China’s Bright Food Group bought a controlling stake of Israeli dairy conglomerate Tnuva from a London-based firm late Wednesday night.
The purchase was based on an overall valuation for Tnuva of NIS 8.6 billion ($2.5 billion). The deal gave the Chinese state-owned company a 56 percent stake in Tnuva, which controls more than 70% of the dairy market in Israel.
Tnuva, which started out nearly 80 years ago as a cooperative owned by kibbutz dairy farmers, was controlled by the British private equity firm Apax — which sold its shares to Bright Food — and Israeli Mivtach Shamir Holdings, which together bought 76.7% of the company in 2008.
Bright Food is China’s second-largest food company.
In February, members of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee voiced their strong opposition to the impending purchase. Many MKs expressed fear that one of Israel’s largest food companies could end up in foreign hands. Committee Chairman MK Avishai Braverman (Labor) asked the government to step in and prevent the sale.
Dairy farmers also protested the sale in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In one protest in February, farmers in Tel Aviv gave out blue balloons and posters of Tnuva products with the words “Made in China” on them. “This is a matter of food security,” a protester told Channel 1. “We cannot trust our food supply to the whims of the Chinese. Israelis want Israeli milk.”
But Tnuva has not been Israeli-owned for nearly a decade. In 2007, a British investment firm, Apax Partners, bought control of the majority of the company from most of the kibbutz partners, together with Israeli investment holding company Mivtach Shamir. A minority of the co-op’s partners refused to give up their shares, but were unable to prevent the purchase of the company by Apax. Apax owned 56.05% of Tnuva, Mivtach Shamir 20.67%, and the holdout kibbutz partners 23.3%.
At the time, Apax’s purchase of Tnuva was opposed by many of the farmers, as well as by the Finance Ministry, but Apax was able to convince a majority of the farmers to sell their shares by working out supply agreements with them. Now farmers fear that the new bosses will seek to renegotiate their deals, as often happens when companies are bought and sold.
The sale itself is actually the upshot of recent Knesset legislation requiring holding companies to spin off assets in order to foster competition. Apax also owns Israel’s Psagot investment house, as well as other assets, and company officials have been quoted as saying that they fear the Israeli government will force them to sell off some assets. As a result, they entered into talks with Bright Food to spin off Tnuva, which has appreciated significantly during the time the company has owned it.
Bright Food has been on an acquisition spree recently. Last year the company acquired US meat processing giant Smithfield Foods. In 2012, it bought UK cereal company Weetabix.
In June 2011, masses of Israelis took to the streets to protest Tnuva’s high prices for dairy products. A hundred thousand people joined a Facebook page against the high price of cottage cheese, leading to mass protests that summer demanding price rollbacks for cottage cheese and other dairy products. The protests were directly chiefly at Tnuva.
David Shamah contributed to this report.