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In light of growth prospects in emerging markets, SABMiller's $10-billion (Australian) takeover of Foster’s still looks hard to justify.


SABMiller is like someone who spends a year travelling around the world and is met by friends at the airport to a chorus of "I almost didn't recognize you!" After a hyperactive year - buying Foster's, taking a 24 per cent stake in Turkey's Anadolu Efes, naming a new chief executive-designate - the global brewing company has at least returned with a laden suitcase.

So Thursday's full-year results were a useful reminder that, the Australian acquisition notwithstanding, the group is very much an emerging markets business.

Nearly 70 per cent of SABMiller's earnings before interest, tax and amortisation of $5.6-billion in the year to the end of March came from Latin America and Africa (including South Africa) - and each market expanded at roughly the same rate of organic growth. Seen in that light, the Efes deal makes strategic sense: fleshing out eastern Europe. The $10-billion (Australian) Foster's deal may well do the same for Asia-Pacific, but the price still looks hard to justify.

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Chief executive Graham Mackay, who brought South African Breweries to the London market in 1999 and led its acquisition spree, moves up to become executive chairman in July. His replacement, from July next year, was named last month as Alan Clark, head of the European business. They now face two big challenges.

One is to consolidate SABMiller's empire to ensure that acquisitions are fully integrated. The second task is to focus on the company's balance sheet. SABMiller has net debt of $18-billion (U.S.) - more than three times ebita - largely as a result of the Foster's acquisition. That is relatively high, even for a brewer. SABMiller generates bags of cash, however: $3-billion last year, up 23 per cent. Foster's should add even more, giving ample room to deleverage. Mr. Clark should pour himself a cold one and get out his calculator.

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