Coca-Cola/SAB Miller merger prompts onerous conditions

Coca-Cola/SAB Miller merger prompts onerous conditions

Written by Jenna Foley, AAT contributor

The agreement between The Coca-Cola Company, SABMiller and Gutsche Family Investments to combine their soft-drink bottling operations in Southern and East Africa has been met with the proposal of onerous merger conditions. The new bottling company, Coca-Cola Beverages Africa, will bottle 40% of Africa’s Coca-Cola beverages with operations in 12 countries. Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel has, after considering the public interest issues in mergers, expressed concern on the effect of the merger on small businesses, supplier industries, employment and investment.

Section 12A(3) of the Competition Act (89 of 1998) prescribes that, “when determining whether a merger can or cannot be justified on public interest grounds, the Competition Commission or the Competition Tribunal must consider the effect that the merger will have on –

  • a particular industrial sector or region;
  • employment;
  • the ability of small businesses, or firms controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons, to become competitive; and
  • the ability of national industries to compete in international markets.”

The Competition Commission (the “Commission”), on the advice of Minister Ebrahim Patel, has recommended that the merger only be approved subject to a list of onerous conditions. One of these conditions stipulate that the merging parties invest R650m to support the development of black-owned retailers, small suppliers and developing farmers. Taking into account the above-mentioned section of the Competition Act it is yet to be determined how the R650m investment was calculated or the specific justification of such an onerous condition. In addition, other recommended conditions include requirements on employment and black economic empowerment (BEE) as well as allowing retailers who are given Coca-Cola branded fridges free of charge to stock the fridges with products made by rival companies.

The Commission’s concerns have arisen despite the merging parties’ consideration for public interest issues. The proposed merger, according to the Commission, is said to have a negative impact on employment and BEE. This has been expressed even though the merging parties have undertaken not to retrench employees as a result of the merger, except for 250 identified employees. In addition the parties have made a commitment to increasing their BEE shareholding. The Commission has further expressed concern about the negative effect the merger will have on suppliers, namely the weakening of their negotiating position, despite the merging parties’ undertaking to buy certain products (tin cans, glass and plastic bottles, packaging crates and sugar) from local suppliers.

In light of the above, the Commission’s recommended conditions to the Competition Tribunal, on the advice of Patel, seem far-reaching, leaving the merging parties with a heavy burden of complying with such onerous conditions.  The recommendation to apply these burdensome conditions has caused delays and the proposed merger has not yet been finalised.

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