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Acquisitions have transformed CL Financial from the owner of one very famous but small-scale bitters brand into a player on the world spirits stage. Having recently shored up two contrasting acquisitions in the Bourbon sector, Patience Gould suggests a move into the white spirits arena is CL's new priority.

It is oft' said that in any industry where rationalisation and consolidation is rife there are rich pickings to be had for the keen sighted. Arguably this is most true of the drinks trade than any other - and so it is proving for the Trinidad-based conglomerate CL Financial.

Judicious brand and company acquisitions since the turn of the millennium have transformed the company from being solely a bitters and rum producer - both sold under the Angostura label - into a serious contender on the world stage.

Having shored up its European operations with the purchase of the Scotch whisky producer Burn Stewart back in 2002, CL Financial has turned its attention to the US. In February, it announced a tentative agreement to acquire Lawrenceburg Distillers from Pernod Ricard for an undisclosed sum, completing the deal in July, and followed that earlier this month by bagging the family-owned Medley Distillery for a cool US$3m.

This is very interesting indeed. For starters, Lawrenceburg is a massive distillation plant producing 27.5m gallons of American whiskey and grain spirit annually; it is also a huge bottling facility. This will be CL Financial's US headquarters and already the company is looking at bottling opportunities regarding Angostura and no doubt in the future its Bourbon. Along with the sale, there are long-term production contracts with the likes of Diageo for Seagrams 7 Crown and with Pernod Ricard, for the French multinational's Seagram gin, which will be maintained.

Medley, meanwhile, is right at the other end of the scale. This acquisition affords the company an upscale entry into the Bourbon market, a category which is currently on fire in the US and emerging markets around the world. At the same time, it plugs a gap in the company's brown spirits portfolio.

The CL line-up comprises Cognac Hine (acquired from LVMH), the Angostura range of rums and of course the Burn Stewart portfolio of Scotch whiskies, headed up by the blend Scottish Leader and on the malt front the Islay contender Bunnahabhain.

These recent acquisitions underline that CL Financial is well on the way to developing a complete drinks portfolio, and achieving its aim of trebling its business from the current US$350m over the next five years.

It's an ambitious target as there are still yawning gaps in the CL drinks range most notably on the white spirits front. The company had a 60%-plus controlling stake in the French company Belvedere, of premium Polish vodka fame, which acquired the French anisette and liqueur business Marie Brizard in 2005. But in August it sold its stake back to the company's founders CEO Jacques Rouvroy and Christophe Trylinski for US$460.3m. Apparently there were management difficulties sparked off by the fact that even though CL had a controlling share it did not have the majority say on the board - which by anyone's thinking is decidedly odd.

However, the Belvedere venture does indicate that CL World Brands is looking to move into the white spirits arena, and the recent Stateside acquisitions afford it a good launch-pad. But this will be a long-term option. Certainly there is little likelihood that CL will enter into the much-anticipated buying frenzy for the Swedish vodka Absolut. It's far more likely that the company will turn its attentions to the various Russian and East European vodkas which appear to be popping up with "For Sale" signs writ large.

Interestingly too, while spirits are centre stage for the time being in the company's development strategy, CL Financial is also looking at opportunities in the wine world. Where is a moot point - but now armed with its huge bottling facility and the critical mass Lawrenceburg affords, the US would seem to be the obvious answer.


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