Equity firms size up VNU

Offer actively puts co. in play after months of turmoil

VNU, the Dutch group that owns ACNielsen, Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter, said Monday that a posse of private equity firms has offered to buy it for about $9 billion.

VNU “will proceed with discussions” with the buyout firms — the Blackstone Group, Carlyle Group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Thomas H. Lee Partners, Permira, AlpInvest Partners and Hellman & Friedman — as it “continues to weigh alternatives and fully and fairly evaluate what course of action” best serves shareholders.

Company, which in December indicated it had a number of potential suitors, said it is not in deal talks with anyone else.

The current “nonbinding” offer actively puts VNU in play after months of turmoil. It could lead to a speedier breakup of the company, which has headquarters in Haarlem, the Netherlands, and New York City.

In November, a shareholder revolt blocked VNU’s proposed $7 billion takeover of Fairfield, Conn.-based IMS Health and triggered the resignation of VNU chairman Ron van den Bergh.

IMS provides information and consulting for the drug and healthcare industries. Shareholders felt the deal was overpriced and diverged from VNU’s strategic direction.

VNU has been acquiring properties around the world for the past 20 years. It was particularly aggressive Stateside in the 1990s.

It bought publisher BPI Communications in 1994; in ’97, ACNielsen acquired Electronic Data Inc. to form ACNielsen EDI; and in ’99, VNU bought Nielsen Media Research.

Nielsen is one of the conglom’s most alluring assets and considered likely to attract a slew of bidders.

Monday’s news is another testimonial to the financial muscle of flush private equity firms. With millions to burn, these groups have been investing heavily in media and entertainment — and just about every other industry in which there are assets for sale.

VNU said the consortium made its offer “after several weeks of diligence and access to VNU management.” It values VNU at e7.32 billion ($8.88 billion) — or $33.92-$34.53 per share.

Company said it “expects to be able to provide further information within three to four weeks.”

VNU operates in more than 100 countries and employs 38,000 people. It posted revenue of $4 billion in 2004.

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