French Poised To Swallow UK Ice Cream-Maker

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The French former owner of the Yoplait dairy brand is close to swallowing one of Britain's biggest privately-owned food companies in a deal worth more than £700m.

I understand that PAI Partners, a Paris-based private equity firm, has emerged as the frontrunner to buy R&R Ice Cream, which is headquartered in Yorkshire and has a UK workforce numbering more than 800 people.

PAI, a former owner of the Yoplait dairy brand and United Biscuits, home to brands such as McVitie's and Hula Hoops, is not yet in exclusive talks to buy R&R, but could be within days.

Other bidders including the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, a giant Canadian pension fund, remain in the frame as rivals to PAI's offer.

It will be the latest takeover of a big UK food company by an overseas entity following the sale of Cadbury to Kraft Foods (NasdaqGS: KRFT - news) of the US in 2010.

The sale of R&R will come at a time of unprecedented scrutiny for the food industry as the European horse-meat scandal continues to reverberate.

R&R makes ice cream products such as Fab ice lollies, and own label goods for Asda and Tesco (Other OTC: TSCDY - news) .

The company is currently controlled by Oaktree Capital, a US investment house which bought 82% of R&R in 2007. Even after growing it partly through a string of acquisitions, Oaktree is expected to make a healthy return on its initial investment.

Investment bankers at Barclays (LSE: BARC.L - news) are advising Oaktree on the sale, while PAI is being advised by Rothschild.

R&R is the second-largest ice cream producer in the UK, behind Unilever (NYSE: UL - news) , owner of the Wall's brand. It made about £50m in profit in 2011.

The Yorkshire-based company's management team, which is led by co-founder and executive chairman James Lambert, stands to reap a fortune from a successful sale. Executives' combined 18% stake could be valued in the region of £130m.

Oaktree declined to comment.