Skip to main content

The Unilever headquarters, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Aug. 21, 2018.Piroschka Van De Wouw/Reuters

Unilever PLC UL-N signalled on Monday it would pursue a deal for GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer health care arm, calling it a “strong strategic fit,” but its shares fell 4 per cent Monday on the London Stock Exchange, highlighting investors’ doubts about its £50-billion ($85.43-billion) offer.

GlaxoSmithKline GSK-N confirmed on the weekend that it had rejected three bids from the Dove and Lifebuoy soaps maker for the business, which is home to brands such as Sensodyne toothpaste, Emergen-C vitamin supplement and Panadol painkiller.

GSK, led by Emma Walmsley, has hired Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to review Unilever’s approach, but it will not engage in talks unless Unilever bumps up its offer, sources familiar with the matter said.

GSK’s shares jumped more than 4 per cent. It said on Saturday Unilever’s proposal “fundamentally undervalued” the consumer business, adding that it would stick to its plan of listing the division this year.

“Initial feedback on the deal from investors on the weekend has been almost uniformly negative,” Jefferies analysts said in a note. Others said Unilever’s share-price fall indicated a lack of confidence in its management and concern over the price.

The Marmite spread maker, however, defended the bid for the GSK consumer business, in which U.S. drugs company Pfizer PFE-N owns a 32-per-cent stake.

“The acquisition would create scale and a growth platform for the combined portfolio in the U.S., China and India, with further opportunities in other emerging markets,” Unilever said, pointing to synergies in the oral-care and vitamin supplements business.

GSK and Pfizer would open negotiations with Unilever’s boss Alan Jope if the consumer goods giant was ready to improve its bid to more than £60-billion, a source familiar with Pfizer’s strategy said.

The source called the business a “legitimate stand-alone candidate,” adding its market value could rise to almost US$100-billion once the business was spun out and listed.

“Right now there is more value in a spinoff, but if Unilever is ready to go north of £60-billion then a dialogue could start,” he said.

GSK declined to comment and Pfizer did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the fate of GSK’s consumer business.

GSK laid out plans for a separate listing of the consumer arm in June last year, after pressure from investors to explore a shakeup of the company and focus on its pharmaceuticals business.

A Unilever buyout of the consumer division would be one of the largest ever on the London market, and one of the biggest deals globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It would also boost Unilever’s growth strategy, as management has been under pressure to turn around the company’s languishing stock price and cope with high costs and slim margins.

However, some analysts have expressed doubts over Unilever’s ability to sweeten its offer to GSK.

“Given vocal investor concern of late and Unilever’s share price reaction this morning, this could prevent a higher offer from materializing,” said Chris Beckett, head of equity research at Quilter Cheviot.

Reports of buying interest in GSK’s consumer arm, including from private equity players, have been doing the rounds for a while.

“It’s a little surprising that [GSK and Pfizer] haven’t ripped Unilever’s arm off at £50bn, as it’s a decent price, with the only question being as to whether it’s the right one,” CMC Markets analyst Michael Hewson said in a note.

“It might be for GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, however there is a feeling that for Unilever it could well prove to be too high a price,” Mr. Hewson added.

Unilever, which is set to announce an initiative later this month to strengthen its business, said on Monday it was committed to “strict financial discipline” for any acquisitions, adding that such deals would be accompanied by the divestment of lower margin businesses or brands.

Be smart with your money. Get the latest investing insights delivered right to your inbox three times a week, with the Globe Investor newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Tickers mentioned in this story