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Unilever sells North American detergents unit

/ Source: The Associated Press

Unilever NV said Monday it has agreed to sell its North American laundry detergents business, including the All, Snuggle, Wisk and Surf brands, to a private equity investor for $1.45 billion.

The buyer, Vestar Capital Partners, plans to combine the businesses with its Huish Detergents Inc. business that includes the Sun and White Rain brands and call the new company The Sun Products Corp. Huish also makes detergents, fabric softeners, dish care and personal care products under private label names for major retailers.

Vestar said the new Sun Products company will have annual sales of more than $2 billion.

The sales price includes $1.08 billion in cash, and Unilever will get shares in Sun worth around $375 million.

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch maker of Dove soaps, Lipton teas and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, said the sale was in line with its strategy of disposing many of its noncore brands in order to focus on a few larger ones.

Unilever is the largest maker of laundry products in Britain and many developing markets including India and Brazil, but is dwarfed by rival Procter & Gamble Inc. in the United States.

The operations being sold had sales of around $1 billion in 2007, compared with sales of more than 5 billion euros ($7.8 billion) for its laundry products globally in the same period, Unilever said.

“The choice that we have made is we have better investment opportunities elsewhere in the world,” said division manager Keith Weed in a video statement on the company’s web site.

He said laundry was “the lifeblood of Unilever” but “the removal of the North American business...actually removes the drag.”

Unilever is due to report second quarter earnings on Thursday.

“We expect the market to be pleased with the announcement and the price received,” of 1.5 times sales, Petercam analyst Fernand de Boer wrote in a note on the laundry business deal.

But “we expect some more comments on the use of these proceeds and of the other recent disposals at the publication of results,” he said.

Last week, Unilever agreed to sell its Bertolli olive oil business to Spain’s Grupo SOS for 630 million euros ($999 million).

De Boer rates shares a “reduce,” due to the weak U.S. economy and the impact of increasing food prices on developing economies.

In a separate news release, Vestar said it has been investing in consumer products companies for more than two decades. Its investments have included companies such as Remington, Prestone, Gold Toe, Birds Eye Foods, and Michael Foods.