July 3, 2018 / 11:08 AM / 3 months ago

RPT-ANALYSIS-Loeb's Third Point takes new approach in battle with Nestle

(Repeats July 2 story for wider distribution.)

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

BOSTON, July 2 (Reuters) - For a year, billionaire hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb has watched quietly from afar as Nestle SA tries to energize its business. But his patience has worn thin and he has been telling associates and his own investors that time is now up for the world’s No. 1 food company.

On Sunday, Loeb fired off a letter and 34-page presentation to Nestle’s chief executive officer and board chairman urging them to sell more of the businesses that do not fit and untangle its corporate structure.

Loeb criticized the company’s “muddled strategic approach” and called for the company to split internally into three units: beverages, nutrition and grocery. Loeb wants the company to focus on “nutrition, health and wellness” and sell pieces that do not fit, including its stake in French personal care company L’Oreal SA.

Nestle said on Monday, in response to Loeb’s public critiques, that its “board and management take all shareholders’ perspectives seriously and welcome their continued input.” The company declined to elaborate.

With Nestle’s share price down 8 percent over the last year, Loeb underlined that he is not happy with the company’s effort to buy back shares and that the sale of the U.S. confectionery business to a rival has not gone far enough.

He also launched a website, www.Nestlenow.com, to push his case publicly, marking only the third time his $18 billion firm Third Point LLC has taken such a step in its 23-year history. It was roughly a year ago that Third Point made its roughly $3 billion investment in Nestle.

To some, the moves suggest an aggressive U.S.-based hedge fund manager taking his playbook to Europe where shareholders have been appeased with slower progress for longer. To Loeb’s own clients and some friends, the campaign illustrates how much the 56-year old manager has transformed not only his business but himself since the 2008-2009 financial crisis when Third Point came close to going out of business.

“A decade ago Dan Loeb would have been writing a scathing critique of the CEO and possibly calling him names and threatening his job,” said one investor, who asked not to be identified because the funds are private.

Six years ago Loeb took aim at Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s record at Stonehill College, uncovering discrepancies on his resume that ultimately cost him his job. A decade earlier, Loeb wrote to Potlatch Corp CEO Pendleton Siegel referencing his “atrocious management record and inexplicable insouciance.”

Now the message to Nestle’s Swiss headquarters and its German CEO, Mark Schneider, were far more measured, with plenty of suggestions on how get the share price moving higher again and no personal attacks or embarrassing anecdotes.

KINDER, GENTLER?

Investors agree that Loeb is trying a different tack these days, understanding the need to galvanize other investors to back his calls for change and to get management to cooperate with him. Ultimately, several investors said, Nestle is owned by its shareholders and if they are unhappy with management’s progress, something needs to be done.

“Dan is about the power of the argument,” said Ken Squire, who tracks activists at research firm 13D Monitor. “And here he is offering an alternative argument to shareholders.”

With some, the message is already resonating.

Another investor who owns 8 million Nestle shares but asked not to be identified publicly said on Monday that his firm is sending a letter to Schneider and his team to throw their support behind Loeb.

“The board should be asking whether Loeb’s analysis is correct and not be concerned about his tactics and whether he is ratcheting up the pressure or not,” the investor said.

To be sure, there are critics who say Loeb may be pushing Nestle publicly now because his $3 billion position has not delivered the kind of payday Loeb or his investors want.

In the first six months of 2018, Loeb’s Third Point Partners fund returned 1 percent, an investor said. The average hedge fund lost roughly 1 percent during that time, Hedge Fund Research data shows.

But Loeb’s average annualized returns are still some of the best in the industry, averaging around 18 percent a year at the Third Point Partners fund. Institutional Investor just named Third Point hedge fund manager of the year. And Squire said his data shows Third Point returning roughly 21 percent on average on positions where it has taken a 5 percent or higher stake.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in London Editing by Vanessa O'Connell and Matthew Lewis

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