Reckitt Benckiser to sell £2.3bn food arm to 'cut debt' in wake of mega-Mead Johnson purchase

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RB is looking to sell off its 'non-core' food brands

Consumer goods giant Reckitt Benckiser is to attempt to placate investors over debt levels by offloading its food business in the wake of its belt-busting $17.9bn (£14.3bn) acquisition of infant formula maker Mead Johnson. 

Reckitt, the maker of Durex and Dettol has put its food division - which includes French's mustard and Frank's Red Hot sauce - up for sale after launching a strategic review.  The arm is worth as much as £2.3bn, analysts suggest.

The move comes just two months after it announced its plan to buy Mead Johnson, and analysts said the two deals are connected, raising the potential for Reckitt chief Rakesh Kapoor to inject some capital back into the business in light of the recent slowdown in sales growth at the company.

Ben Maitland, analyst at Beaufort Securities, said the move could be a way to "placate markets" and raise capital.

French's Mustard is on the sale block, as RB reviews options for its food business

"Reckitt is probably at the top limit of where it wants to be in terms of debt facilities," he said.

"Also, the past few quarters have not been particularly good, with its final quarter of 2016 producing very low growth."

Reckitt delivered like-for-like sales growth of 1pc in Q4, something Mr Maitland called "the lowest growth rate delivered by RB in a single quarter for many years".

The shares have dropped 5pc from their July 11 peak last year of £76.92 to £72.76.

Mr Maitland said he didn't think Reckitt necessarily needed to sell the division given its stable cash flows but would likely do so to "satisfy markets".

Chris Wickham, analyst at Whitman Howard, said food made up less than 5pc of Reckitt's total revenues and had always been regarded as non-core.

"It does require any acquirer to get some pretty good synergies," he added.

Gaviscon maker Reckitt Benckiser said it is exploring 'all options' for its food business following reports that it had put the unit up for sale

Speculation suggests Reckitt will be seeking between £2bn-£2.3bn for the US-focused business, Mr Wickham said.

However Hargreaves Lansdown's Laith Khalaf said this valuation is "relatively rich" given the £118m in operating profit the food arm made in the year to December 31 but agreed the sale could be partly down to wanting to raise capital, even if the amount it will likely get would "not make a huge dent" in relation to the amount borrowed for the Mead Johnson deal.

Reckitt last week slashed the pay package for Mr Kapoor after awarding £300m in compensation to South Korean families in 2016, whose relatives died after using its disinfectants.

Mr Kapoor has had his pay cut by more than a third from £25.5m to £14.6m in 2016, after missing out on a lucrative bonus.