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Diageo ends talks over tequila brand Cuervo

A signage is seen on the outside of Diageo offices in west London October 10, 2008. REUTERS/Toby Melville
A signage is seen on the outside of Diageo offices in west London October 10, 2008. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Rosalba O'Brien

LONDON (Reuters) - Diageo , the world's biggest spirits maker, has pulled out of talks to buy a stake in top-selling tequila brand Jose Cuervo in a surprise move that could slow its race into fast-growing emerging markets.

The collapse of discussions with Cuervo, which has a distribution deal with Diageo due to end in June 2013, will leave Diageo without a major tequila brand and Cuervo without a leading distributor.

It could fuel speculation Diageo will seek a deal with U.S. group Beam , home of the world's No.2 tequila brand Sauza, while an industry source said French rival Pernod Ricard might now link up with Cuervo.

Faced with sluggish growth in recession-hit European economies, Diageo has been looking to tap burgeoning middle classes in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where it aims to make around half of its turnover by 2015.

A deal with Jose Cuervo, valued at about $3 billion, would have given the British group access to the emerging Mexican spirits market and a stronger product range there to go with its Johnnie Walker whisky and Smirnoff vodka brands.

Diageo, Cuervo's main distributor outside Mexico, had been expected to take a stake in the business with the possibility of gaining majority control at a later date.

But the firm said in a statement on Tuesday that discussions had broken down without agreement, after the two companies had been wrangling over price for more than a year.

Diageo shares were down 1.2 percent at 1,863.5 pence by 7:55 a.m. EDT, underperforming a broadly flat UK benchmark index <.FTSE>.

RBC analysts noted that Cuervo only accounted for about 3 percent of Diageo revenue and 2 percent of profit, and said the failure of the deal might free up funds for other transactions.

A weekend newspaper report said Diageo had held talks with Japanese brewer Suntory over a joint bid for Beam worth over $10 billion. Diageo declined to comment.

"Whether Diageo was just using the threat of buying Beam as a bargaining tool with Cuervo is hard to say. But now the market will probably ascribe a higher probability that Diageo will take a look closer at Beam's portfolio," said analysts at Davy.

Some analysts, however, have said Diageo may not want to pay the price Beam would command, while anti-trust regulators may also prove to be a hurdle. The maker of Jim Beam bourbon beat quarterly profit expectations last month and is considered a success story since going public.

PREMIUM TEQUILA

Cuervo is owned by the Beckmann family, heirs to the Cuervo family who founded the company in the Mexican town of Tequila in 1795. The business is the clear leader in tequila's two biggest markets, the United States and Mexico, ahead of Sauza.

However, Cuervo's U.S. share has been gradually declining. It was one of Diageo's lowest margin brands and was not realizing its potential in the United States, Diageo's Walsh said when talks started in 2011.

Beckmann-owned Proximo would be the most likely distributor for Cuervo in the United States once the Diageo agreement ends, UBS analysts said.

"Cuervo has two problems at the moment: they are mono-product and mono-geography. They absolutely need to diversify the business to maintain its value," an industry source said.

The source added that Pernod Ricard, the world's second-largest spirits group and the firm behind Absolut vodka and Mumm champagne, could now look at Cuervo, and also Beam.

"Having more tequila in their portfolio would not hurt," the source said.

Diageo, meanwhile, could focus on growing its premium tequila brand Don Julio.

Premium tequila brands, which are high margin and high growth, are made entirely from the blue agave plant that grows in the Mexican state of Jalisco, while cheaper brands are mixed with spirit derived from sugar cane and other sources.

Diageo also has plenty of other acquisitions to digest.

Last month, it paid $2.1 billion for a majority stake in India's largest spirits company United Spirits, and it has also secured smaller deals for producers of baiju, cachaca and raki in China, Brazil and Turkey.

The group, whose brands also include Guinness, Tanqueray gin, and Baileys liqueur, was advised on the Jose Cuervo talks by Goldman Sachs and HSBC.

(Additional reporting by Sophie Sassard; Editing by Kate Holton and Mark Potter)

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