Asahi closing in on $3 billion StarBev deal: sources

LONDON Fri Mar 30, 2012 9:46am EDT

A man reaches for a can of Japan's Asahi Breweries Super Dry beer at a liquor shop in Tokyo August 18, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

A man reaches for a can of Japan's Asahi Breweries Super Dry beer at a liquor shop in Tokyo August 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

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LONDON (Reuters) - Japanese brewer Asahi (2502.T) is finalizing the purchase of eastern European brewer StarBev from private equity owner CVC Capital Partners CVC.UL in a deal likely to be worth around $3 billion, people familiar with the matter said.

The two were hammering out the final details of a deal which could be announced as early as next week after Asahi was left as the only bidder, but the people said that the deadline was flexible and matters could still change.

"Asahi and CVC are putting the finishing touches to a deal," said one source with knowledge of the deal on Friday.

Another source said the two were looking to agree "just bits and pieces of detail" and once these were agreed then the process can move quickly towards signing an agreement.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Asahi was seen as a frontrunner in the auction to buy StarBev [ID:nL5E8E19JH].

CVC, which bought StarBev in December 2009, put the business up for sale after approaches from a number of brewers thought to include Asahi, Carlsberg (CARLb.CO), SABMiller (SAB.L) and Heineken (HEIN.AS).

The private equity firm had bought the business from the world's biggest brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR), calling it StarBev after its Czech beer Staropramen, and although AB InBev has the "right of first offer", at least two sources with knowledge of the deal said that AB InBev is not going to buy back the assets.

The business has operations in nine eastern European nations including the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, and although it has been hit by recent weakness in eastern European economies, it is still seen as a long-term growth story in a rapidly consolidating brewing world.

All parties involved either declined to comment or could not be immediately be reached for comment.

Big European brewers SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg had looked closely at the StarBev business but had concluded that anti-trust hurdles would be too difficult to overcome as all three have sizeable interests in eastern Europe.

AB InBev sold the business to cut debt after buying Anheuser Busch for $52 billion in cash in 2008 and is seen unlikely to buy back its relatively small positions in a range of markets while its eye is on the sizeable shares it has in key markets such as the U.S., Brazil, Russia and China.

The Belgium-based brewer could still earn a return if the business is sold to Asahi as when CVC bought StarBev for around $2.2 billion it agreed with AB InBev potential future payments of as much as $800 million based on CVC's return on its investment.

The brewer of Japan's top-selling beer "Super Dry" has been expanding abroad and last year Asahi president Naoki Izumiya signaled more overseas deals were likely as it aims for over 20 percent of its sales from foreign markets by 2015.

In Europe, the four big brewing stocks were all higher at 1220 GMT with AB InBev gaining 0.9 percent to 54.30 euros, SABMiller up 0.2 percent at 2,527 pence, Heineken up 0.7 percent to 41.75 euros and Carlsberg 3.3 percent higher at 460.90 crowns.

(Editing by Mike Nesbit and Erica Billingham)

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