Office supply companies agree to merger

Bloomberg NewsFebruary 21, 2013 

NEW YORK -- Office Depot Inc. agreed to buy OfficeMax Inc. for $1.17 billion in a bid to revive a retailer that has been losing sales to online rivals and Staples Inc., the largest U.S. office-supplies chain.

Office Depot will issue 2.69 new shares for each outstanding OfficeMax common share, the companies said Wednesday in a statement. Based on Office Depot's closing price Tuesday, that values OfficeMax at $13.50 a share, 26 percent higher than it closed at on Feb. 15, before reports the companies were in talks to combine.

The merger will combine companies with revenue of about $18 billion, compared with Staples' more than $24 billion in sales last year. The company may accelerate the closing or selling of hundreds of stores after Starboard Value, an activist fund that became Office Depot's largest shareholder in September, pushed for expense reductions.

"Consolidation is needed in an overstored and secularly declining industry," Greg Melich, an analyst at International Strategy & Investment Group in New York, wrote in a note Feb. 19.

The new company's board will include an equal number of directors designated by Office Depot and OfficeMax, the companies said. The board will conduct a search for a chief executive officer. Both incumbent CEOs, Neil Austrian at Office Depot and OfficeMax's Ravi Saligram, will be considered.

Under the terms of the deal, OfficeMax will have the right to pay a cash dividend of as much as $1.50 a share before the transaction is completed, the companies said.

The merger may generate as much as $600 million in annual cost savings in three years, the companies said. The new company also would have more than $1 billion in cash on hand and another $1 billion available in a credit revolver. The deal is expected to close by the end of the year.

JPMorgan Chase advised OfficeMax. Peter J. Solomon and Morgan Stanley served those roles for Office Depot.

Some confusion was created before the market opened when the deal was prematurely announced on Office Depot's website. Both companies then issued statements announcing the deal shortly after the market opened.

Starboard Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Smith pushed for changes at Office Depot in a letter to Austrian on Sept. 17 arguing that the retailer's "poor operating performance" has hurt the stock. Smith, whose firm owns more than 14 percent of the chain, recommended smaller stores carrying fewer items. It also should cut general expenses and lower advertising costs, he said.

Both chains have been closing locations and that trend would accelerate with a merger as about 50 percent of their store territories overlap, Daniel Binder, an analyst for Jefferies & Co. in New York, wrote in a note to clients.

The combined OfficeMax and Office Depot may close or sell as many as 600 locations, giving Staples an opportunity to increase sales in those areas, Gary Balter, an analyst for Credit Suisse Group in New York, wrote in a note to clients.

Staples had 2,295 stores worldwide as of Jan. 28, 2012. In statements earlier this month, Office Depot said it had about 1,675 global locations and OfficeMax said it had about 900 stores in the U.S. and Mexico.

"It makes sense to close a lot of stores and fulfill orders out of facilities that specialize in packing and delivering, using less-expensive real estate," Erik Gordon, a business and law professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an email Feb. 19. "It's become a cost-driven, commodity business. Everyone sells Bic pens and Swingline staplers. The competitive advantage is to sell them cheaper and get them delivered quickly."

The deal may be challenged by the Federal Trade Commission, according to David Balto, an antitrust attorney in Washington who was the FTC's director of policy for six years ending in 2001. He worked on the FTC's lawsuit that stopped Staples from acquiring Office Depot in 1997.

Balto said reducing the number of big-box office retailers from three to two may be viewed as anti-competitive, just as it was back then. In addition, the Obama administration has been tough about enforcing antitrust laws, he said.

"They are facing a stiff wind," Balto said in a phone interview. "You have three players right now and they want to reduce it by one. That rivalry results in better pricing and services for consumers."

The industry has "dramatically changed" since 1997 with consumers having more choices since the emergence of online competitors such as Amazon.com Inc., Binder said in the same note. It is these competitors and the digitization of the office that can no longer support three national office-supply chains, he said.

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