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Nestle is said to be among potential Hain Celestial suitors

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Nestle is among companies exploring a purchase of Hain Celestial Group, a U.S. maker of organic and vegetarian food, according to people familiar with the matter, as the Swiss giant seeks to expand into healthier fare.

[NEW YORK] Nestle is among companies exploring a purchase of Hain Celestial Group, a U.S. maker of organic and vegetarian food, according to people familiar with the matter, as the Swiss giant seeks to expand into healthier fare.

The Vevey, Switzerland-based company has held preliminary talks about purchasing all or parts of Hain Celestial, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the details aren't public.

Other companies, including US food makers and buyout firms, are also interested in Hain Celestial, the people said. No final decisions have been made and Hain Celestial may decide against a sale, the people said.

Shares of Hain Celestial rose as much as 11 per cent after they were temporarily halted in New York. The shares closed up 2.6 per cent to US$40.89, valuing the company at more than US$4.2 billion.

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Representatives for Hain Celestial, which owns brands including Health Valley cereal, Terra chips and Alba Botanica skin care, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Nestle declined to comment.

Like many food companies, Hain Celestial and Nestle has been whipsawed by rapidly changing consumer tastes.

Hain Celestial's annual profit has shrunk from a peak of US$180 million in 2015. It had adjusted net income of US$102.5 million on revenue of US$2.9 billion for the year ended June 30, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Whole Foods

The company, which supplies natural and organic food to Whole Foods Market and other grocers, reported financial results in June for the first time in more than a year after completing an internal accounting probe.

The company said in August 2016 that it was delaying the release of its financial results and examining its accounting practices. The company said later it didn't need to restate any of its results.

Activist investor Engaged Capital, founded by Glenn Welling, disclosed a 9.9 per cent stake in Hain Celestial in June, and began pressing for changes, including a possible sale. Engaged Capital believes the company could fetch US$46 to US$73 a share in a sale based on recent acquisitions in the food industry, a person familiar with the matter said in June.

Hain Celestial said in September that it was working with advisers to explore strategic alternatives. The company, based in Lake Success, New York, also agreed to add six new board members nominated by Engaged Capital.

Cost Cutting

Nestle's sales fell to US$91 billion in 2016 from a peak of more than US$100 billion in 2014, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The company, which is cutting jobs at its skin-health unit and shifting headquarters in the US and France, may spend close to one billion Swiss francs (S$1.37 billion) on a business reorganisation this year, chief financial officer Francois-Xavier Roger said on a call with reporters in October.

Nestle chief executive officer Mark Schneider, who took the helm at the owner of Nespresso coffee and Perrier bottled water this year, is also under pressure from an activist investor.

Since Dan Loeb disclosed a stake in the company in June, Schneider has stepped up efforts to bulk up in niche markets like organic food and hipster coffee as Nestle foresees the slowest sales growth in at least two decades this year.

The acquisitions are part of a trend by big food and beverage companies to buy up smaller players to capture their rapid growth in premium segments. Nestle faces pressure as its leading position in the market for global packaged coffee has been challenged by JAB Holding Co.

JAB has spent more than US$30 billion expanding its empire with brewers such as Keurig Green Mountain and Peet's.

In recent months, Nestle has snapped up vegetarian burrito maker Sweet Earth and drip-coffee specialist Blue Bottle Coffee and invested in Freshly, a US meal preparation company.

Nestle is also seeking a buyer for its US confectionery business as consumers cut back on sugary snacks.

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