Rona eyes renewal of chain after Lowes pulls takeover bid

MONTREAL — U.S.-based Lowe’s may not have ended its cross-border courtship for Rona Inc. despite abandoning its $1.8-billion bid for the Canadian home improvement chain, industry experts believe.Quebec-based Rona said Monday it only learned through a news release that its U.S. suitor had withdrawn its unsolicited, non-binding acquisition proposal, adding that it continues to concentrate on its own efforts to rejuvenate the company.“Our focus is on the implementation of our business plan based on the renewal of our offer to consumers. This focus remains,” spokeswoman Valerie Lamarre said in an email.In addition to improving the shopping experience, Rona wants to improve its financial results after months of weakness.[np-related]The U.S. chain’s withdrawal Monday will come at a cost to Rona investors, with Rona’s shares dropping more than 11% following the announcement that Lowe’s is no longer contemplating an offer of $14.50 per share cash.Rona stock closed down $1.48 to $11.29 in Wednesday trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Lowe’s Companies Inc. shares slipped 17 cents to US$29.23 in New York.Meanwhile, analysts say Lowe’s may still have designs for Rona, if not by acquisition of the whole chain, then perhaps by adding big box stores as Rona expands the number of smaller, proximity stores.The U.S. chain’s withdrawal comes seven weeks after Rona, the Quebec government and others objected to the U.S. company’s overtures, which had begun privately in late 2011 and became public in July.“Lowe’s continues to believe that a combination of Lowe’s and Rona makes business sense and would create significant value for all stakeholders,” Lowe’s said in a statement Monday.“It is unfortunate that the Rona board of directors did not recognize the important economic and commercial benefits of this proposal for its stakeholders and for Canada,” the statement said.The potential sale of Rona surfaced in the midst of a provincial election and prompted rare agreement between the Liberal government and the Parti Quebecois about the strategic importance of the company and the need to preserve the headquarters in Quebec.The political parties had even suggested changing provincial law to arm boards of directors with more power to veto foreign takeovers, a proposal with potential domino-effect implications for other parts of the country.Pension fund manager the Caisse de depot supported Rona by boosting its stake in the company by two percentage points to 14.2%.It declined to say Monday whether it will apply additional pressure on Rona to improve its results.“The Caisse is a long-term investor and we’re convinced that this company has considerable potential for improvement and of course by improving its performance this will consolidate its position,” said spokesman Maxime Chagnon.Irene Nattel of RBC Capital Markets said the move by Lowe’s gives Rona some breathing room, but isn’t necessarily the end of the story.“Given a slowing Canadian housing market and outlook for sluggish consumer spending, we expect Rona’s results — notably top line — to remain pressured and we would therefore expect a certain level of shareholder support for a transaction, at an appropriate price,” she wrote in a report.Keith Howlett of Desjardins Securities said the “friendly” phase of the takeover process is suspended.“In our view, Lowe’s will either now proceed with a hostile bid within three months or intensify its competitive actions in the marketplace to facilitate more productive negotiations in two or three years,” he wrote in a report.He said a hostile bid could be launched before Rona closes or shrinks the size of 20 more big box stores outside Quebec.Rona closed three stores in Whitby, Ont., Calgary and Edmonton that were close to Lowe’s locations and has vowed to take action on the other stores over the next six months.Rona’s stock fell Monday but is still above where it traded before Lowe’s expressed its interested.“Further severe share price deterioration prompted by the withdrawal of the Lowe’s proposal could pressure the Rona board to talk to Lowe’s after all,” said Carol Levenson of Gimme Credit.Lowe’s has a relatively small presence in Canada, although it is the second-largest home improvement retailer in the United States, after Home Depot.Only 31 of Lowe’s stores are in Canada, out of 1,745 across North America.Rona has more than 30,000 employees operating a network of about 830 company and affiliate-owned home improvement locations in Canada under its banner, but only about 80 in the large store format. It also has a division geared to the professional contractor market.Home Depot currently has 180 stores across Canada.North Carolina-based Lowe’s had informally offered $14.50 per share in cash but there was little enthusiasm for the proposal, even among analysts that cover the company.They have said Lowe’s would be better to improve its performance in the U.S. market, which is showing signs of revival as home building and home sales finally begin to recover from about five years of depressed activity.Robin Diedrich of Edward Jones said Lowe’s will now be able to focus on improving its core U.S. business without the distraction of a potentially difficult hostile takeover transaction.“At the end of the day it’s a good thing that they cut their losses here early and decided to really focus on the U.S. operations,” she said from Chicago.“Given all the opposition it probably would have been a huge distraction, so I think this is for the best.”Diedrich said Lowe’s will now revert to its original plan to expand in Canada organically by slowly opening stores. The challenge is there aren’t many good locations available, she said.

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