Nestle weighs sale of Pure Life, Poland Spring brands


Nestle SA said it’s considering a sale of its U.S. mass-market bottled water business as the world’s largest food company focuses the unit on premium hydrating products.

The strategic review of most of the North American business, including brands like Pure Life, Poland Spring and Deer Park, is expected to be completed early in 2021, Nestle said Thursday after European markets closed.

It’s another strategic shift from Chief Executive Officer Mark Schneider, who has made more than 50 deals since taking charge in 2017 and promised that this year would show investors a more interesting M&A pipeline than 2019. A sale could cut Nestle’s total bottled-water sales by almost half.

“The divestment is consistent with Nestle’s strategy to focus on higher-growth, higher-margin businesses with stronger returns,” Alain Oberhuber, an analyst at MainFirst Bank, wrote. He said the business could fetch about 6.5 billion francs ($6.9 billion), adding that Nestle is putting bigger brands up for sale than he had expected.

The shares were little changed Friday morning as European stock markets fell.

Nestle’s bottled-water business had its worst performance in a decade last year. The North American water unit in particular has been facing fierce competition from discount brands, as well as consumer resistance to plastic packaging. Nestle has been trying to come up with creative alternatives, such as water dispensers for refillable bottles.

Schneider hasn’t hesitated to part ways with underperforming businesses — and has been getting good prices for them. Last year, he shed a dermatology unit for 10 billion francs. The U.S. confectionery business fetched $2.8 billion.

Nestle’s North American water business had sales of about 3.4 billion francs in 2019, excluding international brands like Perrier and San Pellegrino.

Possible buyers include Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., which lag behind Nestle’s North American 20% market share at 10% and 7.8%, respectively. Soft-drink bottlers like Cott and National Beverage Corp. could also be interested, according to Bloomberg Intelligence’s Duncan Fox.

The company also pledged to make its entire water portfolio carbon-neutral by 2025.

“The real benefit is getting a strategic distraction and an environmental burden off the books,” Jefferies analyst Martin Deboo wrote in a note.