* Nine industrial and private equity players bid on Yoplait
* Sale of Yoplait to foreign buyer would be sensitive
* French sovereign fund could take stake
* Sale is complicated by taxes and death of Sodiaal CEO
By Nina Sovich and Julien Ponthus
PARIS, Feb 9 (Reuters) - France’s Yoplait said on Wednesday it had received nine preliminary offers for a half stake in the world’s second-largest yoghurt maker.
Private equity firm PAI Partners hired bankers last September to sell its stake, while Sodiaal, the French farming cooperative, pledged to retain the remaining 50 percent.
The sale of a high profile company like Yoplait is sensitive in France where the government is vigilant about protecting valuable national brands from foreign takeover.
France’s sovereign wealth fund, the Fond Strategique d‘Investissement, may take a minority stake as part of a broader capital increase, sources have told Reuters. [ID:nLDE6B60UN]
The appetite for food companies is high as both industrial and private players search out safe havens in an uncertain global economy.
The highest bid received this week was well over initial estimates that Yoplait was worth between 1.2 billion and 1.5 billion euros. China’s Bright Foods made a preliminary offer of between 1.8 billion euros and 1.9 billion, a source close to the deal said.
The French media has reported that other bidders include Mexico’s Grupo Lala, French cheese maker Bel (FROB.PA), French dairy group Lactalis, Swiss-based Nestle NESN.VX and General Mills (GIS.N).
Private equity firms Axa Private Equity (AXAF.PA), Bain Capital and Lion Capital are also thought to be bidding.
PAI, which did not name the bidders on Wednesday, said Yoplait operations would be split from the brand and royalties business, allowing Sodiaal to retain a 50 percent stake in the brand business.
A source close to the deal said this move has added an extra layer of complexity, particularly over tax.
The death of Sodiaal CEO Claude Sendowski on Jan. 29 has also complicated the process.
“This isn’t an easy deal and recent events haven’t made it easier,” said the source.
PAI and Sodiaal said in their statement Wednesday that they would decide in the coming days which potential bidders would be invited to participate in a second round of offers.
Final round bids for the stake are due at the end of March, the source said.
Editing by David Cowell