Chinese firm hopes to take a bite out of United Biscuits

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The Independent Online

McVitie's, Penguin and Jaffa Cakes could be the latest British brands to fall under Chinese ownership as private equity firm Hony Capital weighs up a bid.

If Hony, owned by the giant investment company behind Lenovo computers, pitches in with an offer, it would be the second Chinese takeover bid for United Biscuits in four years. In 2010, China's Bright Food Group tried and failed in its takeover plans.

United Biscuits is currently owned by private equity firms Blackstone and PAI, who bought it for £1.6bn in 2006. The most recent accounts for United Biscuits Topco show that it made operating profits of £130.8m in 2012 against £134.6m the previous year on flat revenues of £1.05bn. However, after paying £95.1m to service its £1bn debts, it made a profit on continuing operations of £45.7m.

The accounts described it as having endured "continued difficult market conditions." Total staff numbers were just under 8,000, at the company whose brands are sold in more than 100 countries.

The current owners are working with banks including JPMorgan Chase, as they consider their options, one person familiar with the situation said.

United Biscuits' owners sold the KP Snacks business last year for more than £400m, people familiar with the deal said at the time.

Following that sale in 2013, chief executive Benoit Testard was replaced by former Birds Eye boss Martin Glenn.

While based in the UK, accounts show its ultimate parent company is in a shared office in Luxembourg. UB Topco paid UK corporation tax of just £100,000 in 2012.

The company declined to comment on reports of the takeover interest, first reported by Bloomberg.

Sources within UB's private equity backers said they were not planning on a sale this year, and analysts have predicted they were more likely to look at floating the company on the stock market some time in 2015.

However, if a takeover offer is made at the right price, the company would be bound to give it serious consideration.

Food industry sources said the company receives fairly regular takeover interest, but that the relatively recent appointment of Mr Glenn was proof that its owners were not in disposal mode.

The company also declined to comment on why its parent company was in Luxembourg.

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