Yakult shares tumble as Danone plans to sell US$1.8b stake

Yakult shares tumbled as much as 8.2 per cent, the most since June 2016, in early trading in Tokyo on Thursday (Feb 15). PHOTO: HANDOUT

ZURICH (BLOOMBERG) - Shares in Yakult Honsha Co tumbled the most in 19 months after Danone, the world's largest yogurt maker, said it is selling about US$1.8 billion worth of its stake amid pressure from an activist investor to boost returns.

The move pares back an investment the French company has held for more than a decade, reducing its stake in Yakult to about 7 per cent from 21 per cent. Danone will remain the largest shareholder. Yakult will offer as many as 24.6 million shares held by Danone in a secondary sale, including over-allotment, the Japanese company said in a statement.

Yakult shares tumbled as much as 8.2 per cent, the most since June 2016, in early trading in Tokyo on Thursday (Feb 15). Danone rose 0.6 per cent in Paris on Wednesday.

Activist fund Corvex Management six months ago built up a stake in the maker of Activia yogurt and Evian water, as European consumer-goods companies come under pressure to boost profit amid slow growth in mainstream brands. Danone had previously sought to raise its stake in Yakult, which makes probiotic and fermented milk drinks, though the Japanese company opposed such a move.

"We expect that there was slight pressure from the activist Corvex, which could be the reason for this move as strategically it made no sense any more for Danone to have such a large minority holding," said Alain Oberhuber, an analyst at MainFirst Bank.

The stake reduction will bring Danone more financial flexibility and allow management to focus more on its core business, Oberhuber said. It's an ideal time to reduce the stake as Yakult shares have gained 29 percent in the past year, he added.

Danone didn't comment on what it plans to do with the proceeds. Chief Executive Officer Emmanuel Faber has been trying to breathe new life into Danone's largest business, yogurt and fresh dairy, as sales suffered from tougher competition and marketing missteps. The Paris-based firm acquired soy-milk maker WhiteWave for US$10 billion last year as it seeks to branch out into faster-growing organic food and drinks.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.