SABMiller could be forced to pay up to £400m to counter a recommended offer by Anheuser Busch for control of Harbin Brewery, China's fourth biggest brewer and one of the most important strategic beer assets in the country.
Anheuser is poised to make its white knight offer in the next few days and is expected to win the backing of Harbin's management. Its offer will be at a premium to SABMiller's hostile bid unveiled yesterday, valuing Harbin at HK$4.31bn (£312m) or HK$4.30 a share.
Analysts said yesterday that the bidding war could reach HK$5.50 a share, valuing the business at about £397m, before SABMiller eventually wins control. SABMiller is determined to triumph in what is an unprecedented bid battle between two Western companies for control of a Chinese business.
Harbin issued a terse statement yesterday saying SABMiller's offer was wholly unsolicited and was made without prior discussions with Harbin's board. The bidding war comes after Harbin tore up a strategic alliance with SABMiller and Anheuser acquired a 29 per cent stake in opposition to the 29.4 per cent acquired by SABMiller last year.
Harbin said it considered SABMiller's offer an unduly hasty response to the end of their alliance. "The board is now considering other options and welcomes Anheuser-Busch's acquisition of approximately 29.07 per cent interest in the company's share capital," it said. Harbin also rejected SABMiller's plans to combine Harbin with China Resources Breweries (CRB), in which SABMiller has a 49 per cent stake. "The board does not believe the company's long-term future should be linked with that of CRB, one of its major competitors in the People's Republic of China."
SABMiller was adamant last night that cost savings available from combining Harbin and CRB would allow it to win the auction. It said it would keep its two seats on the Harbin board and was confident the management would work with it in the future. It said a standstill agreement in the strategic alliance with Harbin that stopped it buying more shares meant the alliance had to be terminated for it to make yesterday's offer.