Southcorp's CEO Graham Kraehe announced today that the sale of its North American packaging business should be completed before the self-imposed deadline of June 30. He said the company was considering a shortlist of bidders.

Kraehe would not be drawn on the content of the list, and added that the timing of his retirement - he will step down next week - should not be seen as a sign a deal imminent.

But Kraehe said that the sale price should be in the region of A$200m, bringing the combined price of its packaging division close to the target of A$1 billion.

The company today finalised the previously announced sale of its Asia-Pacific packaging division to Visy Operations for more than A$800m.

Confirmation that the departure from packaging reflected the importance the company is putting on growing its wine business was also given.

Kraehe told Dow Jones today that Southcorp is pursuing "pretty strongly" a number of opportunities in the wine sector. He wouldn't elaborate on where those opportunities lay.

Once the sale of the packaging arm is complete Southcorp, the second largest wine producer in Australia, will be almost debt free. It is thought that Kraehe's replacement Tom Park, currently executive general manager of Southcorp's wine division, will actively pursue acquisitions in this sector.

Kraehe was reported as saying today: "We are interested in acquiring other assets, particularly in the wine business but possibly also in water heating, and Tom Park has got a very strong balance sheet with which to pursue those.

"The wine industry is very fragmented and there are a number of opportunities for acquisition. The question is ones that generate some value and enhance our international position."

However, other market followers noted that a debt-free Southcorp itself will become a prime takeover target with its strong balance sheet, international wine business and relatively weak share price.

Last month Southcorp was rumoured to be in talks with Allied Domecq about a sale to the UK-based drinks company. However both parties denied any such move.