Unilever says offer made for GSK’s £50bn consumer unit

Unilever has approached GlaxoSmithKline about a potential acquisition of its consumer health joint venture with Pfizer for as much as £50bn in what could become one of the London market’s largest deals.

The consumer goods group said on Saturday that it “has approached GSK and Pfizer about a potential acquisition of the business”. The formal bid was unsolicited. GSK declined to comment.

GSK Consumer Healthcare is a leader in the attractive consumer health space and would be a strong strategic fit as Unilever continues to reshape its portfolio. There can be no certainty that any agreement will be reached,” Unilever added.

The Sunday Times, which first reported the bid, said the maker of Dove soap and Magnum ice cream offered about £50bn for the division late last year, but was rebuffed.

Analysts have valued the business at about £47bn to £48bn, suggesting the bid did not include a significant premium or savings from synergies between the two consumer companies.

Unilever declined to comment on whether it would return with a higher bid.

GSK has been preparing to spin off the division, a joint venture with Pfizer which makes Panadol painkillers, Theraflu cold and flu medicine, and Otrivin decongestant. The new division would be led by insider Brian McNamara and its board is due to be chaired by Dave Lewis, the former Tesco chief executive.

Activist investors including US hedge fund Elliott Management have put pressure on Emma Walmsley, GSK’s chief executive, to explore other options — including a sale — if it can generate greater returns for shareholders. Walmsley plans to use proceeds from the spin-off to bolster the pharma and drugs business’ lacklustre pipeline.

Pfizer owns 32 per cent of the division, which GSK has said it will list in London this year, although private equity groups have also looked at a potential purchase.

A Unilever buyout would be one of the largest ever on the London market, bringing together the FTSE’s third-largest company with a division that, if independent, would be in its top 20. It would be rivalled only by Vodafone’s acquisition of Germany’s Mannesmann in 1999 and AB InBev’s purchase of SABMiller in 2016.

The approach came as Unilever, already one of the world’s largest consumer goods groups, seeks to renew momentum after a period of tepid sales growth.

Its share price has languished since chief executive Alan Jope took over in 2019, and top-10 investor Terry Smith this week attacked the company as “labouring under the weight of a management which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business”.

Other investors disputed that, but most agree the company must address its underperformance. It agreed last year to sell off its tea division, which has been a drag on growth, for €4.5bn to private equity group CVC, but has yet to make a major acquisition under Jope.

Unilever in 2018 agreed a deal to buy GSK’s health food drinks business, including the Horlicks brand, in India and other Asian markets for €3.3bn. It has also acquired a series of small consumer health brands, including Smarty Pants, Olly and Onnit supplements and Liquid IV drinks mixes.

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