New Zealand billionaire Graeme Hart has sold his shareholding in Goodman Fielder, the Australasian food giant he floated in 2005.
The company said late last night that the near-20 per cent stake of New Zealand's richest man had fetched about A$562 million ($675.8 million).
Analysts said the sale would free up Hart to pursue acquisitions in the packaging sector, where he has been building assets, but was unlikely to put Goodman Fielder into play as a takeover target in the near future.
The sale of 265 million shares by Hart's Burns, Philp and Co through a subsidiary, BPC Finance (NZ), was made via a bookbuilding underwritten by Credit Suisse, Goodman Fielder said.
The company, whose brands include Mighty Soft, Meadow Fresh, ETA and Meadow Lea margarine, had its Australian shares placed on trading halt late on Thursday pending an announcement.
Trading was also halted in New Zealand yesterday with a closing price of $2.70 a share.
CommSec analyst Grant Saligari noted that Goodman Fielder and other food and beverage firms faced tough conditions as Australia's worsening drought has pushed up wheat, dairy and oilseed prices.
Goodman Fielder's shares last traded in Australia at A$2.23. They are little changed from the start of the year, but rose as high as A$2.80 in April.
The broader market is up 18.5 per cent this year.
The Australian Financial Review said institutions had been asked to bid for Hart's stake at between A$2.12 a share and Thursday's close.
Goodman's 2006/07 financial year net profit fell 38 per cent to A$239.8 million. It made a number of small acquisitions in the past year, including River Mill Bakeries in New Zealand.
Hart's sell-out of Goodman Fielder is the latest in a line of major deals by the one-time tow-truck driver.
He bought and de-listed forest products giant Carter Holt Harvey last year for $3.3 billion and has since put its building supplies business up for sale, including 18 sawmill and manufacturing plants in NZ and Australia.
The building supplies business sale is expected to fetch more than $2.3 billion.
Macquarie Equities investment director Arthur Lim said the sale of assets did not necessarily mean Hart had another acquisition lined up.
However, he did have a track record of surprising the market.
Hart has sold most of Carter Holt's forests for up to $2 billion, and the head office, various retail depots and packaging plants for more than $300 million. A successful sale of the timber products business would see Hart more than recover his outlay, with the strategic retention the firm's packaging division.
This year, Hart paid US$338 million for North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Paper Products and is merging it with Evergreen Packaging in Arkansas.
Meanwhile, he has also completed a $3.2 billion acquisition of Swiss packaging group SIG.
Hart may be building a paper packaging empire but Lim would not be surprised to see him make an acquisition in another direction.
"How about SkyCity? It wouldn't surprise me. It's a company that's been mismanaged. It's got core assets and it's got assets scattered about Australia and New Zealand that lends itself potentially to being sold."
Hart's sell down would not trouble Goodman Fielder, Lim said. "Goodman Fielder has been its own company for quite a while now."
* Graeme Hart has sold his Goodman Fielder holding.
* The sale of the 265 million shares was made via a bookbuilding underwritten by Credit Suisse.
* Hart is also selling Carter Holt Harvey's building supplies business for more than $2.3 billion.