France’s richest man has Carrefour in sights

Blue Capital, which is jointly owned by LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and US real estate investor Colony Capital, could take over the world’s second largest food retailer following a change in its shareholders’ agreement.

It emerged last week that Carrefour’s main shareholder, the Halley family, which owns just over 13% of the supermarket chain, would give up control of the group on Carrefour’s annual general meeting on April 15.

The Halleys said they were prepared to give up two of their three boardroom seats as well as their double voting rights (representing slightly more than 23% of the total voting rights).

While Robert Halley will remain the chairman of Carrefour’s board, his family officially decided to dissolve their shareholder pact, in order “to have more freedom to manage their holdings”. Family members have reportedly clashed over whether or not to sell their respective shares in Carrefour.

The move creates an opportunity for France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, to launch a full takeover of Carrefour with Colony Capital. Blue Capital already owns 9.1% of the retailer.

“If some members of the Halley family sell their stake, Blue Capital could be a buyer in order to reinforce its control of the group – and theoretically it would be free to launch a full takeover bid,” Citi analysts argued.

However, they added a qualification: “We do not believe it is in Blue Capital’s mind to launch a full bid – as it has already influenced Carrefour’s strategy, as shown by the announcement last August of a €4.5bn return to shareholders (€3bn from real estate externalisation).”

Indeed, when the Halleys revealed that they were reducing their influence in Carrefour, the supermarket’s chief executive, Jose Luis Duran, told analysts that Blue Capital had a commitment not to increase its stake to above that of the Halley family before June 2008.

Blue Capital merely noted: “From 15 April 2008, Blue Capital becomes, ipso facto, the leading shareholder in Carrefour, and intends to fully fulfil the role of core shareholder, committed to the stability of the group.”

The investment group considers its Carrefour stake strategic – not just financial. It could well up its stake after April 15.