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Woolworths shelves ACCC talks on buy ups

8 Dec 2012 THE AGE - BY ELI GREENBLAT



THE competition regulator will apply the blowtorch to any Woolworths acquisition after the country's biggest retailer walked out of six months of talks designed to create a streamlined acquisition process.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims did not hide his disappointment on Friday that Woolworths had decided to withdraw from the voluntary protocol the watchdog was trying to formulate with the big supermarket chains, saying he believed Woolworths had sizeable market power and was fixated on growing it.

"Our concerns do centre around their [major supermarkets] acquisitions . . . particularly Woolworths is doing a lot of acquisitions, a hell of a lot."

It comes as the ACCC, Mr Sims and Woolworths chief executive Grant O'Brien continue to knock heads over the company's growth plans, with the regulator recently signalling it will oppose a supermarket acquisition in Canberra.

The ACCC has also this year barred the Woolworths acquisition of hardware stores in Ballarat and a hotel in Tasmania.

In June, Mr Sims proposed a plan where if the big supermarkets, namely Wesfarmers (the owner of Coles) and Woolworths, notified it of intended transactions and gave all the information upfront, in return the regulator would guarantee a quick turnaround in its assessment.

"I thought this was going to be pretty straightforward," Mr Sims said on Friday. "That they would be quite happy with that, because it was a benefit to us and a benefit to them."

It is believed Woolworths began withdrawing from the talks a number of weeks ago.

Opting in, Coles has agreed with the ACCC to participate in a streamlined assessment protocol for single supermarket acquisitions, including in relation to new supermarket developments, for an initial six-month trial period.

Agreement was not reached, however, to include in the protocol acquisitions by Coles or Bunnings in liquor or hardware.

No agreement on the protocol was reached in any of the sectors with Woolworths.

A Woolworths spokesman said yesterday, "Woolworths has notified and co-operated with the ACCC for many years on acquisitions and will continue to do so into the future.

"We agree that acquisition processes need to be streamlined, however, the process should apply to all industry participants."