Sara Lee May Divest Household Business

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Sara Lee Corp (SLE.N) is considering the sale of its international household and personal care business after receiving some expressions of interest from potential suitors.

The business, which includes a mix of brands like Sanex body wash and Ambi Pur air fresheners, has about $2.3 billion in annual sales, or about 17 percent of the company’s total.

A Sara Lee spokesman declined to give details on Monday about those expressing interest in the business or a time-frame for making a decision about the unit.

Analysts have said the company could have to break up the business to sell it because it has such a wide range of products, which also include Kiwi shoe polish and Vapona insecticides.

Analysts have mentioned a host of possible buyers, including Reckitt Benckiser (RB.L) and Unilever (ULVR.L) (UNc.AS) in Europe, as well as Colgate-Palmolive Co (CL.N), S.C. Johnson & Son Inc and Procter & Gamble Co (PG.N) in the United States. All have declined or not been available for comment.

Earlier this month, Sara Lee Chief Executive Brenda Barnes told Reuters the company would actively divest assets that failed to add to shareholder value. At that time, she declined to comment about the European household and personal care business.

The Wall Street Journal reported in mid-March that the company had hired Goldman Sachs to help sound out possible bidders for the business, which the newspaper said could fetch more than $2 billion.

Sara Lee, which also makes its namesake bread, Hillshire Farm lunch meat and Senseo coffee, gets about 70 percent of its profits from international markets. Roughly half of that comes from Western Europe, where countries like Britain and Spain have been suffering from weak economies.

Sara Lee has undergone a radical overhaul since Barnes became CEO in 2005, divesting businesses that represented about 40 percent of the company’s revenue through sales and the spinoff of Hanesbrands Inc (HBI.N).

The company has yet to reach a point when all of its businesses have been doing well at the same time. Just as Sara Lee started seeing a turnaround in its North American business, the European business, which had been performing better, got hit by the weaker dollar and recession.

Sara Lee shares are down about 16 percent this year, compared with a 10.8 percent drop in the Standard and Poor’s 1500 U.S. Packaged Foods & Meats index .15GSPFOOD.

The stock fell 5 cents to $8.20 on the New York Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Brad Dorfman; Editing by Dave Zimmerman and Lisa Von Ahn)