Analyst: Whole Foods tough for Albertsons to digest

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Albertsons Cos. reportedly is eyeing Whole Foods Markets, but it appears such an acquisition would be difficult for the Boise-based food and drug retailer to swallow.

The Financial Times reported this week that Cerberus Capital Management, which leads the investor group that owns Albertsons, has engaged in preliminary discussions with bankers about a possible bid for struggling Whole Foods, which has tabbed investment banker Evercore to explore strategic options.

The report comes a couple of weeks after hedge fund Jana Partners disclosed that it had acquired a more than 8% stake in Whole Foods and was nudging the specialty food chain to mull a possible sale.

Albertsons last month also reportedly had explored a potential purchase of Sprouts Farmers Markets. In addition, Cerberus’ name had surfaced in January amid the antitrust review of the Walgreens-Rite Aid merger as a possible buyer of stores required to be divested by the Federal Trade Commission. And Bloomberg recently reported that Amazon mulled an acquisition of Whole Foods last fall but opted not to pursue it.

“It is clear that Whole Foods is under pressure to explore all options for the company, and there does appear to be interested parties. We acknowledge that if a potential acquiror wants to pay 11x EBITDA or more for Whole Foods and is able to get the financing, a transaction can get done,” Wolfe Research analyst Scott Mushkin wrote in a research noted Tuesday.

“With that said,” he explained, “we continue to struggle with how any interested party, whether that is a private equity firm or a strategic partner such as Albertsons or Kroger, can make an acquisition of Whole Foods make reasonable sense from a financial perspective given Whole Foods’ lofty valuation, its deteriorating business prospects (which require significant investment to fix), and the leverage required in any potential transaction, save perhaps Amazon.”

Mushkin also noted that Whole Foods “has shown itself to be a very cyclical company,” which tarnishes the retailer’s financial prospects.

“With Whole Foods’ already experiencing faltering business performance given declining comp sales, a likelihood of further store growth curtailment and the need for price investment, we question why Albertsons would want to pay a very high multiple of EBITDA for a business in need of a turnaround,” Mushkin stated.

Just over two years removed from its acquisition of Safeway, Albertsons also is working on an IPO, for which it filed in 2015.

Albertsons is the second-largest supermarket company and the eighth-largest retail pharmacy operator, with more than 2,200 supermarkets and 1,700-plus in-store pharmacies under 19 banners in 35 states and the District of Columbia.


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