Losses sustained by Sara Lee in Spain, France tough to fathom

by Josh Sosland
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While the struggles of the Sara Lee baking businesses have hardly been a secret, it was difficult not to be startled this week by news that the company was taking another major charge against its European baking operation. Burrowed deeply within the company’s first-quarter earnings announcement was a statement that it was taking a $371 million impairment charge relating to its Spanish and French bakery business.

The impairment charge drove an overall corporate loss of $181 million in the quarter ended Oct. 1. The charge dwarfs proceeds Sara Lee stands to collect for the business. Sara Lee will be paid about €115 million ($154 million) for the business in Spain/Portugal, which has annual sales of about $400 million. The French business remains to be sold.

What makes the write-off more staggering is that Sara Lee took even a larger charge of $400 million against the European business in 2008, or $771 million in the last three years. According to 2001 filings by Earthgrains, the European business had identifiable assets totaling $282.2 million around the time of the Sara Lee acquisition of Earthgrains.

Viewed together with the sale of the North American baking division for $709 million, a business acquired for $2.8 billion (including the foreign assets), the investment return from Sara Lee’s experience in fresh baking seems especially grim.
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