Spirits maker Belvedere warns of disaster if debt deal rejected

PARIS Mon Feb 18, 2013 12:17pm EST

PARIS Feb 18 (Reuters) - The administrator of French spirits group Belvedere warned of "industrial and social disaster" if shareholders won't approve a debt restructuring that would see their stakes drastically diluted.

The owner of Sobieski vodka and France's best-selling Scotch whisky William Peel, which counts U.S. movie star Bruce Willis among its shareholders, struck a deal with its creditors in September after four years of legal battle.

But it has had to call a second shareholder meeting on the plan after voting was adjourned at Tuesday's meeting because the minimum number of voters was not met, Belvedere said.

"There is no alternative plan," Belvedere's court-appointed judicial administrator told reporters at a news conference, referring to a proposal to convert 629 million euros of financial debt into equity.

"The consequences of the rejection of Belvedere's plan would be an industrial and social disaster," Frederic Abitbol said referring to the company's business and 3,315 staff worldwide, including 713 in France and 1,903 in Poland.

Any layoffs at Belvedere would be set against a steady drumbeat of industrial job cuts in France, turning up the heat on Socialist President Francois Hollande as unemployment stands at multi-year highs.

The drinks maker, founded in 1991, filed for court protection in June 2008 from creditors demanding early reimbursement of 375 million euros ($495 million) of debt the company had issued in 2006 to buy Marie Brizard liquors.

Since then, the company has been "at war" with its creditors and especially Oaktree Capital Management, its main creditor and owner of rival Stock Spirits, maker of Polish Orzel vodka.

If the deal is rejected by shareholders, the commercial court overseeing the case since March 2012, which is due to hold another hearing on March 11, will likely decide to liquidate the company, Abitbol said.

Belvedere shareholders include Willis, who holds close to 3 percent of its capital and told Le Figaro earlier this month he was in favour of the debt plan.

The company, which had originally sought to sell assets as part of the debt restructuring plan, has dropped this option as the offers received for its brands, totalling 154.4 million euros, were insufficient to repay creditors.

The second option is to convert its debt into equity, leading to a huge dilution for its shareholders as roughly 21 million new shares would be issued in addition to the 3.3 million shares outstanding.

Such a scenario, if approved by shareholders, would give creditors 87 percent of the company's capital while current shareholders would retain 13 percent.

Belvedere shares are down over 8 percent since the start of the year, after a 25 percent drop last year, valuing the company at 99 million euros.

Belvedere posted 2012 sales of 894 million euros but has not yet published earnings. In 2011, current operating loss reached 5 million euros and it made a net loss of 55 million euros. (Reporting by Alice Cannet and Pascale Denis; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)