Is Merck Slimming Down?

Like some of its competitors, Merck is looking to streamline its business and put greater focus on its core products.

Mar 3, 2014 at 11:00AM

Rumor has it that Merck's (NYSE:MRK) consumer care segment may soon be sold, as the company is placing more focus on developing its stronger therapeutic areas. The company's consumer brands include Coppertone sunscreen, Claritin allergy pills and other over-the-counter meds, and Dr. Scholl's foot-care products.

According to Reuters, Merck has begun meeting with buyers and reviewing initial offers; final bids are expected to arrive sometime in late March.

Merck acquired the consumer care segment in 2009 from Schering-Plough, and many market analysts believed the business would eventually be sold. According to The Wall Street Journal, there was even talk of a possible swap with Novartis' vaccine and animal health units, but those close to the matter said that a sale ended up being the best option. Part of the reason is the belief that the consumer health care lines may perform better under a different owner.

Merck's consumer care sales in 2013 were $1.89 billion and made up 4% of the company's total revenue of $44 billion. The segment's sales for 2013 dropped 3% versus 2012's $1.95 billion. Within the segment, allergy medicine Claritin had the highest single- product sales in 2013 of $471 million.

A possible sale of the consumer care business streamlines Merck's business during a time when it's working to revamp its aging pipeline and bounce back from a dry spell in new drug development. The sale, a small portion of Merck's market cap of more than $160 billion, can provide a cash infusion for the company and remove non-core assets from its balance sheet. Merck would be able to focus on its stronger product lines, such as its oncology franchise and vaccines.

Who are the potential buyers?
Reuters reported that offers for the business may come from Reckitt Benckiser, Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), and Bayer. Bidding estimates could range between $10 billion and $12 billion. The actual bidding process remains private until a final deal is reached, and the business will probably be sold as an entire unit.

A likely bid may come from a health care player wanting to expand its consumer products line, and adding Merck's consumer care products would be complementary. One of those players could be Reckitt Benckiser -- the company has stated it wants to increase its presence in the consumer health sector and has the financial resources to get the deal done. For fiscal 2013, Reckitt Benckiser's free cash flow increased in excess of net income, and acquisitions are part of its growth strategy. During this time, the company integrated three new brands into its business -- Schiff, BMS, and Guilong.

Procter & Gamble could also benefit from acquiring Merck's consumer health products. At a recent analyst conference, the company mentioned entering "new structurally attractive categories and channels" as one of its core strategies. Acquiring Merck's segment can help this consumer products giant expand beyond its current 75 brands. Merck's product line can help Procter & Gamble's health business include more over-the-counter meds.

Merck's consumer health business would provide these potential suitors with additional exposure to a sector currently dominated by Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), which currently holds about 4% market share in consumer health. The company's consumer sales of $14.7 billion for fiscal 2M013 represented an increase of 1.7% from last year. It is a sizable portion of J&J's business and made up 21% of total sales for 2013.

My Foolish conclusion
Merck's last blockbusters were diabetes drug Januvia and cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, both approved in 2006. Through the sale of its consumer care segment, Merck can place greater focus on guiding its research labs on the development of new drugs. If a successful deal goes through for consumer care, investors could also see a potential future sale of Merck's animal health unit.

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Eileen Rojas has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. The Motley Fool owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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