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By Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Sruthi Ramakrishnan
SAO PAULO, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Chiquita Brands International Inc agreed on Monday to a $682 million takeover by Brazilian juice maker Grupo Cutrale and investment firm Safra Group, with the U.S.-based banana producer going private early next year at the latest.
The acquisition is a victory for Brazilian-Lebanese financier Joseph Safra and orange juice baron Jose Luis Cutrale, who joined forces to add Chiquita to their tropical fruit business. Both tycoons fought for almost three months to win control of Chiquita, which rebuffed their three previous takeover attempts and sought to merge with rival Fyffes Plc .
Under terms of the accord disclosed in a statement earlier in the day, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Chiquita will become a wholly owned unit of Cutrale-Safra and remain incorporated in New Jersey once the deal is finalized. Chiquita, Fyffes, Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc and Dole Food Co control the $7 billion global banana market.
"To ensure Chiquita has the premier and most sustainable platform in its sector, Chiquita will be able to access Cutrale-Safra's substantial experience in all aspects of the fruit and juice value chain and extensive financial expertise," the statement added.
Shares of Chiquita, which gained over 40 percent since Aug. 11, when Cutrale-Safra made their takeover intentions public, added 1.4 percent to $14.36 in New York. The shares shed two-thirds of their value over the past decade in the face of geopolitical instability in Latin America, price volatility and uneven demand for fresh produce around the world.
Cutrale-Safra face the challenge of maintaining Chiquita's leading position in the banana market, bolstering slim margins and mitigating volatile operating conditions, analysts said. The entity resulting from the failed Chiquita-Fyffes merger would have been the world's largest banana producer.
Shareholders of Chiquita will be paid $14.50 for each of their shares in cash, valuing the company at about $682 million. Cutrale-Safra will assume Chiquita's debt, with Safra-controlled bank J. Safra Sarasin AG extending a buyback of the banana producer's senior bonds due in 2021. The value of the deal, including debt, amounts to $1.3 billion, the statement said.
The deal comes as Safra, the world's richest banker, continues to diversify his $16 billion fortune out of banking, finance and real estate. Faced with declining orange juice consumption globally, Cutrale and his family business are expanding into new regions and products after venturing into grain trading in recent years.
The transaction is subject to regulatory approvals and is expected to close by the end of the year or early 2015, the statement added.
"We look forward to working with Cutrale-Safra to ensure a smooth transition and complete the transaction as expeditiously as possible," Ed Lonergan, Chiquita's chief executive officer, was quoted by the statement as saying.
Editing by W Simon and James Dalgleish