Chiquita announces debt-reducing moves

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Chiquita, European union

Fruit supplier Chiquita is embarking on a number of debt-reducing
initiatives, including the sale of its shipping fleet, as the firm
struggles to find its feet after new EU banana import rules hacked
at its profits.

Other moves announced by the leading banana supplier last week included suspending its quarterly cash dividend and requesting a temporary waiver from its lenders.

According to the firm, its bottom line has been and will continue to be negatively impacted by changes in the rules regarding banana imports into the European Union. In its third quarter it is continuing to see "markedly lower"​ banana prices in both core European and trading markets, as well as excess fruit supply, it said.

Chiquita has also been impacted by the current industry concerns regarding the safety of fresh spinach in the US, with its recently acquired Fresh Express operation experiencing lower sales and unforeseen costs as a result.

The company said one measure it is considering taking in order to generate capital and reduce debt is to sell its wholly owned subsidiary Great White Fleet, which it has been using to transport its products internationally.

The fleet operates 12 owned refrigerated cargo vessels and charters additional vessels for use principally in the long-haul transportation of Chiquita's fresh fruit products from Latin America to North America and Europe.

"Our Great White Fleet has represented a strong competitive advantage for Chiquita for many years, and continuing to excel in cold-chain management - delivering our high-quality fresh products quickly and efficiently - will remain critical to our company,"​ said the company's chairman and chief executive officer Fernando Aguirre.

If Chiquita does sell the fleet - which it will not disclose definitively until its board of directors has approved a transaction - it said it will partner with an "expert shipping service"​ in order to maintain the same supply and service to customers.

The company's board also voted to discontinue its quarterly cash dividend of $0.10 per share, which will allow it to redirect approximately $17m in annual funds to "reduce debt and enhance financial flexibility".

These moves, said Chiquita, are "prudent steps"​ to help it resurface from a challenging market environment.

On Friday the firm also announced that it has begun the process of obtaining a temporary waiver from its lenders with respect to compliance with certain financial covenants. The move again is designed to achieve additional financial flexibility.

Chiquita had previously enjoyed a European market with little competition. But in January 2006, the European Commission implemented a new regulation for the import of bananas into the European Union. This imposed a higher tariff on bananas imported form Latin America, while allowing a duty-free annual import quota of 775,000 tons for bananas from certain African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.

And Latin America is Chiquita's primary source of bananas.

The new banana tariff, which increased to €176 from €75 per ton, results in an increase in cost of around €1.84 ($2.20) for each box of bananas imported by Chiquita into the EU form Latin America.

Last month, Chiquita announced interim price and volume levels for its third quarter, indicating that prices in North America have risen 10 percent in the first two months of the quarter, compared to the same period last year.

In contrast, prices in the EU, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland fell by 17 percent on a local currency basis, forced down by hot weather that resulted in depressed consumer demand, as well as an increase in market competitors.

Indeed, the "challenges"​ faced by Chiquita as a result of the new European banana regime resulted in the company last month reporting a sharp fall in profits. Operating income for the firm's second quarter dropped by 39 percent to a total of $45m, compared to the prior-year figure of $75m.

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