Family-owned Mills Fleet Farm has agreed to sell to New York-based KKR, one of the country's largest investment concerns that has holdings in various industries totaling about $100 billion.
Terms of the deal, expected to be announced Tuesday, were not disclosed. However, after the Mills family put the privately held chain of 35 stores up for sale last fall there was speculation in the investment trade nationally that it would fetch in neighborhood of $1 billion. Reuters last month cited unnamed sources putting a likely price tag at more than $1.2 billion, including debt.
Nate Taylor, a KKR executive who runs the retail businesses within KKR's private-equity portfolio, said that while KKR has acquired majority control of the stock, the Mills family will retain a small ownership stake in the 61-year-old company.
Several Mills family members are expected to leave company management but will maintain offices and contribute in an advisory capacity.
Taylor said the company will be operated independently of KKR's other retailers, an array of holdings that includes Toys 'R' Us and US Foods.
He added that deep-pocketed KKR plans to invest in a Mills Fleet Farm expansion that could transcend its four-state Upper Midwest region.
"We anticipate investing significantly in the business, adding infrastructure, stores and local jobs," Taylor said in a statement. He added that KKR would "remain committed to Mills Fleet Farm's founding values — and those shared by KKR — of honesty, integrity, hard work, service and loyalty to our customers and partners."
Mills Fleet Farm, which doesn't publicly disclose sales or results, operates its stores in rural towns and suburbs of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota. It employs 6,500 full- and part-time workers, including about 75 at its corporate office in Brainerd.
It also employs several hundred employees in merchandising and operations in Appleton, Wis., said Hugh Leasum, a senior executive of Mills who will remain with the company.
Co-Presidents Henry Mills II and Stewart Mills Jr. — who are in their 80s and the sons of the late Stewart Mills Sr., who founded the company in 1955 — said in a prepared statement that they decided to "partner" with KKR in order to take Mills Fleet Farm "to the next level of growth for the future."
"We took great care in our approach to finding the right partner who shared our values and would preserve the legacy the Mills family has built after serving the Midwest over the last 60 years," the sons of the founder said in the statement. "We truly believe KKR is the best fit for our organization and also the best fit for our employees."
The family has declined to comment to the Star Tribune since the business went up for sale last fall.
Stewart Mills III, a third-generation executive, told the Brainerd Daily Dispatch in October that the retailer needed deeper pockets to expand in order to add stores and update the company's warehouse. He also said the distribution network needs updating and investment.
Stewart Mills III is a grandson of the founder and is making a second run for Congress in the Eighth District.
Mills Fleet Farm offers national brand and private-label goods, including fishing and hunting products, auto parts, farm and pet supplies, home improvement goods, clothing and footwear, toys and food, among others. The company is known for its "We Love It" commercial jingle and signature orange silos that have long adorned store exteriors.
KKR's Taylor oversees a portfolio of retail companies that includes Academy Sports + Outdoors, Channel Control Merchants, National Vision, Toys 'R' Us and US Foods.
Most family-owned businesses do not survive into a third or fourth generation, as descendants even in successful enterprises often differ on whether to invest in the future or sell to a larger operator, according to family-enterprise consultants and academics.
Leasum, the nonfamily executive who expects to remain with Mills Fleet Farm, said, "We are eager to work with KKR and are confident this partnership will help us expand our already unparalleled customer service and continue to best serve our local communities."
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144