Canadians raise stakes on $448m Warrnambool bid

The three-way fight over prized Victorian dairy group Warrnambool Cheese and Butter looks set to continue despite another knockout bid from Canadian company Saputo.

The three-way fight over prized Victorian dairy group Warrnambool Cheese and Butter looks set to continue despite another knockout bid from Canadian company Saputo.

In the latest escalation of a bidding war that has nearly doubled Warrnambool’s shares in two months, the foreign player boosted its offer to $8 a share on Thursday, valuing the target at $448.8 million.

But while the Warrnambool board has unanimously backed the offer, analysts expect more rival bids in coming days from competitors Murray Goulburn and Bega Cheese.

Murray Goulburn said on Friday it remained committed to acquiring the producer, and urged WCB shareholders not to give up their shareholding prematurely.

‘‘[Our] offer will bring many benefits for WCB shareholders, WCB suppliers, the Warrnambool community and the Australian dairy industry,’’ it said.

The fight over the 125-year-old company has underscored the perceived value of dairy assets as demand for milk products in Asia soars.

‘‘Six months ago I don’t think anyone would have thought that we’d be seeing the prices we’re currently seeing,’’ RBS Morgans agribusiness analyst Belinda Moore said.

‘‘Warrnambool is in a fortunate position in that it has three people chasing it due to the strategic nature of its assets.’’

Warrnambool operates in one of the biggest dairy regions in the country, with roughly 1500 dairy farmers working in western Victoria. The region accounts for almost a quarter of national milk output.

Ms Moore said bidders viewed the company as strategically valuable and hugely efficient, with one factory connected to a vast network of global buyers.

‘‘With a booming demand in Asia for dairy products, you can really leverage that position,’’ she said.

The fight over the company began last month with a hostile takeover bid by Bega Cheese valuing the company at $370 million.

It escalated with a superior offer from Saputo, upping the company’s value to $390 million.

The latest offer from Saputo trumps a rival bid from Murray Goulburn, which offered shareholders $7.50 a share.

Last week, Murray Goulburn boss Gary Helou made an impassioned appeal to WCB shareholders to consider his offer in light of the potential benefits for farmers.

Murray Goulburn is a co-operative controlled by Australian dairy farmers. It said on Friday it was in the ‘‘national interest’’ that Saputo’s application to the Foreign Investment Review Board not be resolved until the public benefits of its own acquisition were given full consideration.

Bega Cheese chairman Barry Irvin on Wednesday signalled his intention to pursue a bid for WCB amid other rival offers.

‘‘The Australian dairy industry needs to consolidate and needs to be in Australian hands,’’ he told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting.

Ms Moore said she would not be surprised if the bidding war continued in days to come, given the assets at stake.

‘‘Both Murray Goulburn and Bega stand to benefit from substantial synergies given the overlap of their operations in Australia,’’ she said.

‘‘With Saputo, it’s more strategic.’’

Murray Goulburn and Bega already own stakes of 18 and 17 per cent in WCB respectively.

Saputo is one of the world’s biggest dairy companies, with a market cap of almost $10 billion.

‘‘It certainly has deep pockets,’’ Ms Moore said.

WCB shares rose 27¢, or 3.3 per cent, to close at $8.42.

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