Unilever in Takeover Fight for Glaxo and Pfizer Consumer Health Business

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LONDON — The company behind Advil, ChapStick and Tums is the target of the first big multibillion-dollar takeover fight of 2022.

Unilever said on Monday that it remained interested in buying the maker of those products, a joint venture of GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, after its previous takeover bids had been rejected.

“GSK Consumer Health would be a strong strategic fit,” Unilever said in a statement, adding that a deal “would also deliver value and certainty for the shareholders of GSK and Pfizer.”

Monday’s announcement was effectively a signal of intent that Unilever was willing to pursue one of the costliest takeover fights in the consumer health business in recent years. On Saturday, GlaxoSmithKline said it had rejected Unilever’s three previous takeover bids — the most recent of which was 50 billion pounds, or $68 billion — for “fundamentally” undervaluing the business.

A spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline declined to comment on Unilever’s Monday announcement, and referred to his company’s previous statement. GlaxoSmithKline owns about 68 percent of the venture.

Unilever’s bid comes as businesses worldwide continue to see deals as a way to grow: Companies announced $5.8 trillion worth of acquisitions last year, breaking the previous record by $1 trillion, and deal specialists say corporate boards remain eager to buy.

Investors had speculated about potential takeover approaches for the GlaxoSmithKline business for months. GlaxoSmithKline had announced plans to spin off the joint venture into a separate publicly traded company, though some of its shareholders have pushed it to consider an outright sale in hopes of fetching more money.

The business was born in 2019 when GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer closed on a deal to combine their consumer health divisions, as part of efforts to concentrate their resources on higher-margin prescription drugs. The joint venture instantly became a giant in the world of pain relievers, toothpastes, cold treatments and more: GlaxoSmithKline said over the weekend that the business collected £9.6 billion in revenue last year.

But GlaxoSmithKline has been under pressure to rapidly improve its business prospects. The British health giant has faced criticism from Elliott Management, the huge American hedge fund, over its ability to refocus on higher-margin pharmaceuticals.

A spokeswoman for Elliott declined to comment on Unilever’s takeover effort.

It is unclear whether others will make offers for the joint venture, though the prospect of a bidding war pushed shares in GlaxoSmithKline up nearly 5 percent in trading on Monday.

For Unilever, a deal would be its latest major effort to revamp its business. Formed in 1930 as an Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever moved two years ago to consolidate its vast consumer goods empire in London. That shift simplified operations — and made it easier for Unilever to buy companies using its own stock.

Unilever also agreed last year to sell its global tea business, including the Lipton and Tazo brands, to the private equity firm CVC Capital to focus on core businesses like beauty, health and hygiene products.

In its statement on Monday, Unilever said that the cost of major acquisitions would be offset by the selling of lower-growth businesses, and that it would not amass too much debt through takeovers.

At the same time, Unilever, whose shares have fallen 6 percent over the last 12 months, has been under pressure from dissatisfied investors. Last week, one of its biggest shareholders, the investment firm Fundsmith, criticized it for focusing too much on climate- and social-focused causes, and said the company had neglected its fundamental businesses.

“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” Terry Smith, Fundsmith’s founder, wrote in his annual letter to investors.

Yet it is unclear that pursuing the GlaxoSmithKline venture would appease Unilever’s investors: Shares in Unilever were down nearly 6 percent in trading on Monday.

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