December 18 deadline for WCB submissions

THE Australian Competition Tribunal yesterday signalled it will not allow delaying tactics in its hearing of Murray Goulburn’s application for clearance to take over Warrnambool Cheese and Butter (WCB).

In a preliminary hearing, the tribunal set a deadline of December 18 for all parties to make submissions on the application, thwarting any possible tactics by parties who might benefit from a delay.

The move sets up the case for a five-day hearing from February 10 and a decision in late February.

It is the best outcome the co-operative could have hoped for, given that the hearing could have taken up to six months.

Murray Goulburn is locked in an aggressive three-way battle with Canadian firm Saputo and Bega Cheese for control of the Allansford processor.

Murray Goulburn managing director Gary Helou had earlier expressed his frustration at not being able to open the co-operative’s bid while rival Saputo had been given unconditional regulatory clearance.

However, the battle has now been becalmed for more than a week as the Takeovers Panel looks into aspects of Saputo’s offer, forcing a halt on its bid.

Meanwhile, Japanese food and drinks giant Lion says it intends to use its holding in WCB to protect its own cheese business, regardless of who gains majority control.

Lion bought a 10 per cent holding in WCB in the midst of the takeover chase. Lion boss Stuart Irvine, who was in Geelong yesterday to launch a new brewery, said his company would use its holding to protect its own cheese business from being downgraded by any new owner.

Lion has a joint venture with WCB to manufacture its volume cheese brands.

Mr Irvine said Lion had no intention of taking a further stake in WCB.

“This means we have a seat at the table to make sure that relations we currently have are looked after during any potential transfer of ownership,” Mr Irvine told Fairfax.

With 10 per cent holding, Lion is in a position of being able to block a full takeover of WCB, ensuring that it would remain an independent listed company regardless of the majority ownership.

If it chooses to relinquish its holding to a new owner it could do so in exchange for secure contracts.

On another front, Murray Goulburn is holding meetings with its shareholders to explain the structure of a proposed restructure to help fund its expansion program.

The plan involves creating an investment entity listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Media has been excluded from attending the meetings and no further details have been disclosed.

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