* Refresco agrees to 1.6 billion euro offer from PAI Partners
* PAI offers 20 euros for each Refresco share
* Bid accepted by holders of 26.5 pct of Refresco stock
* Deal expected to close in first quarter of 2018
* Refresco shares up 2.4 percent at 19.76 euros (Adds detail, CEO quotes)
By Bart H. Meijer
AMSTERDAM, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Refresco has agreed to a 1.6 billion euro ($1.9 billion) offer from a consortium led by French private equity firm PAI Partners, which would delist the Dutch bottling company less than three years after its flotation.
Having in April rejected a lower bid from PAI, Refresco on Wednesday said the firm’s latest offer represented a fair price. It had already said earlier this month it would take the offer into consideration.
PAI and partner British Columbia Investment Management Corp aim to buy all 81.2 million Refresco shares at 20 euros each, ending the short-lived listing on the Amsterdam stock exchange.
Private equity firms have typically preferred to target unlisted firms in part to avoid disclosure rules demanded in bids for listed stocks. But high valuations have prompted more private equity buyers to chase listed firms seen as undervalued.
“The ownership structure has never been a goal in itself,” CEO Hans Roelofs told reporters. “We were able to flourish in the public domain, but that also led to others knocking at our door with a higher valuation than the market offered.”
Roelofs said the new investors supported the company’s “buy and build” strategy of expanding through acquisitions, and that the takeover would have no impact on its employees. “PAI is willing to accelerate our growth, which is music to our ears.”
The bid already has the support of shareholders representing 26.5 percent of Refresco shares and is expected to close in the first quarter of 2018. Refresco shares were up 2.4 percent at 19.76 euros by 0910 GMT.
After rejecting PAI’s initial offer, Refresco reached agreement in July to buy the bottling activities of Canada-based Cott Corp for $1.25 billion.
At the time Roelofs said the purchase was intended to boost its U.S. presence and was not a defensive move to ward off a private equity takeover.
The company had planned to issue 200 million euros worth of new shares to finance the deal, which won’t be necessary when the deal with PAI goes through.
Private equity’s typically relatively short horizon on investments could lead to a comeback of Refresco on the stock market within a few years, Roelofs said. “PAI has a good plan to take us to the next level. But we have to be honest, of course they will then think about an exit.”
Refresco was founded in 1999 and floated in March 2015 by its owners including private equity firm 3i at 14.50 euros per share. It makes and bottles fruit juices and soft drinks for retailers and brands in Europe and the United States.
The company employs 5,500 people and has production sites in the Benelux countries, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Britain and the United States. In 2016, it reported a net profit of 81.5 million euros on revenue of 2.1 billion.
$1 = 0.8505 euros Reporting by Bart Meijer