US fund in talks to take over Waterford Wedgwood
By ANTHONY DEUTSCH,Associated Press Writer AP - Saturday, December 27
JAKARTA, Indonesia - A U.S. private equity fund is in talks to take a controlling stake in struggling Irish crystal and ceramics manufacturer Waterford Wedgwood PLC for 600 million euros ($846 million), three people briefed on the negotiations said.
Under terms of the deal, the U.S. investor group would assume roughly 400 million euros in debt, split almost equally between bonds and bank loans, and provide about 200 million euros in new capital, the three individuals told The Associated Press. They insisted on anonymity because the confidential talks are ongoing.
The deal is desperately needed to save Waterford Wedgwood, a company run by English and Irish managers throughout its more than 250-year history, because it has been unable to raise operating capital in recent months and has posted nearly six years of consecutive loses.
Without a cash injection it could soon be declared bankrupt. The company has until Jan. 2 _ the third postponement from creditors _ to make mounting loan payments or face the possible forced liquidation of assets, the individuals said.
"It's a race against time," one of the people said. "The U.S. equity firm is in the process of due diligence."
They declined to identify the U.S. investor group, but said talks had also been held with two other potential backers.
Bank of America Corp., one of Waterford's lenders, acts as an agent for a group of the company's lenders and investors. Bank of America spokeswoman Julie Westermann declined to comment on the ramifications of a possible Waterford deal or the amount of debt Waterford holds. She said doing so would break confidentiality agreements.
Waterford Wedgwood, know for its high-end crystal and tableware, has been shifting production overseas to cut costs. The Wedgwood ceramics division has moved most of its production from central England to Indonesia, while crystal production has been largely moved from Ireland to Eastern Europe.
Those shifts have sharply reduced overhead costs, but a combination of the falling dollar, slowing sales of key products and, more recently, the global credit crunch have put its financial future at risk.
For the six months ending Oct. 4, the company reported its loss rose to 75.8 million euros while first-half sales fell 15.4 percent to 207.6 million euros.
The company's majority shareholders _ the billionaire Irish O'Reilly family and Deputy Chairman Peter Goulandris _ currently own a joint 51 percent stake and have poured about 400 million euros into the company to keep it afloat in recent years, one of the officials said.
The O'Reilly family will be "pragmatic" in considering the offer that will strip it of its controlling stake, one of the individuals said.
Waterford Wedgwood shares have been virtually worthless for months. They have fallen on the Irish Stock Exchange at one-tenth of a euro cent. This reflects the fact that the company's assets are worth only a fraction of its debts, which grew 7 percent over the past year to 448.9 million euros.
Additional reporting by Associated Press Business Writer Madlen Read in New York.
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