Less than three years after planting the seeds, the InterTech Group's investment arm is poised to reap a bumper crop of a return from one of the most perishable of food commodities.
The North Charleston-based conglomerate's bread and butter is its global collection of industrial ventures, from chemical manufacturers to energy companies. But it also has sunk its teeth into the banana business in a big way. In Ireland, of all places.
The Emerald Isle investment marked a major milestone last week when Chiquita Brands International and Dublin-based produce distributor Fyffes announced they're merging in a stock swap that would form the world's biggest banana supplier.
Shareholders with a combined 26 percent stake in Fyffes already have thrown their support behind the $526 million deal. That's where InterTech fits in. The family-owned company, through a trust controlled by CEO Anita Zucker, owns more than 13 percent of Fyffes, or about 39 million shares.
Its investment has more than tripled in less than three years, not including dividends. Those payouts totaled $1.15 million in 2013.
"Fyffes has been an outstanding investment," said Robert Johnston, InterTech's North Charleston-based executive vice president for strategy.
With roots dating back to the 1870s, Fyffes is described as the world's oldest fruit brand. It markets fresh produce in Europe and the U.S. In addition to bananas, it's known for its pineapples and melons.
Johnston, who's a board member of Fyffes, was limited in what he could say about the merger, citing Ireland's strict corporate takeover rules.
But InterTech didn't view the business as a takeover candidate.
"Not originally," Johnston said. "Certainly, we make investment decisions based on standard metrics, such as the growth trajectory of a business and its prospects. When we started acquiring shares in Fyffes, it was very inexpensive. We quickly determined it was a very well-run company."
InterTech was required to disclose it had become a significant shareholder in mid-2011, when it had acquired 11 million shares. It amassed another 28 million shares over the next year.
A ballpark estimate puts InterTech's total investment at around $20 million, based on data culled from Irish Stock Exchange filings.
After the Chiquita deal was announced Tuesday, the value of those shares skyrocketed 30 percent to about $69 million.
It seems unlikely that the company will cash out after the Chiquita merger.
For one, the stock swap will be a tax-free transaction for Fyffes' shareholders.
Also, InterTech will own a sizable 6.6 percent stake in the combined company, all but ensuring it a board seat.
Plus, its track history has shown it to be a long-term investor.
Unlike some of InterTech's core industrial holdings, the banana business doesn't require rocket science. But it's found a place in the company's cupboard of stocks.
"Our investment philosophy tends to be fairly conservative," Johnston said. "Utilities and food for example. People need power and they need food. So those investments are always attractive to us."
Fruit salad: Charlotte-based banana giant Chiquita is looking to combine its business with Irish produce distributor Fyffes.×
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