France's Veolia eyes bigger acquisitions as recycling activities boom

PARIS (Reuters) - French water and waste group Veolia VIE.PA said on Thursday it will target bigger acquisitions from next year as it focuses on high-growth activities such as toxic waste treatment and plastics recycling.

The utility said it had agreed to sell its district heating business in the United States to infrastructure fund Antin for $1.25 billion, which CEO Antoine Frerot said would free up cash to reinvest.

Veolia’s revenue from plastics recycling jumped 30% in the first half and will bring in 400 million to 450 million euros (about $470 million) this year, up from just 50 million euros a few years ago, and could top 1 billion euros by 2025, it said.

Asset rotation and focusing on growth could help Veolia keep activist investors at bay. Smaller peer Suez SEVI.PA is under pressure from activist fund Amber to do exactly that.

Frerot said on an analysts call he will present a new 2020-2023 strategy in February.

While in recent years acquisitions typically cost 10 million to 100 million euros, under the new plan they will be in the range of 100 million-500 million euros, Frerot said.

He said Veolia was selling its U.S. heating business because it is a mature and capital-intensive asset, but that does not mean Veolia will exit this activity elsewhere.

Veolia’s core earnings rose 5.4% to 2 billion euros as revenue rose 5.8% to 13.32 billion. Frerot confirmed guidance for 2019 core earnings of 3.9 billion to 4.0 billion and said growth had picked up in the second quarter, with core earnings up 7.3% after growing 3.8% in the first quarter.

Veolia shares were down 2.1% at 0900 GMT. They are up 27% in the year to date.

Frerot said Veolia is now a global leader in toxic waste, which accounted for 2 billion euros in revenue in 2018 and saw 13% growth in the first half of this year.

“The capacity to treat this waste is a limiting factor to growth in developing countries. Without the ability to treat it, industrialization is hampered because the population contests growth,” he said.

On plastics recycling, he said that big food brands, concerned about their image, want to use more and more recycled plastic in their packaging.

“We expect over 1 billion in revenue from plastics recycling by 2025 and it could be well before that,” Frerot said.

Veolia has agreements with Nestle, Unilever, Tetrapak and Danone, for whom it is building a plastics recycling facility in Indonesia.

“We are building recycling facilities everywhere in the world,” Frerot said.

Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Susan Fenton