Wrigley on chocolate trail

By Leo Lewis

Wrigley, the ultra-secretive king of chewing gum with a 50 per cent global market share, is preparing to branch out into chocolate and other sweets via a big acquisition outside the US.

Despite last week's failure of its $12.5bn (£8.3bn) bid for Hershey Foods, Wrigley is understood to be eyeing other targets, particularly in Europe. Sources close to the company said these could include Swiss confectionery groups Lindt and Barry Callebaut. They added that it probably won't be long before Wrigley makes its move.

In a rare moment of openness from the Chicago-based group, Wrigley admitted it was on the lookout for opportunities like Hershey. Management is understood to be committed to keeping the group among the world's big confectioners, which means venturing away from gum.

For Wrigley watchers, the cash and share bid for Hershey came as a surprise. As Prudential Securities food analyst John McMillin said: "For a company that has never put debt on its balance sheet to suddenly consider buying a $12bn company is a little bit like watching a teetotaller drink a fifth of Scotch. This would have left a confectionery powerhouse."

But analysts believe that is precisely what Bill Wrigley Jnr, the 39-year-old chief executive, has in mind. The rest of the confectionery industry is consolidating into a handful of behemoths, of which Nestlé and Cadbury Schweppes are the two biggest examples. As one Wall Street corporate finan-cier said: "Wrigley has spent its 110 years dominating one market. Its chief has realised that the group has all the skills to take on other sweets and, more importantly, chocolate. Chocolate is what Wrigley wants from Europe, and it is going to go out and buy it."

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