At least three buyout groups seen advancing in Unilever spreads auction: sources

LONDON (Reuters) - At least three bidders are expected to be shortlisted for the second round of an auction for Unilever's ULVR.LUNc.AS margarine and spreads business while two other private equity groups are no longer in the fray, sources told Reuters.

The company logo for Unilever is displayed on a screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Buyout funds Blackstone BX.N and CVC Capital Partners [CVC.UL], who were teaming up on a joint offer, are no longer in the running for the business which could be worth more than $7 billion, the sources said on Tuesday.

BC Partners, which bid on its own, has not made it through to the second stage of the auction which is led by Goldman Sachs GS.N and Morgan Stanley MS.N, according to the sources.

A team comprising Bain Capital and Clayton Dubilier & Rice (CD&R) is expected to move to the second round of bidding along with private equity rivals KKR KKR.N and Apollo APO.N, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the process is private.

Unilever, Bain and Apollo declined to comment. Blackstone, CVC, BC Partners, CD&R and KKR were not immediately available to comment.

Unilever put the business up for sale after many years of declining sales, following an unsolicited $143 billion takeover bid by Kraft Heinz KHC.O in February that jolted the Anglo-Dutch group into a series of actions to improve its returns.

The business - home to Flora, Stork and Country Crock - has high profit margins but is shrinking as Western consumers eat less bread and margarine.

The consortium of Bain and CD&R could emerge as a frontrunner, sources said, since one of CD&R’s partners is Vindi Banga, a 33-year veteran of Unilever.

But Apollo has also gained significant experience in buying businesses from large conglomerates and turning them around, one of the sources said, adding that they will play hard to secure control of Unilever’s spreads products.

In December, Apollo clinched a $1.5 billion cash deal to buy car lighting and LED components firm Lumileds from Philips and in 2015 it won control of Saint-Gobain’s glass bottle division Verallia with a bid worth almost 3 billion euros.

Sources say the Unilever process could be wrapped up by the end of the year.

It is not clear on Tuesday whether any industry players had submitted bids for regional pieces of the business, which operates in dozens of countries.

Unilever has already struck a $900 million deal with South African investor Remgro REMJ.J for the spreads business in southern Africa.

Unilever has repeatedly said it will spin off the business if it fails to generate a satisfactory price through an auction.

($1 = 0.8501 euros)

Editing by Jane Merriman