Japanese brewer Suntory Holdings, seeking overseas growth as Japan's population ages, is in talks to buy soft-drinks maker Orangina for at least the $2.6 billion that private equity firms including Blackstone paid for the company just three years ago.

Privately held Suntory, itself in talks to be sold to bigger rival Kirin Holdings, would likely pay more for Orangina than Blackstone and Lion Capital did in 2006, the Wall Street Journal said.

Blackstone and Lion Capital confirmed on Thursday that the talks were ongoing but said no agreement had been reached.

Earlier, a source said the talks were at a delicate stage and that there was no guarantee a deal would be reached.

A sale of Orangina, known for its orange-juice based soft drink sold in a distinctive bulb-shaped bottle, could spark further consolidation in the drinks sector and mark a successful exit for the private equity owners.

Buyout firms have struggled to find exit routes for their investments amid the global financial turmoil, and traditional routes of selling assets to rivals or taking them public are only just starting to become viable again.

I think we're going to see more deals, and deals at higher prices, said Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark LLC, a beverage consulting firm.

It's going to be a good time, for the first time in a long time, to be a seller, as opposed to just a buyer.

Japanese firms are keen to expand overseas as beer sales decline in a rapidly aging home market, where the population is projected to fall by a third in coming decades.

I don't know the details of the (Orangina) deal yet, but it seems to fit Suntory's strategy to expand its overseas business, which is the purpose of the merger with Kirin, said Tomonobu Tsunoyama, food sector analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center.

Analysts have said a Kirin-Suntory combination, which would control half of Japan's beer market and 30 percent of the market for soft drinks, would bulk them up to pursue large deals overseas.

For a related Graphic, click r.reuters.com/jut75d

Japanese food and beverages companies are increasingly active overseas, spending 526 billion yen ($5.7 billion) on acquisitions in the first eight months of this year, nearly double the amount for all of last year, Thomson Reuters data shows.


Lion Capital and Blackstone bought Orangina, which gets most of its revenue from Western Europe, in February 2006 from what was then Cadbury Schweppes for 1.85 billion euros ($2.6 billion at current rates).

The British candy and drinks giant later separated its remaining U.S. soft drink business into another company, now called Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc.

The confectionary company Cadbury Plc is now the subject of an unsolicited takeover bid from U.S. giant Kraft Foods Inc.

Pirko said Orangina tended to sell well at restaurants, which have been suffering in the downturn as cash-strapped consumers dine more at home to save money.

Orangina, aside from the iconic bottle and the fact that it always had good on-premise business, has a hard time competing on the shelf, he said.

Orangina was invented by a Spanish chemist and first made in Algeria, which was then ruled from France.

The company now has about 2,500 employees and had 2008 sales of about 1 billion euros.

Suntory and Kirin said in July they had begun preliminary merger talks, a deal that would create a food and drinks giant with $41 billion in annual sales.

Japan's beer market has shrunk 15 percent in volume terms in the past decade as a wave of baby boomers neared retirement -- a demographic shift that has prompted Suntory and Kirin to aggressively diversify out of Japan and away from beer.

Suntory, known in Japan for its Premium Malt's beer and Boss canned coffee, paid more than 600 million euros for Danone's Frucor juice unit last year and has said it was ready to spend another $2 billion or so on acquisitions.

The company sells soft drinks in China and other Asian markets but does not have a non-alcohol beverage business in Europe, where it runs wineries and a whisky distillery.

Kirin, the maker of Ichibanshibori beer and Afternoon Tea bottled drinks has been most aggressive among Japanese breweries overseas, spending $1.5 billion in the past two years to buy Australia's National Foods and Dairy Farmers.

It spent another $1.4 billion on a 49 percent stake in the Philippines' San Miguel Brewery this year and is spending about $2.8 billion to take full ownership of Australia's No.2 beer maker, Lion Nathan, from its current 46 percent stake.

Tsunoyama said there will likely be more acquisitions by Japanese food and beverage companies, especially given the strength of the yen.

They are relatively well-positioned financially and the yen is moving higher, he said.

A Kirin spokesman said company had no comment on the news of Suntory's acquisition talks.

Shares of Kirin ended up 1.2 percent, underperforming a 2 percent gain in the benchmark Nikkei average .N225. .T

(Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in NEW YORK and Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO; Editing by Rodney Joyce and Ian Geoghegan)