July 2, 2018 / 11:25 AM / 13 days ago

Nestle faces pressure to hasten change after new Third Point letter

* Activist shareholder urges Nestle to hasten change

* Loeb says plans could double EPS by 2022

* Analysts question confrontational style

By Martinne Geller

LONDON, July 2 (Reuters) - Nestle faces greater pressure to speed up change after activist investor Third Point stepped up its criticism of the world's largest food company.

The New York-based hedge fund sent a letter to Nestle's board and published a presentation online on Sunday calling for more urgent action and recommending steps it says could result in Nestle doubling its earnings per share by 2022.

The letter and presentation, published on a new Third Point website, come a year after the firm, run by billionaire investor Daniel Loeb, took a roughly $3 billion stake in the maker of KitKat bars and Perrier water.

The letter had very limited immediate impact on Nestle shares, which were up 0.2 percent at 1115 GMT on Monday, though they were outperforming the broader European stock market, which was down 0.8 percent.

Analysts said they shared many of Loeb's concerns about Nestle and agreed with some of his prescriptions.

His ideas include selling its 23 percent stake in L'Oreal and using the proceeds for M&A or share buybacks, reorganizing into three internal units, and divesting businesses that make up to 15 percent of sales.

They questioned however whether the New York investor's confrontational style would win points with one of Europe's biggest companies, with a reputation for conservatism.

"While we think that in aggregate Third Point's proposals make sense, and are probably helpful from a share price perspective, we're not convinced that much is going to change as a result," said analysts at RBC Capital Markets, citing what they called "practical obstacles".

They cited the fact it had a relatively new CEO, Mark Schneider, and his need to keep its workforce motivated, Third Point's modest stake of only 1.3 percent and Nestle's long-term time horizon.

VALUE INVESTORS

Thomson Reuters data shows that just over 11 percent of Nestle shareholders are classed as "value" investors who typically target companies they perceive to be unfairly undervalued by the broader market. They often work behind closed doors with a readiness to hold their positions for a long time.

Third Point said Nestle should be able to reach a 20 percent profit margin by 2022, up from 16.5 percent in 2017.

Nestle has already targeted a margin of 17.5 to 18.5 percent by 2020, for the first time last year, after Loeb's first letter.

Loeb said Nestle should be able to double its earnings to 7 Swiss francs per share by 2022, up from 3.55 francs in 2017. "We share much of the analysis but question whether the confrontational style is likely to secure the change that Third Point is seeking," wrote Jefferies analysts in a note.

They pointed out that since Schneider took the corner office 18 months ago, after joining from German healthcare company Fresenius, Nestle has taken steps which are radical for the company.

Besides recruiting its first external CEO in nearly a century, Nestle set its first margin target, set a goal to buy and divest brands accounting for as much as 10 percent of sales, signaled possible flexibility on the L'Oreal stake by not renewing a shareholders agreement and brought on new board members with relevant external expertise.

Loeb argues that Nestle should divest as much as 15 percent of sales either through sales, spin-offs or other methods to help align its business with higher-growth categories.

Nestle has recently sold its struggling U.S. confectionery business to Italy's Ferrero and agreed to take control of selling Starbucks packaged coffees around the world.

Nestle did not have an immediate comment on Third Point's letter. (Reporting by Martinne Geller Editing by Keith Weir)

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