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Heinz, Dell signal a new breed of buyout in cheap money era

Reuters Breakingviews delivers agenda-setting financial insight. Its global correspondents react to stories as they develop, delivering sharp and provocative commentary on big financial news as it breaks.

Heinz ketchup is giving markets a taste of private equity's new secret sauce. Buyout firm 3G Capital is swallowing the condiment king for $28-billion (U.S.) including debt, with Warren Buffett's help. In the past, such mega-LBOs required multiple firms to work. With so-called club deals all but dead, the Heinz takeover shows the new way forward.

Only six weeks ago, the group of Brazilians behind both Anheuser-Busch Inbev and 3G, which owns Burger King, made the pitch to Heinz. The U.S. icon quickly saw the benefits of the more globally-minded Jorge Paulo Lemann and his other fellow Gs, named for the Brazilian Banco Garantia they started together. While growth at Heinz is usually as slow as its ketchup flows, the cash still pours out quickly. Moody's expects the company to generate about $450-million of free cash flow for the year ending April 30.

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Even so, 3G would have been hard-pressed to pull off anything of this scale alone. Mr. Lemann enlisted his old Gillette board pal Warren Buffett with a transaction perfectly suited to his burger, shake and value-investing appetite. Berkshire Hathaway is putting in the same $4.5-billion of equity as 3G. The Oracle of Omaha's conglomerate also could reap a 9-per-cent dividend from some $8-billion of preferred stock he's acquiring in the deal.

The arrangement is similar to one being used by Michael Dell to buy his eponymous PC maker. Instead of assembling a roster of private equity firms, as was the norm in the pre-crisis buyout boom, Silver Lake Partners and Mr. Dell turned to Microsoft for additional funding. And Mr. Dell kicked in some cash from his MSD investment vehicle to go along with his 14-per-cent stake in the company.

Despite how cheap it is to borrow, more creative pairings probably will be needed if more big public companies are to go private. Buyout firms are understandably reluctant to band together after their investors balked and regulators pried into clubby relationships. Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft aren't the only companies with hoards of cash they'd like to put to work. Teaming up with private equity might turn out to be a combination that works as well as ketchup on a Whopper.

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