Dutch firm joins queue for Unilever sale

Akzo Nobel, the Dutch chemicals group, has emerged as a potential buyer of Unilever's speciality chemicals businesses put up for sale earlier this month. Akzo's chairman, Cornelius van Lede, said yesterday he had "requested an insight into documents with the bank handling the transaction".

He added that of the four businesses up for sale Akzo would be most interested in the two smallest, Unichema International, an oils and fats business, and Crosfield, a producer of inorganic chemicals

However, he added that Akzo would also be interested in parts of National Starch, seen as one of the crown jewels of the speciality chemicals business, which could attract a price of around pounds 3bn.

Another Dutch company, Gist Brocades, has already said it would be interested in buying the Quest flavours and fragrances division, also expected to attract a high price tag.

Unilever has appointed Lazards to handle the sale. However, the bank has not yet prepared prospectuses for the businesses and the sale process is likely to take months. It has not yet been decided if Unilever will try to sell the division as one operation or as smaller parts.

With the four companies expected to fetch up to pounds 5bn, there was further speculation yesterday on how Unilever might spend the proceeds. The company declined to comment on suggestions that it might be interested in French foods group Danone, after its shares rose strongly yesterday.

There has been speculation that Unilever might prefer to strike in the United States with companies such as Heinz, Campbells, CPC and Kellogg's cited as potential targets.

However, with new Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald keen to expand the group's presence in emerging markets it is possible that he will invest the money in organic growth or in joint ventures.

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