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Fri, Jun 13, 2008 - Page 10 News List

Bid for Anheuser-Busch could fall prey to politics

CONSOLIDATIONBelgian brewer InBev’s unsolicited bid has US politicians and activists frothing at the mouth over the prospect of selling an iconic US company

AP , ST LOUIS, MISSOURI

Belgian brewer InBev is offering a big payday to shareholders of Anheuser-Busch Cos Inc, but its bid to create the world’s largest beer company is already facing a major obstacle — US election-year politics.

InBev SA, whose brands include Beck’s and Stella Artois, offered an unsolicited all-cash bid of US$65 a share for Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser, Michelob and Bud Light.

That’s well above the St Louis-based company’s closing share price of US$58.35 on Wednesday.

But politicians and activists are already lining up against the deal, saying it could cost jobs in the US and send ownership of an iconic US company overseas. With economic concerns at the front of voters’ minds, the opposition could cause a headache for InBev.

Missouri’s Republican Governor Matt Blunt said on Wednesday he opposed the deal and directed the Missouri Department of Economic Development to see if there was a way to stop it.

“I am strongly opposed to the sale of Anheuser-Busch, and today’s offer to purchase the company is deeply troubling to me,” Blunt said in a statement.

Web sites have sprung up opposing the deal on patriotic grounds, arguing that such an iconic US firm shouldn’t be handed over to foreign ownership. One of the sites, called SaveAB.com, was launched by Blunt’s former chief of staff, Ed Martin.

“Shareholders should resist choosing dollars over American jobs,” Martin said in a statement on Wednesday night. “Selling out to the Belgians is not worth it — because this is about more than beer: It’s about our jobs and our nation.”

If the deal goes through, it would create a beer-brewing giant and mark just the latest phase of consolidation in an industry facing rising ingredient costs and stale demand in the US.

“Anheuser-Busch said that its board of directors will evaluate the proposal carefully and in the context of all relevant factors, including Anheuser-Busch’s long-term strategic plan,” the company said in a statement. “The board will pursue the course of action that is in the best interests of Anheuser-Busch’s stockholders.”

A spokeswoman said the firm could not comment beyond the statement.

InBev chief executive Carlos Brito said the deal would boost both companies, giving InBev access to the US market while expanding Anheuser-Busch’s reach overseas.

“We have the highest respect for Anheuser-Busch, its employees and its leadership, who have built the leading brewer in the US and grown the iconic Budweiser brand. Together, we would draw on the collective expertise of both companies’ management and employees,” Brito said.

Shares of Anheuser-Busch soared 7.6 percent to US$62.80 after regular trading hours, when the announcement was made. They had risen 2 percent in late-afternoon trading, when rumors of the deal were reported on CNBC. Speculation has been rife in recent weeks about the potential offer.

InBev was formed in 2004 when Belgium’s Interbrew merged with South America’s biggest brewer AmBev. Since then, the company has cut jobs in several European countries while its sales were boosted by strong demand in Latin American countries.

Worries about job cuts at Anheuser-Busch could be justified.

InBev has a reputation for squeezing costs out of the companies it acquires, said Benj Steinman, editor of the Beer Marketer’s Insights trade publication. Because of its size — and control of nearly half the US beer market — Anheuser-Busch could be a ripe target for cost-cutting.

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