- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Shareholders of Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork producer and processor, voted Tuesday to approve the company’s sale to Chinese rival Shuanghui International, in a $4.7 billion deal that represents the largest Chinese acquisition of an American company ever.

The buyout faced many hurdles when it was initially announced in May. Two weeks ago, the deal was approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a group of federal agencies that investigated whether the deal would compromise global food safety.

Smithfield Foods, whose brands include Armour, Farmland and its namesake, was founded in 1936 and has grown to annual sales of $13 billion. It has about 46,000 employees.

Smithfield CEO Larry Pope, a prime architect of the deal, noted that the industry has been stagnant and the ability to grow has been tough. The deal, he said, gives the whole industry an opportunity to grow.

“The times for this company and the future, I think are very bright,” Mr. Pope told shareholders. “It’s the same old Smithfield, but better.”

Days before the shareholder vote, activist hedge fund operator Starboard Value reluctantly conceded to the Shuanghui offer, scrapping a plan to break up Smithfield’s divisions for sale. Citing time constraints, Starboard could not find a superior deal that would pay more in a quicker time frame than Shuanghui International’s offer.

When accounting for stock shares, the entire buyout represents $34 per share. Including debt, Shuanghui is paying out over $7.1 billion for control of Smithfield Foods.

Analysts are closely observing the deal’s progress, as it could open up future business opportunities between the United States and China. While China has emerged as one of the globe’s economic superpowers in recent years, its foreign direct investment in America is just a small fraction of that of other industrial powers such as Britain and Germany.

Charles Skuba, professor of the practice in international business and marketing at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, noted that U.S. corporate hopes of increased investment opportunities in China could be boosted by increased investment by Chinese companies in the American market.

“As we continue to pressure the Chinese government to allow better market access and a level playing field for American companies, the Chinese government should recognize that the United States believes in a two-way street policy,” Mr. Skuba said in an email. “We want our companies to be able to invest in China and benefit from an increasingly affluent Chinese middle class.”

China’s consumers, he added, “make up almost 20 percent of the world’s population and U.S. companies want to sell to them. So, in consumer goods categories, we should allow Chinese companies to compete in the United States and invest in our market.”

Smithfield’s management team will remain in place and Shuanghui also will honor existing labor agreements with Smithfield workers. Shareholders also Tuesday approved retention bonuses for the company’s executives.

Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the sale, even convening a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in July to discuss the deal.

At the time, Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, said the sale raised many questions, including the impact on food safety and security. She also said the precedent-setting transaction prompts reservations about the government review process of foreign acquisitions of U.S. companies.

Smithfield might be the first acquisition of a major food and agricultural company, but I doubt it will be the last,” said Ms. Stabenow.

This article is based in part on wire service reports