Fortress-led group to buy UK’s Morrisons for $8.7 billion

Business

FILE – In this Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 file photo, a view of a Morrisons sign, at a supermarket is seen in London, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008. Morrisons, A group led by U.S.-based Fortress Investment has agreed to buy Morrisons, the U.K.’s fourth-largest supermarket chain, for 6.3 billion pounds ($8.7 billion) as overseas investors look for bargains in a market battered by Brexit and the pandemic. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

LONDON (AP) — A group led by U.S.-based Fortress Investment has agreed to buy Morrisons, the U.K.’s fourth-largest supermarket chain, for 6.3 billion pounds ($8.7 billion) as overseas investors look for bargains in a market battered by Brexit and the pandemic.

The deal comes just a month after Morrisons rejected a 5.5 billion pound offer from New York-based Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, saying the bid undervalued the company.

The Fortress-led group agreed to pay 254 pence a share for Morrisons, 42% more than the shares were worth before the Clayton Dubilier bid, Morrisons said Saturday. The group also includes the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Koch Real Estate Investments.

U.K. assets are relatively cheap after uncertainty over Britain’s departure from the European Union and widespread COVID-19 restrictions weighed on stock prices. Britain’s benchmark FTSE 100 Index has fallen 7.3% since the beginning of last year, compared with a 26% gain in the S&P 500.

Grocery stores are also racing to adjust to the shift toward online shopping as many consumers opted for home deliveries to avoid face-to-face contact during the pandemic. Almost 29% of all retail spending took place online in May, up from 19.9% in February 2020, according to government statistics.

“This signals the biggest shakeup in the U.K. grocery sector for over a decade…,” Richard Lim, CEO of the independent consultancy Retail Economics, said of the Morrisons deal. “The shift towards online grocery shopping, the growth of rapid delivery and the cross-over with the takeaway market presents lucrative opportunities if the transition of ownership becomes seamless.”

Private equity investors such as Fortress typically acquire undervalued companies then look for ways to cut costs and boost profits before selling them at a profit.

Morrisons said Fortress intends for the company to remain a standalone operation led by its current management.

The jobs and pension rights of employees will be safeguarded, and Fortress supports a recent decision to pay all of its staff at least 10 pounds an hour, Morrisons said.

“We have looked very carefully at Fortress’ approach, their plans for the business and their overall suitability as an owner of a unique British food-maker and shopkeeper…,” said Andrew Higginson, chairman of Morrisons “It’s clear to us that Fortress has a full understanding and appreciation of the fundamental character of Morrisons.”

Morrisons, which employs about 110,000 people, operates 497 stores and 339 gas stations across the U.K.

Seema Malhotra, the opposition Labour Party’s spokesperson on business and consumer issues, said the takeover must be closely scrutinized by the government, given the essential service supermarkets provide.

She also called for binding commitments to protect workers and suppliers.

“Ministers must urgently work with Morrisons and the consortium to ensure that crucial commitments to protect the workforce and the pension scheme are legally binding and met,″ Malhotra said. “Ministers must also ensure legal promises are made about the integrity and future of the business, including any impact on the supply chain and distribution centers.”

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