Bonanza ahoy as Unilever says bye bye to Captain Birds Eye

The Anglo-Dutch group announced last September that it was reviewing the future of the division, which owns Birds Eye, Findus and Iglo and has annual sales of around €2bn (£1.4bn).

But those close to the process say a sale has now been settled on, and that Unilever could announce its decision as early as Thursday, when it publishes full-year results.

Those thought to be interested in the business, which analysts believe could fetch between €1.5m and €2bn, include Blackstone and the Capvest-owned frozen food brand Young's Bluecrest. Both private equity firms are seeking to build up a portfolio of assets in the sector, with Capvest recently acquiring Scandinavia's Findus brand for around €550m from its rival EQT. Both firms are also thought to be interested in Heinz's European frozen food business.

Cash from the Unilever sale is likely to be used to pay down debt, currently standing at around €9bn, but it is also thought that shareholders will see some of the proceeds. The group has already unveiled a €500m share buyback scheme but this is now likely to be accelerated, with analysts confident that between €1bn and €1.5bn could be returned this year.

Under its chief executive, Patrick Cescau, Unilever is attempting to turn itself around after seeing sales slide. As well as losing market share to rivals such as Procter & Gamble, the group has been particularly badly hit by its ownership of Slim-Fast, which has fallen out of favour as dieters seek healthier options and low-carb programmes. Uni-lever has already taken a €650m writedown on the business.

Mr Cescau is also stripping out costs - he intends to save €700m a year by the end of this year - while at the same time upping the amount spent on marketing and advertising.

Broker Williams de Broë is forecasting full-year net income for Unilever of around €3.9bn against last year's €2.8bn, although that includes proceeds from the sale of the group's cosmetics business. Mr Cescau has called a halt to the company's policy of giving future guidance, however, and analysts do not expect him to reinstate it this week, despite disquiet in the City.

As well as selling off non-core assets, the group behind Domestos, Persil, Dove, Ben & Jerry's ice-cream and Hellmann's mayonnaise has also shaken up its corporate governance, with Mr Cescau becoming the first group chief executive after the joint-chairmen structure was scrapped. But some investors were left disappointed when Unilever scuppered speculation that it was seeking a single stock market listing by announcing late last year that it would retain its dual structure "for the foreseeable future".

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