Unilever Asset Sale Bet Draws $12 Billion Henderson Fund Manager

  • John Bennett buys shares after Kraft Heinz offer withdrawn
  • Fund manager bets on possible asset shakeup at Unilever

Henderson Group Plc’s John Bennett, who oversees more than $12 billion, is betting that a failed bid for Unilever may lead the owner of brands like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove soap to consider selling some of its assets.

The London-based fund manager started buying shares in Unilever NV the day after Kraft Heinz Co. withdrew its $143 billion offer to acquire the company. Bennett allocated about 1 percent of the 267 million-pound ($333 million)Henderson European Focus Trust Plc to Unilever, he said.

“We see this as an opportunity for management to examine their portfolio,” Bennett said at a roundtable event at Henderson’s headquarters. He would like the shape of the company “to be examined” and the results to be presented to shareholders. Switzerland’s Nestle SA is also a “hot breakup candidate” or a company that could reshape its assets, he said.

Unilever Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman, who managed to fend off the unsolicited approach from Kraft Heinz after a 48-hour skirmish, now has six months to prove to shareholders his decision was correct. U.K. takeover rules preventing another offer expire at that stage, meaning Unilever could face new proposals from the U.S. company.

In a sign that investors still expect some sort of deal, Unilever shares on Monday lost only about half of their gains from Friday to close down 6.6 percent. Bennett started buying the shares after Kraft Heinz withdrew its offer on Sunday, saying an early leak had complicated its takeover ambitions.

The fund manager, who said he’s not a fan of M&A generally unless the company is buying distressed or cheap assets, said Kraft Heinz’s unsolicited bid for Unilever indicated the rally for consumer staple companies was nearing a top.

“CEOs tend to get testosterone-fueled when the shares go up,” he said. “Very few tend to buy companies that are cheap -- the party gets going when things are expensive.”

A representative for Unilever was not immediately available to comment and a Nestle spokesman declined to comment on market speculation.

— With assistance by Thomas Buckley, and Devin Banerjee

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