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Unilever spreads auction narrows with three funds left, say sources: Reuters

Private equity firms Apollo (APO.N), KKR (KKR.N) and CVC Capital Partners [CVC.UL] are the final three parties left bidding for Unilever’s (ULVR.L) (UNc.AS) margarine and spreads business, sources familiar with the matter said, as the process moves towards its final round.

Second-round bids for the business, which could be worth more than $7 billion, are due in mid-December, said the sources, who declined to be named as the process is private.

CVC had originally teamed up with Blackstone (BX.N), but is now on its own, the sources said.

Private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice had teamed up with Bain Capital on a joint bid, but the pair have left the race, said the sources.

Unilever, KKR, CVC and Bain declined to comment.

Apollo and CD&R were not immediately available.

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch giant behind Dove soap, Knorr soup and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, put the spreads unit up for sale this autumn after a surprise $143 billion takeover approach from Kraft-Heinz (KHC.O) in February forced it to review its operations.

Banks are aggressively pitching to sponsors in order to win a lucrative spot on a jumbo buyout financing.

Sources said Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Mizuho have provided a staple financing that will be offered to potential buyers totaling 4 billion euros, more than 5 times the business’s earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) of 700 million to 750 million euros.

Other banks are working on financings with more aggressive leverage multiples of 6 to 7 times, they added.

The spreads business is very profitable, but two sources said there is some concern about paying too much for a business that has been in decline for years, as people eat less bread and margarine.

Performance of the business has been improving, however, as the company has concentrated on turning it around. In the most recent third quarter, sales fell 2 percent, compared with a decline of 3.7 percent in the first half. The company cited new margarines with specialty oils and dairy-free variants for the improvement.

Unilever is also reviewing its dual-headed, Anglo-Dutch structure. It said on Tuesday that collapsing it into one organization was in the best interest of the company and shareholders but has delayed choosing where to base the company, amid political tensions around Brexit.

The company will host an investor event that will begin later on Wednesday.