Heinz Considers Selling Brands for $1B

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H.J. Heinz Co. (HNZ) said Tuesday it is considering trimming European operations and may sell off a host of brands for about $1 billion in a move to focus operations on its ketchup and other core products.

The Pittsburgh-based condiment and food maker said the businesses that it may sell account for about $1.4 billion in yearly sales and include its seafood, vegetable and frozen-food businesses in Europe and its Tegel poultry unit in New Zealand.

If Heinz executes the sales, the company's European operations would generate annual sales of $2.5 billion, or 30 percent of overall revenue. The changes are similar to actions the company previously took in North American and Australia.

Heinz has hired UBS AG (search) and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (search) for the possible divestitures. Heinz expects to see proceeds of about $1 billion from the potential sales, to be used for stock repurchases and debt reduction.

Heinz employs 8,950 people, excluding its vegetable unit, at the European businesses and the Tegel plant being considered for sale, said spokeswoman Debbie Foster. Heinz has 101 plants and, if the sales go through, would have 84 plants remaining, she said.

The company said it expects to record extraordinary costs of $100 million in fiscal 2006, including the restructuring expenses. Excluding such items, Heinz maintained a forecast for earnings of $2.35 to $2.45 per share from continuing operations for the fiscal year ending in April. However, higher fuel costs and a stronger dollar are likely to put results at the lower end of that range, Heinz said.

Revenue should grow between 4 percent and 6 percent for the year, the company said.

Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial are looking for full-year earnings of $2.39 per share with sales growing 6 percent to $9.47 billion.

Following the restructuring, the company will focus on three areas: ketchup, condiments and sauces; meals and snacks; and infant nutrition.

"Heinz is becoming an even more attractive investment opportunity as we focus on three strong categories where we have the consumer expertise, the leading brands and operational capabilities to generate stronger and higher quality growth in profits and sales," said William R. Johnson, president and chief executive officer.

Johnson said Heinz would also focus on emerging markets of China, Russia, Indonesia and India.

Steffen Lauster, a vice president with management consulting firm Booz, Allen, Hamilton, said focusing on emerging markets in Russia and Asia is a good idea for Heinz. Those markets have a better potential for growth than its European markets, he said.

Shares of Heinz fell 16 cents to $35.26 on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock has traded in a 52-week range between $34.53 and $40.61.