Ben & Jerry’s, meet Advil? Unilever wants to buy GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer business


GlaxoSmithKline (GLAXF) said over the weekend that it had received three “unsolicited” proposals from Unilever to acquire its consumer healthcare business, which it runs as a joint venture with Pfizer (PFE). The latest had a price tag of £50 billion ($68 billion).

Unilever confirmed that it had approached GSK about a potential takeover. It said the consumer business “is a leader in the attractive consumer health space and would be a strong strategic fit as Unilever continues to reshape its portfolio.”

Shares of Unilever fell 7% in London on Monday, while GSK’s stock traded almost 4% higher.

Unilever could still sweeten its bid. The company said Monday that it’s pursuing a strategic overhaul that would involve expanding its portfolio of health, beauty and hygiene products. More details will be announced by the end of the month.

“The group says it will pounce on acquisition opportunities within the space, and they don’t get much more appealing than this one,” Laura Hoy, an equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, told clients.

Unilever, the company behind brands such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove soap, has shown it’s willing to ditch lower-performing food and drink products. Its stock has stagnated in recent months.

In November, Unilever announced that it was selling its global tea business, which includes names like Lipton and TAZO, to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners.

But analysts at Berenberg said that Unilever should tread carefully. Its food and drink business “actually offers some of Unilever’s most attractive categories,” such as ice cream and cooking ingredients, they said in a research note.

British fund manager Terry Smith thinks Unilever’s biggest problem is that it’s focusing too much on sustainability and social justice issues.

In a recent letter to shareholders, he wrote that the company is “laboring under the weight of a management which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.”

“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” Smith said.

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