A former boss of Marks & Spencer (M&S) and an ex-Unilever chief operating officer are being lined up to play key roles in the £6bn auction of Flora and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
Sky News has learnt that Blackstone and CVC Capital Partners, the private equity firms, have sought Unilever’s approval to lodge a joint bid for the consumer goods giant’s international spreads division.
Sources said on Monday that two Blackstone executives – Marc Bolland, the former M&S and Heineken executive, and Harish Manwani, a Unilever veteran – will be involved in the consortium’s offer.
Blackstone and CVC, which are also jointly trying to buy the London-listed company Paysafe, are said to have hired a slate of other food industry experts to advise them.
Blackstone also recently bought the exhibitions group Clarion in a £575m deal.
News of their bid comes just days after Sky News revealed the existence of another consortium comprising Clayton Dubilier & Rice (CD&R) and Bain Capital.
Image: Marc Bolland left M&S in 2016
CD&R’s interest will lean heavily on Vindi Banga, a former Unilever foods executive, and Sir Terry Leahy, the former boss of Tesco – both of whom are already closely involved with the buyout firm.
Bain, meanwhile, has significant experience of carving out complex business units from large multinationals, having reaped huge gains from its role in acquiring Worldpay, the payments business, from Royal Bank of Scotland.
Other bidders are expected to emerge over the next few weeks, with Apollo Management and KKR also working on separate offers, according to insiders.
Unilever could opt to dispose of the spreads business through a demerger to its existing shareholders if offers are not sufficiently attractive.
Announcing half-year results this month, Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive, said preparations for an auction were “well under way”.
The intention to sell or demerge the spreads division came two months after Unilever was the subject of an unsolicited £115bn takeover approach from Kraft Heinz, the US-headquartered food giant.
The move from Kraft Heinz sparked a hostile reaction from the Unilever board and rang alarm bells in Downing Street, where Theresa May had vowed to clamp down on unwanted foreign takeovers.
Mr Polman, who said that Unilever was becoming a “more resilient, more competitive and more profitable” company, had called for a “level playing field” in response to the Kraft Heinz approach.
He later insisted that he was not calling for the Anglo-Dutch fast-moving consumer goods group to receive special protection from the Government.
In recent months, Unilever has been linked to a bid for the £3bn food unit of Reckitt Benckiser, which it agreed to sell instead to McCormick’s of the US.
Mr Polman has also turned to faster-growing categories for takeover opportunities, snapping up the online-based Dollar Shave Club for $1bn last year.
The spreads category has been in long-term decline as increasingly health-conscious consumers have turned to butter-based products.
CVC and Blackstone declined to comment on Monday.