeled the U.K. government’s handling of Brexit a “disgrace,” while Burberry Group PLC warned of snags in its supply chain and BrewDog PLC described a no-deal divorce as a “doomsday” scenario.

In Asahi’s case, any concerns about Brexit were overridden by the need to expand internationally. Like Japanese rivals Kirin Holdings Co., Suntory Holdings Ltd. and Sapporo Holdings Ltd., the company faces a stagnant domestic market. Asahi’s purchase builds on its 2016 acquisition of Peroni, Grolsch and Pilsner Urquell lagers from Budweiser maker Anheuser-Busch InBev NV in two takeovers worth more than $10 billion combined. The global giant inherited those labels via its deal for SABMiller PLC.

The overseas ventures have produced mixed results. Since the Pilsner acquisition, Asahi has backed away from some of its investments elsewhere in Asia, last year selling most of its nearly 20 percent holding in China’s Tsingtao Brewery Co. to Fosun International Inc. for $847 million. Asahi also divested its stake in Indonesian beverage ventures.

London Pride, which is Fuller, Smith & Turner’s flagship ale, has been produced in the U.K. capital since the late 1950s at the Griffin Brewery in Chiswick and has been the official beer sponsor of the London Marathon, beginning in 2007.

Asahi could capitalize on the heritage of Fuller’s brands through exports, Mintel analyst Jonny Forsyth said. That’s probably a bigger driver of the deal than any desire to expand in the U.K., he said.

“Tradition, heritage and craft are all factors which play very well in Asia,” Forsyth said. “Brexit could actually play to Asahi’s advantage because it is putting pressure on the value of the pound, which makes exports cheaper.”

Consolidation in the brewing industry has reached a frenetic pace, with the world’s largest beer-makers seeking an edge over competitors through alliances in fast-growing segments such as craft beer or emerging markets where consumption is growing in line with rising incomes.

This week, through its recently formed merchant banking arm, Japanese brokerage Nomura Holdings Inc. and U.S. private equity firm Carlyle Group LP made a joint ¥52.2 billion ($476 million) tender offer for Okinawa-based Orion Breweries Ltd. Last year, Heineken NV took a $3.1 billion stake in China’s top brewer in a bid to challenge AB InBev’s position as the largest foreign beer-maker in the world’s biggest market, while Carlsberg A/S increased the stakes it owns in some joint ventures in Asia.

In the deal with Fuller, Asahi is paying 23.6 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for the year through last March. The U.K. company’s shares were boosted by plans to return 55 million to 69 million pounds to shareholders after the sale.

Rothschild & Co. advised Fuller’s on the deal, which should be completed in the first half. Nomura advised Asahi.

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