Bi-Lo, Bruno's face the Ahold axe

Related tags Ahold Retailing

At a time when most of its major international rivals are busy
expanding their businesses in both new and existing markets, Dutch
food retail group Ahold is continuing to sell off a number of
business units in an attempt to revitalise flagging profits.

With all of its Latin American retail operations already sold or on the market, albeit with delays in both Brazil and Argentina, the company has now turned its attention north of the border to the US, where it is one of the biggest foreign investors.

Ahold has half a dozen or so subsidiaries in the US, where the sheer size of the market means that most food retail chains are regional players at best, and has announced that two of these units - Bi-Lo and Bruno's - are the latest to be added to its disposal list.

Last month the company announced that it was to sell some 200 or so US convenience stores owned by its Tops subsidiary in the New York region, a relatively minor operation, but the Bi-Lo and Bruno's businesses are altogether more significant, with more than 470 stores between them and combined sales of around $5 billion in 2003.

Ahold said it had decided to sell the two chains, both of which are located in the south eastern United States, in order to concentrate on its other US units - Giant, Tops, Peapod and Stop & Shop. The proceeds of the sale will be used to reduce the company's debt.

After revelations of a €1 billion hole in the company's accounts last year following accounting fraud at the US Foodservice business, Ahold has focused increasingly on subsidiaries where it sees real growth potential. As well as the Latin American business, the company is to sell its Spanish supermarket operations, and a number of underperforming stores in other regions have also been offloaded - though as yet there are apparently no plans to withdraw entirely from central and eastern Europe or south east Asia.

Anders Moberg, Ahold's new president and CEO and author of the new strategic plan, said that while Bi-Lo and Bruno's were both "powerful brands"​, there were greater opportunities for growth at Ahold's other US operations, which are all centred on the same part of the country.

Stop & Shop, based in the north east, has around 333 stores and sales in excess of $9 billion, while New York-based Tops has 370 or so outlets and sales of $3 billion. The two Giant businesses, Giant Landover and Giant Carlisle, operate just over 300 stores and have sales of around $8 billion. They are both also based in the north east of the country.

Peapod, meanwhile, is a Chicago-based online grocer with sales of around $116 million. It also operates a home delivery service in association with Stop & Shop and Giant.

Dean Cohagan, president and CEO of Bi-Lo and Bruno's, said that the companies were likely to continue to improve under new ownership. "With decades-long heritages of outstanding customer service, deep roots in the communities we serve, experienced management teams and strategically attractive store locations in one of the fastest-growing regions of the United States, Bi-Lo and Bruno's are strong businesses well-positioned to thrive in the years ahead."

But despite their strong local performances, these two businesses are simply too far away from Ahold's other US units to manage effectively. Ahold recently decided to combine all its US retail management functions in Boston, a convenient location from which to oversee all the remaining operations.

As for potential buyers, it is often difficult to assess who might be interested, given the highly fragmented US market, but the size and quality of the Bi-Lo and Bruno's businesses could well tempt some of the major local players, including some of the European groups looking to expand their business in the US.

For Bryan Roberts, analyst at M+M Planet Retail​, local players are more likely to be interested.

"The chains up for grabs are most likely to appeal to those major grocery groups already active in the south east, as these businesses require greater and greater mass to fend off the steady advance of Wal-Mart in the region.

"Of these, Winn-Dixie can be almost immediately discounted as it has just embarked on an extensive restructuring programme amidst a steadily worsening performance. Publix, however, might be more interested. It is keen on expanding beyond its Florida heartland and has ventured into Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama relatively recently.

"But its lack of experience in major M&A activity might be a hindrance, as its most sizeable deal in recent years was the acquisition of seven stores in Tennessee from Albertsons in early 2002, but it might view Bi-Lo or Bruno's as an opportunity too good to miss."

But the Europeans canot be ruled out entirely. "Other potential suitors could include the Belgian operator Delhaize,"​ Roberts told​."It picked up the 43-strong Harveys chain that operates in southern Georgia and northern Florida last year in a move that filled in the gap between its Food Lion and Kash n' Karry trading zones. It too will be tempted to take this chance to bolster its presence in the region.

"An outside bet could be the UK's Tesco making its much vaunted debut in the US, although one suspects that it might have something more sizeable in mind."

The US is the glaring omission in Tesco's global network of stores, and this could be a major opportunity for Britain's leading player to get a foothold in the US. Tesco certainly has the cash - it recently raised around £1.6 billion for expansion - and the intent, but whether it sees long-term potential in an increasingly value-driven (and still highly fragmented) US retail market remains to be seen.

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