A spokesperson for the Greek bottling firm told CEE-foodindustry.com that negotiations were taking place with Serbia's Vlasinka mineral water company, and that CCHBC "hopes to have something soon".
The group has declined to give more details but the comment adds weight to speculation earlier this week that CCHBC had emerged as the favourite to buy Vlasinka out of a pack of companies that included multinationals Nestlé and Danone.
A deal with Vlasinka, a private firm based near Belgrade and owned by domestic holding group Simpo, would give CCHBC its first bottled water business in Serbia despite it already controlling around 50 per cent of the country's carbonated soft drinks market.
Serbia and Montenegro sits alongside Bulgaria and the Ukraine as CCHBC's 'second group' within a rapidly progressing emerging market sector headed by Russia, Romania and Nigeria. The group's sales in Serbia and Montenegro crept up 1 per cent to €38.8 million during 2004, but the region as a whole showed double digit earnings growth.
Non-carbonated soft drinks such as flavoured water and juice have been significant in helping CCHBC's emerging markets sector to achieve higher volumes than the group's established markets business, though it remains only two thirds as profitable.
A move into Serbia would help CCHBC take greater advantage of this trend. "Non-carbonated beverages now account for 23 per cent of our total volume as we strive to offer consumers more choice and address health and wellness concerns," the firm said.
A deal with Vlasinka would also help CCHBC to relieve some of the pressure on its carbonated drinks range after disappointing Coke sales through 2004 and a new EU settlement, applicable in 27 EEA countries, in which CCHBC's parent firm, Coca-Cola, agreed to share more retail space with its rivals.
However, the soft drinks market as a whole is forecast to rocket in Eastern Europe over the next few years and Jan Driessens, president of Germany-based Ball Packaging Europe, recently told CEE-foodindustry.com that he expected beverage can consumption to show double-digit growth.
Ball will open a new €50 million factory near Serbian capital Belgrade this May to begin serving the region with 650 million cans per year, and the firm plans to use another €25-40 million to increase the factory's capacity.