(Adds comment from government, background; changes sourcing)
By Martinne Geller
LONDON, March 14 Fresh from defending Unilever
against an unsolicited $143 billion takeover attempt by
Kraft Heinz, CEO Paul Polman said the British government
should ensure a level playing field for target companies.
"We're not talking about protection; we are saying that when
you have a situation like this, with a national champion, there
should be a level playing field," Polman told Reuters on
One key feature of UK takeover rules is that once an
expression of interest for a company has been made, suitors have
only 28 days in which to make a formal bid, or they must walk
away for six months. During those 28 days, the target company is
closely monitored by the government's takeover panel.
Unilever, jointly based in Britain and the Netherlands, said
target companies should have more time in which to defend
themselves. It wants the UK Takeover Code changed to consider
the interests of stakeholders beyond shareholders, as is the
case in some other countries.
Dutch paint company Akzo Nobel, for example,
rejected a $22 billion takeover offer last week by larger U.S.
rival PPG Industries, saying the unsolicited approach
was not in the interest of stakeholders, including its
shareholders, customers and employees.
A spokeswoman for the UK government's Department for
Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said mergers and
acquisitions played an important role in driving investment,
growing businesses and keeping UK businesses competitive.
"We want the UK to be the best place in the world to invest
and do business. This means creating the conditions for British
businesses to prosper and grow, both here and on the world
stage," the spokeswoman said in an email.
When running for the leadership of the Conservative Party
after the June 2016 Brexit vote, Theresa May, then the home
secretary, said that the government should be capable of
stepping in when a foreign company tried to buy a business that
was important to workers and communities.
She singled out previous bids by an earlier iteration of
Kraft and U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer to buy
"Because as we saw when Cadbury’s – that great Birmingham
company – was bought by Kraft, or when AstraZeneca was almost
sold to Pfizer, transient shareholders – who are mostly
companies investing other people’s money – are not the only
people with an interest when firms are sold or close," May said
at the launch of her campaign to be prime minister.
Since then, May has said that she will not pick winners or
prop up failing companies, but that Britain should support and
promote strategically important industries as other major
Kraft Heinz, headquartered in Pittsburgh and Chicago, walked
away from a fight with Unilever last month, just two days after
its $143 billion bid - and Unilever's rejection - was made
Polman's comments were earlier reported by the Financial
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kylie Maclellan;
Editing by LOarry King)