Friday, March 6, 2009

Daily Memo: It's A Done Deal: Whole Foods Market and the FTC Reach A Settlement Agreement On Wild Oats' Acquisition Antitrust Challenge

FTC v. Whole Foods Market, Inc. - Settlement Deal Reached

Whole Foods Market, Inc. and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have reached a settlement agreement deal in the FTC antitrust case against Whole Foods' 2007 acquisition of Wild Oats Markets, Inc., doing so on the last day in which the FTC had agreed to halt its legal proceedings in the case.

Below (in italics) is what we said yesterday in this piece [ Daily Memo: Whole Foods Market - FTC - Settlement Deal Watch - Countdown to March 6] about the down-to-the-wire settlement negotiations between Whole Foods Market, Inc. and the FTC:

"The FTC imposed the halt last month after Whole Foods brought an offer of settlement to the U.S. Federal Government agency responsible for antitrust enforcement and consumer protection.

According to our sources, the Whole Foods market settlement offer included the selling of a certain number of former Wild Oats stores now converted to the Whole Foods' brand in some of the 29 U.S. markets where the FTC claims a combined Whole Foods-Wild Oats is a monopoly in what the FTC calls the "premium natural and organic retailing segment (PNOS)."

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo (NSFM) first reported in February, 2009 that the initial settlement offer made to the FTC by Whole Foods, the action that started the settlement talks, included an offer by the natural grocery chain to divest some of the former Wild Oats stores as the key ingredient of a settlement agreement. We are the only publication we can find that reported this.

Today, Whole Foods Market, Inc. announced it has reached a settlement with the FTC over the long legal battle, saying the key element of the settlement involves just what we said it would above, which is the divestiture of a number of stores.

Whole Foods will sell 31 Wild Oats stores and other assets to settle the FTC's antitrust challenge, the natural grocery chain and the government agency responsible for antitrust enforcement and consumer protection said today.

Pursuant to FTC protocol, the settlement agreement has been placed on public record for a 30-day comment period ending April 6, 2009, after which the FTC will issue a final ruling.

The settlement agreement: Under the terms of the agreement, a third-party divestiture trustee has been appointed to market for sale:

~Leases and related assets for 19 non-operating former Wild Oats stores, 10 of which were closed by Wild Oats prior to the merger and nine of which were closed by Whole Foods Market;

~Leases and related fixed assets (excluding inventory) for 12 operating acquired Wild Oats stores and one operating Whole Foods Market store (13 total); and

~Wild Oats trademarks and other intellectual property associated with the Wild Oats stores.

"We are pleased to have reached a mutually-satisfactory agreement with the FTC. We believe it was in the best interests of all our stakeholders to resolve this matter so we can dedicate our full attention to selling the highest quality foods available in our inviting store environments," John Mackey, chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Whole Foods Market," said in a statement today.

"It will be business as usual in the 13 operating stores to be marketed for sale. We are committed to serving our shoppers by continuing to operate these stores in the manner our customers deserve and expect. We will be offering Team Members in stores that are sold the choice of either a guaranteed job offer in another store or an enhanced severance package."

Terms and conditions of the settlement agreement: The divestiture trustee will have six months to market the assets to be divested. For any good faith offers that are not finalized by the divestiture trustee during the six-month period, an extension of up to six months may be granted. This twelve month period may be further extended to allow the FTC to approve any purchase agreements submitted within that time period. The only other obligations on Whole Foods imposed by the settlement agreement are in support of the divestiture trustee process.

According to Whole Foods Market, Inc., after receiving final approval on the terms of the settlement deal by the FTC, which is expected prior to April 30, 2009, the natural grocery chain expects to record a non-cash charge of approximately $19 million or less relating to the potential sale of the 13 operating stores.

These stores had combined sales of approximately $31 million in the first quarter of fiscal year 2009, or approximately 1.3 percent of the Company’s total sales of $2.5 billion, Whole Foods said today.

The natural grocery chain says it will incur some cash expenses relating to legal and trustee fees which are not expected to be material. No material additional charges are expected related to the 19 closed properties, for which a lease liability reserve is already recorded, or related to the trademarks which have been fully amortized.

The addresses for the 13 operating stores offered for sale in the settlement deal are:

7133 N. Oracle Rd., Tucson, AZ
8688 E. Raintree Dr., Scottsdale, AZ
2584 Baseline Rd., Boulder, CO
1651 Broadway St., Boulder, CO
3180 New Center Pt., Colorado Springs, CO
5910 S. University Blvd., Littleton, CO
9229 N Sheridan Blvd., Westminster, CO
340 N. Main St., West Hartford, CT
4301 Main St., Kansas City, MO
1090 St. Francis Dr., Santa Fe, NM
7250 W. Lake Mead Blvd., Las Vegas, NV
19440 N.W. Cornell Rd., Hillsboro, OR
6930 S. Highland Dr., Salt Lake City, UT

[Note that 12 of the 13 operating stores are located in the Western U.S. Only one, the store located at 340 N. Main St., West Hartford, CT, is outside of the western states. This is because the Western U.S. region was the primary U.S. market region the FTC claimed Whole Foods Market held its strongest "monopoly" in, in what the FTC called the "premium natural and organic retailing segment (PNOS)." Also, note the high number of stores in Colorado (5 of the 13), which is where Wild Oats Markets, Inc. was headquartered. No problem there for Whole Foods -- it has two too many stores in Boulder anyway. And the two stores in Boulder for sale are two units Whole Foods has been struggling to decide to keep or dump. It would have likely kept them for political reasons. But now being forced to sell them is actually a blessing in disguse. Want to bet the two Boulder stores were offered up in Whole Foods' initial settlement offer to the FTC?]

The addresses for the 19 non-operating Wild Oats stores offered for sale are:

5350 W. Bell Rd., Glendale, AZ
1422 N. Cooper Rd., Gilbert, AZ
874 E. Warner Rd., Gilbert, AZ
9028 W. Union Hills, Peoria, AZ
13823 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix, AZ
15569 W. Bell Rd., Surprise, AZ
200 W. Foothills Pkwy., Fort Collins, CO
8194 S. Kipling Pkwy., Littleton, CO
6424 Naples Blvd., Naples, FL
4600 Shelbyville Rd., St. Matthews, KY
87 Marginal Way, Portland, ME
8819-8833 Ladue Rd., St. Louis, MO
7831 Dodge St., Omaha, NE
517 N. Stephanie St., Henderson, NV
4879 S. Virginia St., Reno, NV
5695 S. Virginia St., Reno, NV
2077 N.E. Burnside St., Portland, OR
17711 Jean Way, Lake Oswego, OR
3736 W. Center Park Dr., West Jordan, UT

[Note that 15 of the 19 non-operating stores are located in the Western U.S., with only four stores outside the market region. The reason for this is the same as above.]

Some head-scratching in order

This is a reasonable settlement deal for both parties, in our analysis, although since we've argued beginning in 2007, right after the FTC issued its legal challenge against Whole Foods Market's friendly acquisition of Wild Oats in 2007, that the FTC's monopoly argument and antitrust action was pure folly, it wasn't a needed deal.

Putting that aside, it is a settlement offer that could have been acheived long ago, saving Whole Foods Market, Inc. (and its shareholders) millions of dollars in legal fees, and saving the American taxpayer a likely equal amount in expenses incurred by the FTC "on behalf of American consumers," not to mention being able to have focused the FTC's resources in other, more important, areas instead of its aggressive attempt to overturn the deal.

But at least its a settlement, something we called for months ago.

And it could actually be a positive one in some respects for Whole Foods, particularly the solution to the two Boulder, Colorado stores (two of the 13 operating stores to be sold), and the selling of the six closed stores in Arizona, which is a market region that's overstored, and in which grocers are suffering seriously because the state has been hit so hard by the housing foreclosure mess, financial crisis and economic recession. The grocers suffering the most in Arizona are upscale retailers like Whole Foods market and others.

Additionally, the settlement deal really amount to Whole Foods Market only having to sell 13 stores, since the 19 stores already have been closed and the natural grocery chain would love to sell them anyway. That's nothing folks.

But right now, we're going to fix ourselves a cheese plate (artisan of course), along with some organic grapes and whole grain crackers on the side, and pour a glass of bio-dynamically-produced, organic red wine, while we then engage in some focused head-scratching over why, after all these many months of laboring to overturn the deal, the FTC now agreed on a reasonable settlement deal which it should have proposed itself at least one year ago.

But stay tuned, as we have an upcoming analysis piece on the Whole Foods Market, Inc. - FTC settlement agreement coming up.

Background summary: FTC v. Whole Foods Market, Inc.

The FTC challenged Whole Foods Market's August 28, 2007 acquisition of Wild Oats Markets, Inc. shortly after the two companies announced the deal.

Prior to completion of the acquisition, the FTC filed a motion in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a preliminary injunction to enjoin the acquisition. The FTC had also filed a complaint commencing an administrative proceeding challenging the acquisition.

On August 16, 2007, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia denied the FTC’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

The FTC appealed denial of the preliminary injunction motion to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and on July 29, 2008 the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings.

On remand, the FTC renewed its motion for preliminary injunctive relief pending resolution of the administrative action, specifically seeking a hold separate order, the rebranding of all former Wild Oats stores, and the appointment of a trustee or special master to establish an independent management team for the former Wild Oats assets and oversee Whole Foods Market’s compliance with the order.

The administrative proceeding was scheduled to commence on April 6, 2009. On January 28, 2009, the FTC issued an order granting Whole Foods' motion to withdraw the administrative case from adjudication for the purpose of considering a proposed consent agreement that would resolve the administrative proceeding. A further order dated February 4, 2009 extended the withdrawal through March 6, 2009.

On March 6, 2009 Whole Foods and the FTC reached a settlement deal.

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