October 7, 2016 / 5:31 PM / a year ago

Italy's supermarket king gives M&A advice from the grave

MILAN, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Italian supermarket king Bernardo Caprotti, who died last week after opening sale talks for his Esselunga chain, used his will to tell his heirs: if Dutch chain Ahold knocks, open the door.

In the will, published by Italian newspapers on Friday, Caprotti wrote that Ahold would be the ideal partner for a tie-up with Esselunga, which Caprotti co-founded in 1957 and built into Italy’s fourth-biggest supermarket chain.

Caprotti, who handed control of the business to his second wife and their daughter when he died at the age of 90, also listed some potential bidders in his will as less desirable, including Spanish discount food retailer Mercadona.

“Should the very grim context in Italy improve, it would be necessary to find an international partner. Ahold would be ideal. Not so Mercadona,” Caprotti wrote, according to copies of the will published in dailies.

Sources close to the family said the copies were authentic.

In his final months, Caprotti had started negotiations with private equity funds to sell the group for up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion), sources have said. The group employs 22,000 people and generated sales of 7.3 billion euros last year.

The family holding company said after Caprotti’s death that it would not go ahead with the sale for the time being.

In the will, Caprotti said it had become burdensome for the family to own and manage the business as a domestic retailer, adding that Esselunga was at risk.

He also warned against the threat of a takeover by Italy’s Coop, or cooperative supermarkets. In his lifetime, Caprotti repeatedly accused the Coop of scheming to block Esselunga’s expansion through their links with centre-left politicians.

Asked about Caprotti’s will, Ahold spokeswoman Ellen van Ginkel declined to comment.

The Dutch supermarket chain operator has just completed the purchase of Belgian rival Delhaize, creating one of the biggest food retailers in the United States.

Caprotti left his second wife and their daughter with a combined stake of around 70 percent in the holding company that controls the group.

Caprotti’s two children from his first marriage, with whom he had been locked in a legal dispute over ownership of the group, will hold a combined stake of around 30 percent.

$1 = 0.8945 euros Reporting by Elisa Anzolin; Writing by Francesca Landini; Editing by Mark Bendeich/Ruth Pitchford

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