JAPANESE food giant Lion yesterday put a bomb under the battle for control of Warrnambool Cheese and Butter (WCB), buying a 10 per cent stake in a stockmarket plunge at $9.25 per share.
In a day of trading that Bell Potter Securities senior stockbroker Bill Richmond described as “the most extraordinary thing I have seen in 47 years of stockbroking”, $52 million was paid for 5.5 million shares by a then unidentified buyer.
Lion confirmed late yesterday that it was the buyer.
The acquisition comes as WCB is locked in a three-way takeover battle between Bega Cheese, Murray Goulburn and Saputo.
The development will send them back to their respective boardrooms to rethink their strategies. The $9.25 price trounces any of the takeover bids on the table. It is $1.25 above Saputo’s $8 bid, which is currently the highest offer.
Yesterday’s action started at 11.36am when $9.25 was offered on-market, 95 cents above the opening price.
More than 3.2 million shares, or 5.7 per cent of WCB shares, had changed hands by noon.
“The big boys are selling now,” Mr Richmond said as he watched the stockmarket activity.
By the time the offer was withdrawn mid-afternoon, 5.5 million shared had been traded, including a single parcel of 1.1 million shares.
A further 700,000 shares were traded before the market closed at $8.80.
The day’s rollercoaster saw shares trade from a low of $8.26 to a top of $9.30 before closing at $8.80.
Lion’s strategy remains unclear. WCB company secretary Paul Moloney issued a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange mid-afternoon saying “WCB is not aware of the reason for the unusual share trading”.
But industry insiders believe Lion’s move was to protect WCB against a full takeover.
In a statement Lion said has “enjoyed a close relationship with WCB over many years and WCB plays an important role in Lion’s cheese business”.
“Lion considers this stake a continuation and strengthening of this relationship.”
The acquisition is particularly significant for the Saputo bid. With Murray Goulburn and Bega jointly owning 35 per cent of WCB, this purchase puts 45 per cent in the hands of three entities, leaving only 55 per cent up for grabs.
Saputo needs to buy 90 per cent of those remaining shares to achieve its takeover threshold of 50.1 per cent.
Saputo chief executive Lino Saputo jnr was at the Allansford plant yesterday as part of a district tour meeting suppliers.
He played down the implications for his company’s bid.
“We are still pretty optimistic,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s certain things we control, other things that we don’t control.
‘‘I think that every shareholder, including Murray Goulburn and Bega and whoever the mystery buyer is has the opportunity to tender their shares to us.
“I think our story is very good, I think our intentions are very good and I’m still very optimistic that the 50.1 would be achievable.”
Lion operates across many food and beverage markets. It was formed in 2009 under the name Lion Nathan National Foods when Kirin Holdings completed its purchase of Lion Nathan and merged the business with National Foods.