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First it was Gerber Products Co. Then Eastman Kodak Co.'s Lehn & Fink unit. And now H.J. Heinz Co.

Soap-personal care-food giant Unilever is the suitor of choice for acquisition rumors everywhere. But even though Sandoz bought Gerber, and executives close to Unilever say the company is no longer interested in Lehn & Fink, Unilever's interest in Heinz is said to be strong.

Heinz "makes great sense" for Unilever, said one analyst. With major U.S. brands like its ketchup, StarKist tuna and 9-Lives cat food, Heinz could fortify Unilever's North American presence.

Unilever food units already include Van den Bergh Foods' sauces, syrups and spreads; Thomas J. Lipton Co.'s teas and salad dressings; and Good Humor-Breyers ice creams and frozen novelties.

Unilever has the financial strength to make such a buy. The company has about $41 billion in sales worldwide; its North American division reported a 4% increase in pre-tax profit to $916 million for the second quarter, with sales up 8% to $11.8 billion.

And Heinz, with declining profits, is seen as vulnerable.

One scenario has Unilever using the acquisition to coordinate marketing among its units, now handled fairly separately.

Heinz agency executives say they are concerned a sale may be coming. None of Heinz's agencies are on Unilever's roster. Heinz's agency stable includes: Leo Burnett Co., Chicago; Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco; and Doig Elliott Schur, Berlin Wright Cameron and Ally & Gargano, all New York. Unilever's shops include McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson USA and Lintas.

Laurel Wentz and Pat Sloan contributed to this story.

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