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Comment: A delayed deal, but drinks firms are defiant

Terry Murden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Terry Murden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

  • by TERRY MURDEN
 

THE merger of Irn-Bru maker AG Barr and Britvic was supposed to create a British heavyweight in the £9 billion soft drinks market.

Referring the £1.4bn tie-up of the two companies to a competition inquiry has put that plan on hold, and possibly in jeopardy, and has infuriated the two parties, one of whom claimed the decision is anti-British.

Even after the merger, the newly-created Barr Britvic Soft Drinks company would represent between 12 and 14 per cent of the market, half that of market leader Coca-Cola Enterprises with 28 per cent.

Gerald Corbett, chairman of Britvic and chairman designate of the new combined group, was particularly vocal about the Office of Fair Trading’s decision, accusing it of thwarting 
“national champions”. While the OFT has every right to express concerns about the possibility of higher prices, it is hard to disagree with Corbett’s view that, if the new company did raise its prices, the consumer would simply buy more Coke.

In any case, raising prices is not so easy when 70 per cent of all drinks in a hugely-competitive sector are sold through some sort of promotion.

The two partners have pledged to persuade the Competition Commission of the merits of their case, but this deal will not now go ahead much before the end of the year, if at all.

Corbett, of course, may have a 
special reason to plead the case as Britvic, whose brands include 
Robinsons and Tango, has suffered three troubling years that have included a number of profits warnings. 
Pulling together a merger with Barr therefore helped give the company a more stable and sustainable future, 
albeit at the cost of some 500 jobs.

The lapsing of the proposed merger amid uncertainty that it will go ahead is bound to weigh on the shares, though analysts – one of whom 
described the OFT decision as 
“bewildering” and “perplexing” – seem to believe that the deal is 
delayed rather than dead.

A relinquishing of Barr’s licensing agreement for Orangina and the sale of some non-core brands might be required to meet the authorities’ concerns, but it looks as though the two parties will fight on.

Standard cashing in on rich people’s assets

there was radio silence from Standard Life yesterday over speculation that it is about to spend £90 million acquiring Newton Investment Management’s wealth management business.

The company refused to comment, but it would seem to be in pole position to pick up the business against competition from some of the leading players in a growing sector.

Wealth management has been thriving with a host of new names arriving in Scotland and notable 
expansion among others. There has also been some consolidation as the bigger firms mop up non-core assets from other companies.

Managing rich people’s money – Standard Life Wealth handles clients with more than half a million to invest – is proving lucrative indeed and highly profitable for the group, which now sees this division as a key contributor to the bottom line, particularly as its core life and pensions businesses face other challenges.

In the last quarter, inflows rose by 95 per cent and assets under management have hit £1.6bn in just four years, making it one of the fastest-growing discretionary fund managers in the country. With the addition of Newton, it will get just a little bigger.

 

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