Nash Finch to be sold to Spartan Stores in $1.3B deal

It’s unclear how many jobs with the longtime grocery distributor will remain in the Twin Cities.

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Nash Finch was acquired by Spartan Stores, the firms said Monday. Nash Finch CEO Alec Covington, shown in a 2006 file photo, will be an advisor to the combined company.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Nash Finch, one of the nation’s largest grocery distributors and a fixture in the Twin Cities for nearly a century, said Monday that it is being acquired by an industry peer from Michigan.

Purchaser Spartan Stores said the $1.3 billion combination would help cut $50 million in annual costs. A spokesman for Nash Finch declined to say how many Twin Cities jobs would be affected, but the companies said some operations will stay in Minnesota.

Started as a candy and tobacco store in North Dakota in 1885, what became Nash Finch moved its headquarters to Minneapolis in 1919 and grew into a Fortune 500 grocery store and warehouse empire that today employs more than 8,000 people.

But grocery distributors have come under intense pressure as the industry has consolidated under such giants as Sysco and US Foods, while big-box retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart have branched into the grocery business with their own distribution networks.

Ajay Jain, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald, wrote that, to some degree, the deal may be “an issue of strategic necessity, particularly in the case of Nash Finch, which has been having execution issues.”

The company, now based in Edina, posted a $93 million loss in 2012 and has limped through the first half of 2013. But while Spartan is the financially healthier of the two, Nash Finch offers greater geographic reach and a coveted military distribution business based in Norfolk, Va., that until recently had been growing.

The companies valued the all-stock deal at $1.3 billion, including existing debt at both firms.

Spartan Stores CEO Dennis Eidson said cost savings from the deal would be “primarily derived from the scale and the scope of the combined entity, increased operational efficiencies and the consolidation of some back-office functions.”

The deal will give the combined company a larger profile, with annual sales of about $7.5 billion. However, the food distribution industry is dominated by Sysco Corp., a publicly traded company based in Houston with annual sales of about $44 billion, and US Foods, a closely held Chicago firm with about $20 billion in annual sales.

Nash Finch, which ranked No. 500 on the most recent Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. companies, employed 8,134 people worldwide at the end of 2012. The company did not disclose how many of those workers are in Minnesota.

Spartan’s Eidson will be chief executive and president of the combined company. Nash Finch CEO Alec Covington will be an adviser to the firm. A new board of directors will be formed with seven members from Spartan and five from Nash Finch.

“We have very complementary geography,” Covington said Monday. “We for a long time have wanted to have a larger presence in Michigan, but that’s a position held in a very good way by Spartan.”

The integration will not be complex, Covington said. The companies will eliminate “obvious redundant costs,” will gain scale and purchasing power without going further into debt, and should keep growing. “… At the end of the day, with this combination, we’re going to continue to have the world’s largest and only worldwide military distribution platform,” Covington said. “The combined company can reach any commissary, any exchange location, anywhere in the world. It’s unparalleled in its capabilities.”

Nash Finch was started in Devil’s Lake, N.D., by Fred Nash, the son of farmers from Vermont. Nash and his two brothers quickly opened a second store in Grand Forks.

The brothers hired 14-year-old Harry Finch to help them sort lemons in 1889 as the company evolved into a distributor with operations in Texas and California, and partnered with, then took control of C.H. Robinson, another Grand Forks firm.

The Nash brothers’ 60-plus companies were incorporated in 1921 as Nash Finch, and Finch became president in 1926. During the 1930s the company introduced its own brand, Our Family, and later became known for products like Nash’s Coffee, which it no longer makes.

C.H. Robinson’s employees bought out Nash Finch’s shares of Robinson stock in 1976 and became a separate, employee-owned company in Eden Prairie that today has about $11 billion in annual revenue.

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