Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Investor Ron Burkle Cashes Out For A 200% Return On $98 Million Investment in Whole Foods Market

Seven degrees of Ron Burkle: Grocer, investor, philanthropist and man about town. [Photo Credit:]

On February 16 we wrote in this piece [Ron Burkle's Rather Excellent One Year Investment Adventure With Whole Foods Market] about investor and supermarket industry veteran Ron Burkle's beyond excellent return (on paper) of his $98 million investment in Whole Foods Market, Inc. in just a hair over one year. (Also see the links to past stories about Ron Burkle at the link above.)

This week we learned that Burkle and his Yucaipa Companies investment firm's return on his January 2009 $98 million investment in Whole Foods, through his Yucaipa Companies is no longer - at least the majority of it - just on paper.

According to Yacaipa, Burkle has sold the majority of his shares in Whole Foods, which represented an about 7% ownership stake in the natural grocery chain, for a return of about 200% Not bad for a year's worth of investment.

In our February 16 story we suggested Burkle might sell most or all of his Whole Foods stake soon because he's currently extremely busy tending to his about 19% ownership stake in book retailer Barnes & Noble, not to mention the myriad of other investments Yucaipa has.

Burkle has been selling off the Whole Foods shares for about the last month or so as the natural grocer's share price has continued to soar.

Among Burkle's activities vis-a-vis Barnes & Noble has been a campaign he's launched to be allowed to buy additional shares in the bookseller, something its board and CEO have been blocking.

Apparently they fear an activist shareholder who puts his money behind his ideas and strategies for making what has become a laggardprimarioy bricks-and-mortar book retailer, under fire from and other online book retailers, a potentially better performing one. Barnes and Noble sells books online but hasn't been able to compete in any significant way with Amazon.

Burkle has told Barns & Noble's board he wants to buy up to about 38% of the company. They have put in a provision which prohibits any outside investor from acquiring more than a 20% ownership stake.

Burkle is also interested in taking a substantial stake in the storied New York City retailer Barneys. He's bought some of the struggling apparel retailer's debt and has told its foreign owners, Dubai's Istithmar World investment firm, that he is interested in lending the firm, which has been hit hard by Dubai's financial meltdown, $50 million in return for taking control of Barney's, which Burkle thinks he can return to its glory days.

The Dubai investment firm bought Barney's in 2007 for about $900 million.

Based on his track record in the supermarket retailing industry, we think if he acquired Barney's, Burkle would first invest in it, like he did when he acquired the various chains to comprise Ralphs/Food 4 Less, which he eventually sold to Kroger Co. in the 1998's for $13.5 billion.

He likely then would cut costs, in part by wringing as much cost as he could out of Barney's supply chain, something he knows a thing or two about doing in the retailing business.

We think Burkle would also extend the Barney's brand, both into opening new stores in key U.S. markets and perhaps even selectively overseas, as well as into other forms of business. The Barney's brand still has considerable equity.

After doing these and other measures, operating Barney's for a few years, it's likely Burkle would then take the company public, which could result in substantial profits if all went well in the process we describe above.

But meanwhile Burkle has exited, at least for the most part, Whole Foods Market - and done so with a nice 200% return on his $98 million investment.

He's not out of the supermarket industry investment game completely though: Burkle owns 30% of the A&P supermarket chain and is playing a major role in the east coast grocery chain's strategy, along with how it's being managed. Remember, he's an activist shareholder, and with a 30% stake he should get involved in a hands on manner.

Burkle's Yucaipa has about $9 billion worth of investment funds, according to the firm. Among its investors are two of California's biggest pension funds.

Burkle lives in Southern California and New York City. His personal worth is estimated at $3.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which lists him in its storied richest people in the world ranking.

Look for Burkle - who grew up in the grocery business, starting as a bag boy at Southern California's Stater Bros. grocery chain then eventually moving into a vice president position there before leaving to start Yucaipa - to make new investments in the supermarket industry. It's not only the business where he made his first and major fortune - it's also in his blood.

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