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Chicago beer firm Crown Imports is caught in antitrust fight
[February 02, 2013]

Chicago beer firm Crown Imports is caught in antitrust fight

Feb 02, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- An antitrust brouhaha in Washington has thrown the future of Crown Imports, a Chicago-based beer importer, into question.

The company, which ranks third in U.S. beer sales volume, is a joint venture between New York-based Constellation Brands Inc. and Mexico's Grupo Modelo, which makes Corona Extra, the leading imported beer in the U.S., and other brands. Crown sells Modelo brands as well as China's Tsingtao.

As part of its proposed sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev, Grupo Modelo agreed to sell its 50 percent stake in Crown to Constellation Brands for $1.85 billion. The separate transaction was meant to ease possible antitrust concerns that the merger would eliminate Crown Imports as a competitor.

But on Thursday the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against AB InBev to block its acquisition of Grupo Modelo. Antitrust officials said the merger would further increase the concentration of the U.S. beer market, leading to higher prices for American consumers.

The lawsuit said the sale of Modelo's interest in Crown Imports to its partner would only create "a facade of competition" between AB InBev and the importer.

"In reality, Defendants' proposed 'remedy' eliminates from the market Modelo -- a particularly aggressive competitor -- and replaces it with an entity wholly dependent on ABI," the Justice Department said in the lawsuit.

The suits cites as evidence part of an internal memo that Crown's chief executive, Bill Hackett, wrote to employees after the transactions were announced in June. According to the suit, Hackett wrote, "Our #1 competitor will now be our supplier ... it is not currently or will not, going forward, be 'business as usual.'" Under the terms of the proposed merger with Modelo, AB InBev also had the option to terminate its agreement with Crown Imports after 10 years, giving it full control of Corona distribution.

Constellation Brands on Friday attacked the Justice Department, saying in a statement that the suit "demonstrates its incomplete understanding" of the proposed merger. Constellation and AB InBev have indicated that they plan to challenge the suit.

In a detailed defense, Constellation said its full control of Crown would improve competition, not harm it. According to the lawsuit, Modelo controls about 7 percent of U.S. beer sales, far behind AB InBev's market-leading 39 percent.

Constellation attempted to ease concerns that AB InBev's merger with Modelo would lead to higher prices. Hackett said in a statement: "Our Crown team independently develops, implements and refines pricing, promotional and sales strategies for each of our brands in the U.S." The proposed beer merger had reduced uncertainty hanging over Crown Imports because the Modelo-Constellation joint venture was set to expire at the end of 2016. The Justice Department action creates a new level of uncertainty, said Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer's Insights, a beer industry trade publication.

"Crown's fate is hanging in the balance," Steinman said. Twitter@ameetsachdev ___ (c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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