From USA: 75 and Counting: Albertsons in «This for the Long Haul»

Albertsons is back on the national scene and beginning to assert its power.

Once the industry’s second largest conventional chain, Albertsons is approaching next year’s 75th anniversary as a single entity again, with more than 1,100 stores and sales estimated at $23 billion — and it is poised to get even bigger.

Despite widespread speculation to the contrary, Bob Miller, the chain’s chief executive officer, told SN Albertsons has no plans to divest any of its banners and may, in fact, decide eventually to go public.

“We’re in this for the long haul — to run a great supermarket company,” he said.

“We would consider acquiring stores anywhere if we think they would help make us a better and stronger company.”  BOB MILLER CEO, Albertsons

“We would consider acquiring stores anywhere if we think they would help make us a better and stronger company.” —BOB MILLER, CEO, Albertsons

Albertsons’ eight divisions includes five divisions operating as part of Albertsons LLC (Southern California, the Intermountain region, the Northwest, the South and the Southwest), and three divisions operating as part of New Albertsons Inc. (Jewel, Shaw’s and Acme).

The company — which was split in 2006 between private investors and Minneapolis-based Supervalu — was essentially reunited earlier this year when the investment group acquired the rest of the chain’s banners.

“We bought several iconic banners, some of which are close to 100 years old,” Miller said, “and our intention is to run really good stores and make them better. We have no plans to sell any of the brands.

“Are we going to sell or close a few stores? Certainly. But the majority of the 1,100 stores are not on the market, and we don’t plan for them to be.

“We have a really great company, with great opportunities to improve, and we think we can be very successful for many years.

“In fact, we may go public or do something else to keep the company together, though we’re not quite sure yet what that will be.”

All eight of Albertsons’ divisions are profitable, with improving identical-store sales, Miller said, “and we continue to look for ways to be priced better.”

Still, industry observers are not sure how long the investment group that owns Albertsons will wait before starting to divest some of its weaker banners.

“Really, it’s about shareholder value,” said Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillanDoolittle, Chicago. “Albertsons’ first mission is to turn the stores around. How long that will take is the first question. Once that happens, the next question is how to get the best value for the owners, whether that means taking the company public or selling it.

“What most industry people anticipated was Albertsons would begin to sell off stores or weak divisions right away and focus on the divisions with the highest value. Apparently most industry people were wrong.

“When you look at the history of some of the banners Albertsons owns and the problems with acquired stores in general, it’s all very daunting, so outside observers decide it makes the most sense to sell off some pieces to focus on those with the biggest opportunities.

“But it’s all a matter of execution, and Albertsons executes really well, so the stores it operates — including some of the ones it acquired earlier this year — are doing well.”

One analyst said Cerberus could simply be waiting for a more opportune time to sell. “It’s clear the owners want to flip their investment, but now is not the right time. So they’re investing in the store base to turn things around, and as the economy improves and there’s better access to the capital market, those stores could provide a great opportunity for a buyer.”

Read more: Albertsons Opens on Site of Chain’s First Store

Miller sought to dispel that kind of speculation as he talked with SN about Albertsons’ pending acquisition of Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets, a chain of 50 stores — an acquisition that surprised some observers who expected the owners to shrink the chain rather than expand it.

“Would we buy a company like United and pay a good price for it if we were just going to turn around and sell the stores? No,” Miller said.

“It takes a lot of money to make this kind of acquisition, and we wouldn’t make the investment if we were simply going to sell stores.”

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