Murray Goulburn sees regulator decision on Warrnambool offer by end-Feb

SYDNEY Mon Jan 6, 2014 6:41pm EST

SYDNEY Jan 7 (Reuters) - Murray Goulburn Co-operative Co Ltd said on Tuesday it expects a regulatory decision on its offer for Australia's Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory Holdings Co by the end of February, a shorter time-frame than initially anticipated.

Murray Goulburn is anxiously awaiting approval for its A$530 million bid as it faces strong competition from Canada's Saputo Inc, which has the only unconditional offer on the table.

Saputo in December sweetened its A$515 million ($461 million) offer for Warrnambool, increasing the value with incremental acceptance levels. It will rise as high as A$549 million ($492 million) if it receives acceptances of 90 percent or more of Warrnambool shareholders.

At stake is a platform for rapidly growing sales of both traditional dairy products and high-tech milk extracts into China.

Saputo, which has the backing of Warrnambool's board, said on Dec. 24 it had acceptances worth 17.9 percent of Australia's oldest dairy company. Analysts said it is likely to be speaking with former bidding rival Bega Cheese Ltd, which pulled out of the race in December, and Japanese beverage giant Kirin Holdings Co Ltd.

Bega and Murray Goulburn both own around 18 percent of Warrnambool, while Kirin holds 10 percent through its Australian subsidiary Lion Co.

Saputo's offer is due to close on Friday.

The Australian Competition Tribunal has scheduled a five-day hearing into Murray Goulburn's offer to start on Feb. 10. Analysts had been expecting the tribunal to take as long as three to six months to make a final decision.

"The tribunal is focused on determining the application by the end of February, though it remains a matter for the Tribunal to decide whether that period will ultimately need to be extended," Murray Goulburn said in a statement.